How the BLM movement impacts attitude toward an increase in

By GlobeNewswire – Press Releases

Cambridge, MA, July 11, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Going to the movies is a widespread pastime with cultural significance. Policymakers, social critics, and researchers have been calling for more racially inclusive casting in movies for decades. But how do viewers actually react to increased racial minority presence in movies? 

MIT Sloan School of Management associate professor Jackson Lu found that while higher casting of minority actors results in more negative movie ratings from viewers, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement mitigated this bias against minority actors. In a new research paper, “The Black Lives Matter Movement Mitigates Bias Against Racial Minority Actors,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Lu, along with Yu-Wei Lin at Santa Clara University, Shiyu Yang at San Francisco State University, and Wencui Han at Stony Brook University asked: how might audience reactions to increased racial minority presence in movies be shaped by social movements such as BLM advocating for racial equality?

Lu and his colleagues tested two competing possibilities regarding how viewers react when the main cast of a movie sequel increases racial minority actors (termed “minority increase” by the authors). The researchers theorized that on the one hand, minority increase may lead to more favorable movie evaluations by viewers if they appreciate racially inclusive casting for its novel composition and moral appeal. On the other hand, minority increase may lead to more negative movie evaluations if viewers harbor biases and discriminate against racial minorities.

To examine these two competing possibilities, the researchers collected data from two popular movie platforms, Rotten Tomatoes and Internet Movie Database (IMDb). They constructed and analyzed a dataset of movie series released from 1998 to 2021 and conducted text analysis of 312,457 reviews of these movies. Consistent with their discrimination hypothesis, they found that sequels with minority increase received lower movie ratings and more toxic reviews. 

After the number of minority main cast members increased, movie ratings on average decreased by 6.5 out of 100 points in Rotten Tomatoes expert ratings (reviews by professional critics), 4.4 out of 100 points in Rotten Tomatoes audience ratings, and 0.29 out of 10 points in IMDb audience ratings. This finding was reliable across numerous robustness analyses performed by the researchers.

Could this result be driven by viewers’ aversion to cast change in general? To rule out this alternative explanation, the researchers showed that sequels that replaced white actors with minority actors received significantly lower ratings than sequels that replaced white actors with other white actors. “These results suggest that the negative effect of minority increase cannot be simply explained by an overall aversion to cast change,” explained Lu. 

Another explanation was that the audience dislikes minority increase in sequels not because of racial prejudice against minority actors, but merely because the minority actors have lower acting credentials. To rule out this alternative explanation, the researchers showed that the negative relationship between minority increase and movie ratings exists for both high- and low-credentialed minority actors. This suggests that the bias against minority actors cannot be explained by credential differences, but rather by taste-based bias, or racial prejudice against minority actors.

Importantly, the researchers found that the negative relationship between minority increase and movie ratings weakened following the start of the BLM movement in 2013, especially when the movement’s intensity is high — as quantified by BLM’s public engagement in both the online (e.g., volume of BLM social media posts) and the offline (e.g., number of BLM protests) settings. Additionally, the bias mitigation effect of BLM applied to both Black and non-Black minority actors.

Lu and colleagues conceptually replicated the bias mitigation effect of BLM in an experiment of 469 white American participants. They found that participants who read an article about the significance of BLM (versus participants who did not) gave higher ratings to a sequel movie that added a racial minority actor in its main cast.

“Overall, our research reveals an unfortunate bias against racial minority actors, but also demonstrates the power of social movements in fostering diversity, equality, and inclusion,” concluded Lu.

  • Importantly, the researchers found that the negative relationship between minority increase and movie ratings weakened following the start of the BLM movement in 2013.

Source: GlobeNewswire – Press Releases