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The Not So Silver Screen

September 4, 2018

by Charles “Ebbie” Alfree III, Director of Advancement 

Every year about 600 films are released in the United States and millions of people are flocking to multiplexes and art houses to see them. However, I’ve heard some older adults say they don’t feel there is enough representation of their age group in movies. And when they do see older characters in films, the characters typically don’t represent them and their diverse lifestyles. There seems to be a disconnect, because research shows, many of the millions of people going to see movies are aged 60 and older. (The Statistics Portal) conducted a demographic survey in 2017 on the frequency of moviegoers by age. The survey included seven categories and the 60 and older category came in 3rd place, just three points shy of the 2nd place grouping.

Older adults are maintaining active lifestyles – running businesses, dating, traveling, etc. – so they want to see complex characters in their age group who are treated fairly and with respect, not cast aside or degraded.

Two studies regarding older people in film were conducted by Humana Inc. and the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Out of the 100 top grossing films of 2016, 57 of them featured characters aged 60 and older in supporting or leading roles. Unfortunately, 44% of the 57 films included ageist comments and referred to the older adults in demeaning ways.

It’s too early to compare the overall top films of 2018 to see if there is improvement. However, I did find some information about the presence of older adults in films that have come out to date. Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website, has named the top 87 films so far this year. Based on these films, 22% of them, excluding animated films, have a performer aged 60 and older in the principal cast and 9% of the films feature a performer in that age group in a leading role. Of the performers who have a leading role, four are men and four are women. Only one of the male leads is a person of color. Of the 87 films, seven are documentaries about individuals aged 60 and older, four of which feature women and three feature men. Only one of the seven focuses on a person (female) of color.

Two of the biggest films this summer that are not included in the Rotten Tomatoes’ list feature ensemble casts of mostly older actors – Book Club and Mama Mia! Here We Go Again. The characters in both films are independent individuals, most still working and dating. Candice Bergen plays a judge and Jane Fonda a hotelier in Book Club. Cher may play the grandmother in the Mamma Mia sequel, but she is a Las Vegas singer, while Stellan Skarsgard reprises his role as an award-winning travel writer. However, Andy Garcia is the only actor of color over the age of 60 to appear in both films.

So, what is on the horizon for the rest of 2018? Looking over the list of films in The Hollywood Reporter’s article 46 of Fall’s Most Anticipated Movies, 26% of them, excluding animated films, feature a performer aged 60 and older in a principal role. Less than 1% feature a performer in that age range in a leading role. Robert Redford stars in The Old Man and the Gun with Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover and Tom Waits in supporting roles; Jeff Bridges stars in Bad Times at the El Royal; and Jamie Lee Curtis (she will turn 60 in November) stars in Halloween.

Only two of the anticipated films feature older people of color – both males in supporting roles. The lack of people of color in older roles is odd, since The Motion Picture Association of America claimed per-capita that people (all-ages) of color went to the movies 14.9 times in 2016 compared to Caucasians who went 3.2 times. Combining this information with the results from The Statistics Portal’s study, it seems more older characters of color should be represented in film. So, why are film roles for older adults of color so rare?

According to UCLA’s study, Hollywood Diversity Report 2018, “…there is a myth promoted by Hollywood decision makers that foreign audiences will automatically reject films centered around people of color [regardless of age]. Indeed, the conventional ‘wisdom’ in the film industry has been that ‘black films don’t travel,’ and this notion has posed a longstanding obstacle to advancing diversity in Hollywood, particularly among film leads and directors.”

With the success of recent films starring younger people of color in lead roles it seems the tide is turning. That same UCLA study also states that film is pointing in the right direction for people of color. However, as things begin to improve for people of color, the issue around all older adults in film continues.

It seems that older adults need to start a movement and have the film industry take them seriously. As one of my colleagues suggested, older people can take filmmaking into their own hands by shooting movies on their smartphones and uploading them to YouTube and posting them on their social media pages. They might not be as polished as a Steven Spielberg production, but they can make films that properly reflect their lives and interests. Maybe the hashtag for this movement could be #releventatanyage.

Printed in the Daily Local News, Monday, September 3, 2018.