"I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider." – Frances McDormand, Academy Awards, 2018.
When Frances McDormand collected her Best Actress Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri back in 2018, she introduced a new term into the collective consciousness. That term was "inclusion rider" and while the meaning behind it had already been on the mind of Highsnobiety Magazine's Issue 19 cover star Michael B. Jordan for some time, McDormand's speech delivered an official term, one with clear-cut actionable results.
Inclusion riders were first notably explored by social scientist Stacy Smith during a TED Talk back in 2016. She explained that the phrase refers to a stipulation an actor can put into their contract that doesn't just request inclusivity in both cast and crew, it legally requires it. "The typical feature film has about 40 to 45 speaking characters in it," Smith explained, referencing her research that analyzed the top 100 movies of 2015. “I would argue that only 8 to 10 of those characters are actually relevant to the story. The remaining 30 or so roles, there’s no reason why those minor roles can’t match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place. An equity rider by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live.”
In addition to reflecting reality, Smith added, inclusion riders also have the power to change our society, particularly when demanded by American film studios and industry stars, whose narratives reach across the globe. Stories told through cinema offer lessons. They share social values. These lessons and values should be reflective of the demographic in which they are set. Anything other than that is erasure, Smith states. Simple as that.
Primarily, it was the legal stipulation that was news to Jordan, who revealed in a recent conversation with Highsnobiety that he'd always endeavored to empower minorities in his work, but never realized there was a way to implement it in his contracts. Two days after McDormand's Oscars speech, he made his first move. He put up an Instagram post in which he was joined by his WME agent, Asian-American Phil Sun and Alana Mayo, the black female president of Jordan's production company, Outlier Society. “In support of the women & men who are leading this fight, I will be adopting the Inclusion Rider for all projects produced by my company Outlier Society,” Jordan wrote in the caption. “I’ve been privileged to work with powerful women & persons of color throughout my career & it’s Outlier’s mission to continue to create for talented individuals going forward.”
The post marked Outliner Society as one of the first production companies to formally adopt the inclusion rider policy. “Representation is a big deal. Now it's becoming more of a popular thing,” Jordan told Highsnobiety. “Diverse, ‘color-blind casting’ was a thing for a couple years. That was a word thrown around like it was a bottle of water. ‘Inclusion rider’ is another thing, so hopefully it becomes more of a permanent situation — not just something that's here for a moment. Everybody's flawed; this industry is flawed as well. I'm just trying to improve it.”
In an interview with Deadline earlier this summer, Mayo echoed the same sentiment, "[Outlier Society] struggle[s] with the happy, mindless entertainment that doesn’t feel like it has some sort of substance to it. And sometimes we just want to hit an issue that I think the both of us we will continue to make content about until we feel like we start to see the impact and the change in the real world.” A cursory glance at both Outlier's and Jordan's upcoming projects illustrates just that: Just Mercy, which drops in November, is a film that reveals the ways in which law enforcement and judicial systems unfairly target and punish people of color. Raising Dion, which lands on Netflix in October, reworks the traditional superhero tropes and tells the story of a young black superhero and his single mother. David Makes Full Man, a TV show on which Jordan serves as executive producer, is a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old black kid attending a magnet school but living in the hood.
Around six months after Outlier Society announced its mission, Jordan made another huge move. In September 2018, WarnerMedia, the parent of Hollywood studio Warner Bros., HBO, and Turner, announced that it was starting a company-wide policy aimed at building diversity and inclusion both in front and behind the camera, and it was doing so in partnership with Jordan. That policy would apply to all Warner Bros. productions going forward, kicking off with Just Mercy. Warner Bros. is the first (and as far as we can surmise, only) Hollywood studio to unequivocally adopt the policy.
“The WarnerMedia family has introduced an approach that accomplishes our shared objectives, and I applaud them for taking this enormous step forward,” Jordan said at the time. “I’m proud that our film, Just Mercy, will be the first to formally represent the future we have been working toward, together. This is a legacy-bearing moment.”
While the Hollywood's work to eradicate erasure is still in its nascent stages, these moments mark a shift that's long overdue. However, as Jordan told Highsnobiety, he isn't the first to incorporate inclusion riders. “There were so many people doing it before I was: the Sidney Poitiers, Robert Townsends, and Tyler Perrys,” he says. “There's so many other people — forefathers of mine that came before me, and I'm building off of what they've been doing — the Spike Lees, and of course John Singleton. Those are people that have been doing this type of ‘inclusion rider’ in their own way.”
Now it's Jordan's turn to make an impact, for him to pave the way as a "forefather" to the next generation of industry leaders — which, given he starred in Marvel's first-ever black superhero movie, Black Panther, you could argue he's already done more than his fair share of path-laying.
“There's no more excuses," he tells us, offering advice for anyone keen to follow in his footsteps. "If you're in high school, you got an iPhone. You got a friend that likes to write? Team up with him. Sit down in a room for one summer and break out a story. If you're a director, team up with a friend that loves holding a camera, taking videos. Use that guy as a camera guy. Start building your own little crew and create.
"Seize the moment. Start taking advantage of and taking control over your own destiny as much as you can.”