Diversity in Departments: VMA focuses on unbiased casting, inclusive examples

by Allison Hagan / Beacon Staff • February 4, 2016

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Brooke Knight, VMA chair
Brooke Knight, VMA chair

Emerson is working toward creating a more inclusive environment, and each department has set goals to improve their curricula. Each week, the Beacon will feature the plans for an academic department. Previous installments include writing, literature, and publishing.

Visual and media arts faculty are working towards incorporating cultural competency into the curriculum by focusing on diverse casting and inclusive screenwriting, according to Brooke Knight, associate professor and interim chair of the department.

Knight said the issues of diversity in student films and projects can be attributed to a lack of training on casting, which leads the young filmmakers to repeat “what they see around them” in other class works. The department is engaged in the ongoing process of using non-traditional methods starting as early as foundation-level classes, Knight said. He said it’s appropriate for faculty to challenge the kinds of characters that writers are creating.

“Why does this particular character have to be white?” Knight said. “It’s important to challenge and ask those questions when the idea first gets written on the page.”

Kathleen Anderson, a visual and media arts freshman, said she believes it’s important to teach students diverse casting so the roles they write will be more available. 

In the casting call for her narrative short, “Lay Me Down,” Anderson described characters as “immortal, hint of charm” and “dry, but honest,” rather than using specific physical attributes.  She said she does this to open the roles to the experiences and emotion from people of many walks of life.

“It’s easier to be like, ‘She’s athletic and pretty,’ than it is to flesh out more of a character,” Anderson said, “Some people just look for purely physical things, but then you limit the people who are going to fit your descriptions, and somebody else might have acted better, but you limited yourself.”

Visual and media arts faculty are being encouraged to include diverse and inclusive examples in classes, according to Knight.

“I’ve told all faculty to think about their choices—an example of lighting in cinematography class, or audio in an audio class—and think about using diverse examples,” he said. “We’re looking for the best way to push that forward without restricting academic freedom of faculty.”

Brian McNeil, an adjunct professor in the department, said he brings inclusivity into the classroom by looking at the history of film at varied angles. For example, he shows a documentary on the history of African-Americans in television and also does a lecture on cinema in other cultures.

“It actually shows people a different perspective,” McNeil said. “They aren’t stuck in this American-centric universe. The more we learn about things from other cultures, we’re probably better off.”

Outside of the classroom, the Bright Light Series is the first in the nation to have a diversity rating scale. Created by Anna Feder, director of programming, the rating system draws attention to different aspects of films, such as social justice issues, characters of color, and feminism.

“Our eye is towards discussing not just the technical aspects, rather discussing the content of the film,” Feder said. “There’s always an opportunity to have a conversation in the cinema that contributes to the cultural competency of our audience.”

Knight said that the department is in a unique position to change an industry.  Therefore, he said students and faculty have a responsibility to strive towards cultural competency.

According to UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, 82 percent of theatrical films had white directors and people of color directed only 18 percent. In these same films, only 17 percent starred diverse lead characters.

Knight said the faculty is working to discontinue the “closed feedback cycles” that students arrive with. Ending the this process means creating a new wave of students who understand and value all perspectives to prevent them from reproducing the notions that they’ve been conditioned with, he said.

“We have a department full of artists and storytellers who create cultural products that resonate over time,” Knight said. “There’s a responsibility to really think about the products that they create [in school], and to recognize there’s echoes of what they’ll [go on to do professionally]. VMA takes this responsibility seriously.”