The Subtle Hollywood Racism Nobody Talks About

July 10th 2015

Laura Donovan

Even as a child, New York City-based performer Dylan Marron noticed that people of color don't seem to have prominent roles in film. 

When he started the Tumblr "Every Single Word Spoken," which exposes this problem by featuring film clips that have been edited to show just how little screen and speaking time people of color receive, much of the Internet responded with praise. Slate France argues that the project achieves a similar social impact as the feminist Bechdel Test, which examines whether a film has two female characters talk about something other than a man: 

Marron's first "Every Single Word Spoken" post features a clip from "Enough Said," in which the only person of color is a house cleaner who has less than a minute of speaking time in the hour-and-33-minute movie:

In "(500) Days of Summer," all four actors of color get a total of 30 seconds of speaking in the hour-and-37-minute-long film:

We spoke with Marron about what he hopes to achieve with his increasingly popular Tumblr. Here's what he had to say about the driving force behind "Every Single Word Spoken" and more.

Editor's note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dylan Marron, creator of "Every Single Word Spoken" Tumblr

What inspired you to create this Tumblr? Have you observed this pattern in film over time, and have you experienced any of this directly as a performer?

This is a pattern I've noticed forever. When you grow up brown in this country as a consumer of pop culture, you are deeply aware that you are different. This is also stuff that I've experienced as a working actor, as early as high school. Casting directors would sometimes come to watch our high school productions, and sometimes they'd call me in to audition for a professional project. Out of these auditions, sometimes I got meetings with agents, and agents would [through] various coding and sometimes explicitly tell me that there isn't much work out there for me, and that I'd never play the  romantic male lead. When you're young, you kind of just accept that as fact because you don't really have the tools to question things. When an adult authority figure tells you something, you're just kind of trained to believe it. I went to college, learned how to write, joined the sketch comedy group, and just figured I'd create the roles for myself if they weren't out there.

Flash forward to now, I have been very fortunate to have a nice string of success. I'm a working actor booking commercials, and I wrote a play that was just nominated for a Drama Desk award. Probably what I'm best known for is the podcast I have a voice on, "Welcome to Night Vale." Meetings with agents have started up again, and I find I keep being told the same thing, but the difference is now I'm an adult and I have the tools to question this. You can only be told something so many times before you no longer accept it as an acceptable answer. I wanted to question and I wanted to investigate why I kept being told how limited work was out there for me. I found that this was a pretty direct way to expose that. I released these videos without embellishment and without comment. This is the truth, this is every single word spoken by a person of color in these movies. You can come to your own conclusions. My goal is that once I work through a whole volume of these, a pattern will emerge. I really think patterns speak so much more directly and can effect so much more change than an emotional rant. And I totally understand emotional rants because I feel very strong things about this stuff. This discrimination is so insidious because we don't even realize it's happening, so I created these videos as a way to address that.

What sort of advice do you have for actors of color who feel they're being typecast and marginalized in film?

I mean, that's who I'm doing this project for. But I'm also doing this project for everyone. I think it's really, really important that this sparks conversation, and that's what I've been so blown away by with the response to this. What is my advice? I think you first need to understand how this works. That's what I'm working to do with these videos ... I love the medium of film, I love movies, and I don't just mean art house. I love everything from art house to mainstream. If it's a good story and it's on film, I love it. The common theme with all the videos I'm using is they tell universal stories with very human themes and my question is why are these universal and human stories cast with white people by default. None of these stories are about being white. None of these stories are about whiteness. If we keep casting white people in these universal stories, then we're suggesting that white is normal and that what is not white is not normal. That's coding that is absorbed from a very young age and stays with people throughout their lives. It's very dangerous and very upsetting.

What has been the general response to your blog? Are people surprised or saying, "Thank you, I've been noticing this for years"?

I feel very, very humbled that it's been a mix of both. I'm totally in awe that people and artists who I really respect and friends have said, "Thank you for finding a way to address it." I think one of the greatest things I hear is when people say they didn't even notice it. That's exactly why I'm doing it! Because it gets past us. I was totally blown away by Slate France for coining the term "The Marron Test" as the sister to the Bechdel Test. I was star struck by association for even being compared to Alison Bechdel.

To see that other publications have picked up [The Marron Test] is really interesting, especially because my last name Marron means "brown" in Spanish. So it's an interesting double read of that. That's a little bit of a surreal thing I've seen, but it's just so much bigger than me. These videos are not about me. They're about this severe problem going on and this real scarcity that is getting past so many of us.

Who do you think is responsible here? Is it that people aren't writing enough parts for people of color? Is It that projects that do feature prominent characters of color don't get made? Is it a lack of coverage in the media? Is it everyone?

I think as a culture, it's much more systemic than just the individual person. It's the people who finance movies who don't think that you can sell a movie without a famous white celebrity at the center of it. It's the directors who passed it who, especially if they're white and if it's a white storyteller, I think they're naturally going to cast people who look like them. I think this is an incredibly complex issue that deserves unpacking. But I think it's about who is telling the stories. It's also about casting with a little more creativity. For these universal stories that have nothing to do with race, what would it look like if you just depended on the story? I really believe that people go to the movies for a good story, and if you sell a movie the way these mainstream movies are being sold and you cast it with a diverse cast, I just really don't think it's going to change the perception of it. I think more importantly is that Hollywood has the power to shape the way we think about race, so if they start making a more diverse cast that actually represents the population of the world and this country, I think that they will in fact effect more change than they know.

Some of the movies on "Every Single Word Spoken" were released years apart from each other. "Wedding Crashers," for example, is ten years old. "The Fault in Our Stars" is a newer film. Did you notice any progress in the films that were released later?

Sadly no. The problem really has stayed the same.

Are there any exceptions you noticed and if so, are there patterns in those films (i.e., does it have to be a film specifically about race for there to be equal speaking part opportunities)?​

That's the sad thing I'm finding. In these universal stories, it's rare to see truly race-blind casting.

[Marron then mentioned the 1997 TV movie that featured Brandi, a Black actress, as Cinderella.]

It's the fantasy genre, which really has the most leeway in terms of casting. We're already going on such leaps with you with our suspension of disbelief. We're believing in magic and someone being found by their prince just by their glass slipper. We can also go on leaps with you to accept that race works differently in this world. We all know the story of Cinderella, so we buy that there's a Filipino prince whose mother is Black and his father is white, and those were played by Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber, respectively. When I saw that as a kid, I thought that was going to change the way movies were made, and unfortunately it's just the exception.

What have you heard from the acting community regarding your project?

From actors of color, I've heard intense gratitude like, "Thank you for pointing out what I have been trying to say all this time." [He's heard from] so many people who have been trying to bring this up who have kind of been shut down, and that really means a lot to me. It means a lot to be exposing a problem that so many people have been trying to talk about.

Have you thought about contacting any of the actors featured in your videos to see what they think about your project? Have you heard from any of them?

I haven't heard from any of them. I haven't reached out to any of them individually because I want to make sure that this project isn't targeted at individuals. If I hear from one of those actors, I would love to have a conversation with them about what they think, but I am not pointing the finger at any one specific person. I'm not saying that these filmmakers are racist. I'm not saying that these films are even racist. I'm saying the system we use to create mainstream movies falls prey to systemic racism, and we need to change that. So, it's not like I want to have a conversation with Spike Jonze about why so many people in "Her" were white when it's such a universal story. If he ever offered that, I would completely accept, but we need to look at this pattern. Nobody here is guilty, but the system is guilty.