David L. Cohen on Comcast and Hollywood’s diversity problem

Cohen says the Jesse Owens biopic “Race” is an example of his employer bucking the industry trend of white casts and male directors.

David L. Cohen greets 1948 Olympic medalist Herb Douglas before the Philadelphia premiere of "Race."

David L. Cohen greets 1948 Olympic medalist Herb Douglas before the Philadelphia premiere of "Race."

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

#OscarsSoWhite has been on the mind of David L. Cohen. In addition to being Comcast’s senior executive vice president, he is also its chief diversity officer. And at the Philadelphia premiere of “Race,” with the Oscars less than two weeks away, he referenced the conversation about Hollywood’s diversity problem.  

“To be candid,” he said, “much of that discussion has not been flattering to the industry.”  

Cohen described “Race,” a biopic of Jesse Owens, as a one of several signs that Comcast/Universal is bucking the industry’s dependence on using white casts and male directors with the goal of appealing to white male audiences.

In 2014 and 2015, Universal had successful movies primarily starring black casts such as “Ride Along,” “Get On Up”  and “Straight Outta Compton,” the latter becoming the highest-grossing film by a black director in history. It also countered Hollywood’s female director problem, with films like “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Pitch Perfect 2.” Both were among the top box office draws of 2015.   

“It’s a good lesson that good diversity practices also make for good business,” Cohen said.

Before the premiere of the movie, which stars Stephan James as Owens and Jason Sudeikis as coach Larry Snyder, Owens’ granddaughter, Gina Strachan, Olympic medalists Herb Douglas and Anthuan Maybank and Sharmain Matlock-Turner, the Urban Affairs Coalition CEO.

Douglas, who is 94, and won the bronze in the long jump at the 1948 London Games met Owens for the first time when 14 years old at a Pittsburgh school. He told Owens his fastest times up to that point. Owens told him that was faster than he had been at the same age.  

“I knew he was lying through his teeth,” Douglas said, “but that encouraged me as a 14 year old kid.”

Strachan and several of her family members were on the set for parts of the filming.

“My family’s takeaway from this film: I think what you’ll come away with is all about possibility,” Strachan said, “and how anything is possible through adversity, through backlash, through all kinds of obstacles.”

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