Sometimes the most efficient way to make a point is to allow the facts to speak for themselves. “Every Single Word,” a critically-minded video series that takes a look at popular American films, editing them down to only the moments where people of color are allowed the opportunity to speak on-screen, is both vital and provocative, an objective presentation that evokes subjective criticism. As the motion picture industry continues to seek out new ways to identify and cater to specific audiences, the simplest solution may start with having the characters on-screen mirror the faces of those in the audience. By being a keen yet unobtrusive observer, “Every Single Word” finds truth in numbers; simple statistics such as the amount of minutes and seconds people of color speak in a particular movie invite a silent, damning statement on the movie business to be heard loud and clear.
Created by Dylan Marron, a Venezuelan-American writer and performer who can frequently be found creating new work that dares to be different (“The Human Symphony,” his play “entirely performed by randomly-selected audience members via instructional mp3 tracks,” was staged earlier this year in New York City), “Every Single Word” is an essential piece of visual film criticism. I spoke with Marron about dealing with angry Youtube commenters, identifying uncredited actors of color, the absence of people of color in early Academy Award Best Picture winners, and what the future holds for his popular series.
ERIK LUERS: What lead you to create “Every Single Word”? Did it begin as a Tumblr page? A Youtube channel?
DYLAN MARRON: I first started “Every Single Word” 1.) because I was aware of the lack of screen-time people of color were receiving in mainstream Hollywood films and 2.) as a moviegoer and as an actor, I realized how few roles specifically called for someone of my type. Race often isn’t specified or written into character descriptions, and so white actors get chosen by default. When I would meet with agents, they would compliment my talents, telling me that they really enjoyed my work, and yet I would be told that it wasn’t likely that I would be getting a lot of work.These two things didn’t seem to add up in my mind, and so I started making the “Every Single Word” videos not as a direct way to speak to these agents (to say that they are the enemy is wrong as it doesn’t fall on one specific person) but as a way to express and point out this phenomenon that had gone undetected. When watching the “Every Single Word” videos, so many people say to me, “wow, I just didn’t notice that before.” Neither did I! You don’t watch a story, especially a well-told story, and think of how few people of color you’re seeing. You feel dazzled, entertained, scared, sad, happy, and all of these emotions [while watching a film]. What was going on was somewhat insidious then, as it was flying under-the-radar and I think really impacting us [as viewers]. I then started making these videos, putting them on my Youtube channel and creating a Tumblr page. I didn’t expect it to get as big as it did, but then it just blew up.
EL: Since creating the series, do you now go into every film viewing experience with the possibility of featuring it on “Every Single Word”?
DM: Well, I still am a movie lover and really love the good stories that are told on film, but yes, I think I go into a film acutely aware of how few or how many people of color are represented on-screen. Aside from being an amazing film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a really good example of this in a positive, reverse way. John Boyega’s character is not specified racially in the film, so good on them for casting a black actor to play that role. I am increasingly aware of all this stuff.
DM: I go for movies that have lasted the test of time, and those two titles are such big films. “Jaws” was the movie that created the summer blockbuster and “E.T.” has passed the test of time. The interesting thing about those two are that both films feature so many people of color in the background, so many extras. This tips us off to the fact that this is not a “white only” world that we’re living in. Even “Jaws,” which takes place in a New England beach town (which is typically white), if you look at the extras you will notice all different types of families in the background. “Jaws” has nothing to do with race. It’s about a specific animal against the human race, and so why is it then white by default? Why is every character who speaks in “Jaws” white? In “E.T.”, the only African-American we get is identified as Van Man.
EL: “Van Man” is an interesting jumping off point for my next question. Besides the scarcity of speaking roles for people of color in many of American cinema’s most popular films, one of the most striking things “Every Single Word” draws attention to is the ridiculous and often condescending way in which their characters are referenced in the screenplay. In “E.T.”, the only African-American speaking role (totaling two lines) is identified as “Van Man,” while the two young Asian-American boys in “Mrs. Doubtfire” are labeled as Staring Boy #1 and Staring Boy #2.
