Making Room For Diverse Voices With The Duplass Brothers

flickr / Till Krech
Can money and privilege make way for new stories in Hollywood? Filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass have vowed to find out.

Since the election of Donald Trump, there’s been a ton of discussion surrounding the “forgotten” voters of middle America. One popular theory is that these people, often mistakenly reduced to “working-class whites,” were unfairly overlooked by media institutions during the campaign (and subsequently swayed the election in Trump’s favor).

Mark Duplass—director, screenwriter, and actor—who has been creating TV and film alongside his brother Jay for over a decade, has been paying close attention to that dialogue, and wondering what he can do as a filmmaker to address the current fractured political climate.

The brothers Duplass

“I think we’re obviously in a place where tons and tons of people are feeling misunderstood and not heard at all,” says Duplass. “That, coupled with the fact that technology has gotten so good, has really gotten us interested in what can come out of empowering people who aren’t being reached.”

Duplass and his brother are collaborating with Seed&Spark (a crowdfunding platform that champions diverse voices in film and TV) on the Hometown Heroes campaign — a contest which encourages filmmakers to make movies in and with their local communities.

They are particularly interested in finding ways to highlight those cinematic stories which are happening “in the middle.” Of the country that is.

The two brothers, who are white, grew up outside of Hollywood themselves — in New Orleans — and as such, Mark says, “the concept of being a filmmaker was completely foreign to us.” It wasn’t until they went to Austin, Texas and were introduced to the likes of Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, Boyhood) that they started to believe it was possible to make a career in film outside of Los Angeles. Duplass says that these days, reaching out to people whose voices aren’t being recognized and creating paths for their stories to reach wider audiences has become paramount for the duo.

Seed&Spark‘s mission.

Another of the major takeaways from the recent election has been the crystalline realization that while economics and geography are potent pieces of determining people’s voting habits, they cannot be considered separately from race and gender. Because if the people in the middle of the country have been “forgotten,” that group also includes Black women living in poor working class communities. Nevertheless, there’s been far less media attention directed towards these people of color who also live outside the major media markets of this country — often surrounded by aggrieved white people.

Economics and geography are potent pieces of determining people’s voting habits, but they can’t be divulged from the intersection of race and gender.

This lack of specificity when talking about the nuances of politics, however, directly overlaps with the myopic ways in which Hollywood has historically attempted to address its own issues of exclusion. For instance, according to GLAAD’s 2017 Studio Responsibility Index, the number of LGBTQ characters in top-grossing films has increased over the last few years, while the racial diversity of LGBTQ characters in those films has decreased in each of the past three years.

And while these reports don’t typically break down geographic representation, one can safely assume that amongst the 13% of lead characters in Hollywood who happen to be people of color—according to the most recent Bunche report—most hail from urban centers like Los Angeles and New York.

In an interview with Vulture last week, actor Steven Yeun (who played Glenn on The Walking Dead), discussed how growing up in Michigan uniquely informed his view of racism and exclusion in the entertainment industry. At one point he observed that even amongst the prominent Asian Americans advocating for change in Hollywood today, there still seems to be an overrepresentation of people who grew up on the coasts.

“I’m not saying their struggles are any less than mine, but mine is very different. [They] look at someone who comes from where we come from and they go, ‘Oh, you’re the dude who got whitewashed.’ No dude, I had to survive, so I conformed, and now I’m finally fucking out of that matrix. I did it!”

As Yeun implies, there are battles with racism, sexism, and other kinds of oppression that happen in these so-called “flyover” states that sharply differ from those in LA or even San Francisco. And these struggles—like the stories of so many marginalized groups of color in this country—are a rare sight onscreen.

But, of course, the inequity in the film and TV industry which Yeun speaks about extends much further back than the election; indeed it extends beyond the last decade during which the Duplass brothers have found success in independent filmmaking — despite the big studios’ shift away from their kind of relatively low- to mid-budget cinema in the wake of the recession.

And while projects like Wonder Woman and the upcoming Black Panther might be promising in terms of greater inclusion in blockbusters, they don’t guarantee that, for instance, a woman of color in Kansas will find it any easier to bring her small film about growing up in Topeka to the big (or small) screen anytime soon.

Furthermore, when women of color do get a chance to direct a film in Hollywood, odds are they won’t get another one. According to San Diego State University, the stats aren’t much better in independent film either, where major film festivals in the U.S. still screen “three times as many narrative films directed by men as by women.”

I had to survive, so I conformed, and now I’m finally fucking out of that matrix. I did it!”

On this front, Duplass sees a role for people like him to play. Starting with 2005’s The Puffy Chair, which premiered at Sundance, he and his brother have moved up from making films by “scraping pennies,” to producing off-kilter shows with HBO (where they will premiere a new series, Room 104, later this month).

“Room 104 puts 12 filmmakers in charge of each episode—persons of color are represented, women are represented, a filmmaker from Seattle [can get] an opportunity which they wouldn’t have had,” explained Duplass. “We’re focusing on that more and more, and that has been the indirect result of us becoming producers. We’re kind of in this odd position of power, having one foot in the Hollywood system , and one foot out.”

Duplass now believes he can use his position, experience, and financial comfort to foster some fundamental change in independently financed film — regardless of what the big studios decide to do.

“The future of this country is people who have the means to give no interest loans to people who are inspired and smart who don’t have the means,” he says.

Duplass explains that if someone like him loans a filmmaker $10,000 dollars to make a film, and then helps them sell it for $100,000, “that’s still $90,000 in profit” for the director to split with their crew — something which potentially allows them to create a living and begin a career. And he believes those with the ability to make these loans shouldn’t just do so behind closed doors anymore, but in public ways, in order to “model things and inspire other people to do the same.”

Whether or not this truly leads to systemic and long-term change for actors like Yeun growing up in Michigan — or trans women of color directing in places like Oklahoma — remains unclear. Will enough wealthy white folks step up? Will they reach outside their comfort zone voluntarily? For independent filmmakers coming from marginalized backgrounds there remains a prevalent fear that the white-dominated man-centric world of American film—in Hollywood and elsewhere—isn’t quite ready to see them or their stories.

Especially if their films don’t include a car chase or a superhero, but focus instead on the complexities of life outside the mainstream. Not surprisingly, the burden for change in the industry has historically fallen precisely on these filmmakers. People have had to find a way to scrape together pennies, in communities where there are already fewer resources, in the hopes that they might one day get a shot at making their version of Moonlight.

But if the election of Trump has shaken the filmmaking elite in some way, one hopes that it pushes them in the direction which Duplass suggests (or towards projects like Ava Duvernay’s Array Now). If film has a role to play in shifting American culture away from the oppressive systems of power which have led us to where we are today (not far from where we have always been), it has to be rooted in representing the perspectives of those who have been most marginalized by those systems.

So instead of asking Black and indigenous women what they will do to fit themselves into a narrow cinematic mold, perhaps more powerful white men in the industry are finally ready to ask each other: What are we willing to give up — willing to do — to make room for those women?

And if we’re not willing to change, are we willing to simply get out of the way?

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