shadowy film camera in center of movie lights

Though snubbed by the academy, women of color see notable gains in top-grossing films

The actors at the center of The Woman King may have been left out of this year’s Academy Award® nominations, but they do have one important distinction. These leading actors were part of an important shift for women of color in top movies. According to a new report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, there was a significant increase in the number of top-grossing films with girls and women of color in leading and co-leading roles in 2022.

The research brief, Inequality Across 1,600 Popular Films: Examining Gender, Race/Ethnicity & Age of Leads/Co-Leads From 2007 to 2022, is the latest from Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The report examined the gender, race/ethnicity, and age of lead/co-lead actors across 100 top-grossing movies each year from 2007 to 2022. 

The figures for women of color were the primary bright spot in the report. In 2022, 16% of the 100 top-grossing films featured a girl or woman from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group in a leading or co-leading role. This was an increase from 11% in 2021 and from the one movie in 2007 with a woman of color in the lead. In fact, 2022 had the highest number of underrepresented women and non-binary leads/co-leads across the 16 years examined.

“The progress for women of color in leading roles is encouraging,” Smith said. “It’s past time for the film industry to recognize that stories about women of color have a place in theaters. Girls and women of color are 20% of the U.S. population, but the film industry has not ensured that this is what audiences see on screen. With effort and accountability, this threshold is one that not only can be achieved but easily surpassed.”

The findings for women overall were less positive. In 2022, 44% of films had a female-identified lead/co-lead, which reflects no change from the 41% of films with a female-identified lead/co-lead in 2021. There has been an improvement in the percentage of female-driven films since 2007 when the figure was 20%. Ultimately, however, top films fail to meet the U.S. Census threshold — roughly 50% of the population identifies as female. 

The story was the same for leads/co-leads from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Across 2022’s 100 top-grossing films, 29% of leads/co-leads were underrepresented, a decrease from 32% in 2021. Last year’s number does reflect a substantial increase from 2007’s 13% but was off the mark compared to the Census, which shows that 40.7% of the U.S. population is from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group.

“The lack of progress for women and people of color in leading roles for yet another year is disappointing,” said Katherine L. Neff, the study’s lead author. “The film industry must recognize that even though the stories it creates feature fantastic locations, audiences in this world still want to be reflected on screen.”

The report also examined the age of leading/co-leading actors and assessed whether there were differences by gender for actors age 45 and older. A total of 35 films in 2022 featured a man aged 45 or older in a lead/co-lead role compared to just 10 with women 45 and above. These 10 films were similar to the team’s findings in 2021 (7 movies) but represented a significant increase from the one film in 2007 with a woman 45 years of age or older in a lead/co-lead role. Notably, five of the movies with a woman age 45-plus in 2022 featured a woman of color in the lead, compared to zero in 2021. 

The report also examines how many films from major and mini-major distributors in 2022 had female-identified and underrepresented leads/co-leads. In 2022, 75% of Lionsgate’s releases in the top 100 had a female-identified lead/co-lead, while 55.6% of Paramount’s movies and 38.5% of Universal’s films had a female-identified protagonist. Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros. Pictures all featured underrepresented leads/co-leads in a third of their movies.

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and includes solutions for change. The full text can be found online here.