With the recent release of the trailer for Marvel’s Black Panther Film Contributor Emma Curzon discusses the diversity problem that still plagues the film industry
The trailer for Marvel’s Black Panther dropped two weeks ago. And it looks bloody amazing, but I know nothing about superhero movies so I’m not here to talk about that. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyon’go, Angela Bassett and Michael B. Jordan, the film will undoubtedly stand out next to its competition’s posters- and not just because of the star-studded cast. As the New York Times points out, Black Panther ‘feels revolutionary’ because ‘this could be the most Afrocentric blockbuster in Hollywood history’.
I doubt they’re lying- out of 10 cast members on the poster, eight of them are black. Even Star Wars: The Last Jedi poster only has three BME actors (John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Kelly-Marie Tran), out of an eight-strong main cast. The point is, unless you’re a straight, non-disabled, cisgender and (probably rich) white man, you’re bound to find yourself under-represented across the film industry.
Even though things have improved in recent years, the problem of representation is frustratingly hard to solve because there is an infinity of groups that would quite like some, thanks very much. The cast of The Last Jedi boasts an impressive number of badass women, a huge step up- but nearly all of them are white. In 2015’s Pride, around half the cast were gay- but there are literally no ethnic minority characters. Essentially, the more ‘differences’ you add, the less options you have. As well as straight romances outnumbering gay ones, white lesbian characters vastly outrank BME ones. Black trans women have Laverne Cox and that’s pretty much it. And if you’re a deafblind, bisexual black woman, an Asian transgender man, an asexual woman with a disability or a gender non-binary person… well, good luck finding anyone who even vaguely represents you on any screen, let alone the silver one.
Why does this matter? Because the blockbusters we go and watch on Friday nights don’t exist in a vacuum: they reflect the way their creators see the world, and what we see as most important in it.And in turn, we project that version of the world onto real life. For example, after American Sniper was shown in cinemas, many took its portrayal of (mostly Iraqi) enemy fighters far too seriously. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed that anti-Arab/ Muslim threats tripled following its release, and tweets by viewers included ‘Great fucking movie and now I really want to kill some fucking ragheads’, and “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are [my italics] – vermin scum intent on destroying us.” But Leah Meyerhoff (founder of Film Fatales) explains how this approach can work in reverse: ‘Films teach us to empathise with perspectives different from out own, and the more that stories on screen reflect the diversity of the world around us, the better.
Sadly, ‘reflecting the world around us’ is exactly what’s lacking. The 2016 Oscars boasted great characters including Brie Larsson as an abduction and rape survivor, Rachel McAddams as a journalist exposing child sexual abuse and Charlize Theron as the fearless Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. And every single one of those women- plus practically the entire main cast of all the nominated films- was white. That, of course, was the #OscarsSoWhite scandal. For cold, hard statistics, in the top 100 films of that year, only 29% of protagonists were female and among female characters in general, 76% were white, 14% were black, and for Asian and Latina women? 6% and an even measlier 3%, respectively.
2016 Academy Awards Nominees in acting and directing categories
To make matters even more difficult, the problem isn’t just having more named female, non-white, LGBTQ+ etc. etc. characters- it’s what those characters do and how they’re portrayed that can make all the difference. For example, even though Hermione Granger, Leia Organa and Rita Vrataski (Edge of Tomorrow) are totally brilliant, as far as saving the day is concerned they still play second fiddle to a white man. On the rare occasion when you find a well-known film with a roughly equal racial balance, the chances are it’s either set in Africa, or that the plot revolves around slavery and/or racism. Take 12 Years A Slave, Lupita Nyon’go’s performance in which made her a household name. Such films, if well-made, are in no way undeserving of the acclaim they’ve received, but it’s still irritating that- according to the Guardian- Moonlight is not only the first film about an LGBT subject to win Best Picture; it’s also the first afrocentric winner that wasn’t centered around slavery, civil rights or race relations. Hidden Figures, meanwhile, was at least told from the point of view of the women affected by racism: many race-focused films just can’t seem to exist without a white ally as the main POV character. As an example, take a look at IMDB’s description of drama The Help: ‘An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African American maids’ point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.’ And the storyline on the same site begins with ‘Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, Skeeter (Stone) is a southern society girl who returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends’ lives — and a Mississippi town — upside down when she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families.’ In both cases even though the black women clearly have it worse in this film, it’s clear who- according to marketers- the plot really revolves around.
Of course, it’s not all bad news. There was an undeniable improvement this year, with nominations and wins going to Lion (starring Dev Patel); Viola Davis (for Fences, making her the first black actor to win the ‘triple crown’ of an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony) and of course Moonlight, a coming-of-age film about a young, gay African-American man, scooping the win for Best Picture. (Eventually.) And we’ve got Rey, Finn and (soon!) Rose, the Goldstein sisters and Seraphina Picquery, plus Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Carol, Wonder Woman and quite a few more. It’s a start. So, what can be done to make sure this trend continues?
First off, obviously, we need more films like Black Panther: blockbuster and/or acclaimed, award-worthy films that represent women, BME characters and other minorities. And sitting around waiting for the current higher echelons to step up isn’t going to help. When crafting a story as a director, writer etc., we’re most likely to create protagonists we can identify with- hence they usually end up looking and/or living like us or rather, usually, like him. In the top 100 highest grossing films of 2016, women made up 29% of protagonists- and it can’t be a coincidence that in those same films, women only represented 11% of writers… and a miniscule 4% of directors. If we really want to get more representation in front of the camera, we need more diversity behind it and, as one indie director told Indie Wire, ‘those with money and power to lose will not relinquish control gently.’ The industry ‘will only become just and diverse if we filmmakers change it.’
Thankfully, those who control spending power do seem to be taking note: all three of Hollywood’s highest-up agencies (CAA, UTA and WME) are pursuing initiatives to make sure all filmmakers get access to funding, for example by presenting every film studio and TV network with female and BME directors and writers. As agent Christy Haubegger puts it, ‘we can’t make you hire our female directors, but you’re not going to say you didn’t see them.’ At UTA, 50% of each incoming class is now made up of BME trainees and/or women, setting the foundations for more representation among agents and executives. According to Forbes, the evidence indicates that those trainees will go to represent their different backgrounds among their clients.
Moonlight receiving the Best Picture Award at the 2017 Academy Awards
So there’s clearly a way forward, and in spite of a certain world leader whose first reaction to a young girl was ‘I’m going to be dating her in ten years’, in the cultural industry the times are changing. And it’ll probably come down to money, because every time UCLA releases its annual Hollywood diversity report, it finds that the more diverse your cast, the more consumer dollars you’ll get. Slowly, it seems, people are waking up to it- and maybe one day all the movies we watch will have casts- whether they’re Jedi knights, superheroes or high-school seniors- that really reflect the world around us.