DM: If you go to any of these actors’ IMDB pages, they tend to play “Chinese Boy” or “Asian Boy” or “Korean Boy,” and there’s no regard for the specificity of the culture they come from. It’s just like “oh, all of that is transmutable” and they’re only credited for the small, small roles they serve in the story. These roles are very inconsequential and almost none of them have consequence. Rather than affect the story, they are background for the story. None of them move the story along with their actions or decisions. While I don’t think that’s a big thing in terms of our conscious mind, I think it’s a huge thing in terms of our unconscious mind. The people that these stories happen to always seem to be white. There’s that Zoë Kravitz quote from over the summer, right after “Every Single Word” started: “do stories only happen to white people?” That’s a great question, as it seems like that’s the case and that people of color are only here to serve as ornamental background performers.
EL: In some of the older films you’ve featured on “Every Single Word” (pre-1940s), you make note of the many people of color either featured in the background or who had speaking roles but who nonetheless went uncredited. What was your research into identifying them? How did you find their names?
DM: Yeah, it was a little harder with the older ones, especially with the old, old Best Picture winners. These days, movies tend to credit everyone who speaks on-screen, but in the early days of film, only the top-billed stars were credited. It took a little research and “film history book searching” to find those names. Even if they had gone uncredited on a particular film, many of these actors are credited on IMDB, and I think that site is a pretty great resource for all of that stuff. Depending on the role, some of them were more credited than others, but most were not.
EL: In a way, “Every Single Word” is a rarity: objective criticism. It presents an empirical fact and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. You sit back and let the evidence speak for itself. Did you always wish to take on the role of the quiet observer when crafting this series?
DM: This is something I feel very strongly about, and when you feel very strongly about a cause, it’s best to present your side as empirically as possible so that it’s as inarguable as possible. “Every Single Word” could have just been me ranting about my thoughts on the state of diversity while presenting certain facts, but the story would have been how I feel about it. I think that when you just present the facts to people, however, it is so much more digestible and so much more eye-opening than what I personally feel about it. And yet it’s still so interesting because even though I just present these videos as they are and as fact, people still really freak out. If you look at my composite of all of the Harry Potter movies, the Youtube comments are out of control. People are furious and think I am putting J.K. Rowling down (I’m definitely not doing that). I merely presented every single word spoken by a person of color in all eight of the Harry Potter films.The conclusions people would come to — or the reactions people would have to the conclusions they come to — are so interesting, and I was just presenting facts.
EL: With awards season coming up, did you feel now was the opportune time to apply the “Every Single Word” treatment to each Academy Award winner for Best Picture?
DM: What I was more interested in doing as I worked through the “Every Single Word” videos was having a set group of movies, rather than just picking movies based on how popular they were. The Best Picture winners [provided that order]. These films were the ones that the Academy had decided were the very best of that particular year. If we look throughout history, we observe not only how many minutes people of color are speaking, but what kind of speech they’re using and what kind of words and influence on the story they’re having. How does it change over time? How does it not change over time? I’m using the Best Picture series of videos to ask a question rather than to come in with an answer.
EL: As “Gone with the Wind” won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, you would imagine it being a film that features quite a significant amount of time for speaking roles for people of color. I’ve heard you faced a few legal issues with Warner Bros. pertaining to the use of clips from the film. Could you talk a little bit about that?
DM: It was funny. As I uploaded my “Gone with the Wind” video (the longest “Every Single Word” video I had ever made at north of fourteen minutes), I realized I would have to let it upload overnight due to the length. By this point, the video was unlisted and I hadn’t publicized it yet. When I woke up the next morning, I saw that Warner Bros. had taken down the video due to copyright claim. I was surprised, as this type of work falls very clearly under Fair Use, and if you look at all of Fair Use’s bulletin points, the video complies with all of them. I posted a screenshot of the notification of the video being taken down [on my social media channels] and saw it getting retweeted a lot, as legal copyright experts were opining about why this had happened. Just as I was figuring out what to do and if I were going to make a big deal out of it and have a public or private conversation about why this happened, suddenly out of nowhere I received an email that Warner Bros. had released the copyright claim and the video would be allowed to go back up. I have no idea what happened behind closed doors. To pull down a film that I do for this project is, I think, actually bad publicity for them. Clearly this is a project of Fair Use, and while yes, they do own the copyright for the film and have the right to take it down, why are they taking it down?
EL: For the Best Picture winners you’ve covered so far, it’s clear than when people of color were featured in speaking roles, they portrayed maids, slaves, or characters of comic relief…
DM: If you look in the background of so many of these Best Picture winners, if the characters are ever in a hotel lounge and there are musicians present, so many of the musicians are people of color. It’s like they’re ornamental entertainment. The ironic thing is that many times they don’t even sing [in the scene], but when they would, I would be sure to include that in my videos. It’s acknowledging that they exist. One of the most interesting examples is “Mutiny on the Bounty” from 1935. It’s one of the longer “Every Single Word” entries, running four minutes. Two of the characters in the film are love interests, but the thing is that the people of color in the film are speaking in Tahitian and their words are never translated. There aren’t any subtitles for anything they say. What that then indicates is that what these people are saying doesn’t matter. That’s semiotically what the message is. Since the story isn’t being told through these people’s eyes then you do not need to concern yourself with what they’re saying. We’ll see the story through Clark Gable’s eyes. It’s so interesting when we talk about upholding history and telling the right history. Gable plays a British co-captain, Fletcher Christian, in the film, a real life character, and yet Gable speaks in the film with an American accent. What history are we holding onto here? If they wanted the story to be realistic, Gable would have been speaking with a British accent! There’s a forgiveness in some realms of what is okay to pass in a historical film and a complete lack of forgiveness in others.
EL: “Every Single World” seems to have been put on hold at the moment. Will it come back soon? Are you thinking about taking a look at this year’s Best Picture nominees for a future episode?
DM: Well, you will be the first one to get the full honest answer here…The whole project is on hold at the moment. One of the crazy things about the success of “Every Single Word” was that I was able to meet and start working with a really great agent. I’ve been auditioning and submitting writing samples to a lot of places. While I thought that the “Every Single Word” series was going to truly last forever (in the naïve period when you just start something and it’s exciting because you’re making a point), the real message here is that we need more people of color in entertainment. I think I lost sight of the fact that I was making the series because I was and am one of those people of color working in entertainment. The important thing is to tell the stories that aren’t being told and to play the characters that aren’t being represented. “Every Single Word” spoke very directly to the problem. To be very clear, I’m not saying that we are going to succeed only if I succeed. This isn’t like “well, if I make it through, then there’s no need for ‘Every Single Word’ to continue.” “Every Single Word” served a very important purpose and that was to highlight something in a very objective way. It was created because we need more faces of color telling universal stories and we need more voices of color speaking these stories. Now that I’ve made this point, all I can do is hope to be the reflection that I never saw growing up. I have an amazing opportunity to pursue that in a very tangible way, not just by being a public speaker talking about this, but rather a person who’s actually doing the work. That’s really the most honest answer I can give you as to why “Every Single Word” is on hiatus.
EL: Since you mentioned your speaking engagements, I have to ask about your experience giving a presentation at the Smithsonian. How did that experience come about?
DM: I was invited to speak there at the History Film Forum, which takes a specific look at how history is presented on film. The whole weekend was actually a celebration of history on film, and I was a part of a panel on how diversity is presented in historical film and I was able to give a speech right before that. It was a huge honor to be welcomed at a place like the Smithsonian, a place that makes sure that admission is free in order to make history as accessible as possible. The main point in the speech I gave was that film should do the same thing. While the Smithsonian addresses the financial accessibility by making the threshold so low that anyone come, films should do that representationally. Films should allow so many people to see their avatars on screen. Why can’t the norm of crafting historical films be to tell all the stories of history? Why can’t everyone be equally represented in history rather than the angles we so often see?