Hollywood as a cultural entity, at least over the last few years, has undoubtedly attempted to tackle its issue with the lack of diversity and representation. We have seen in recent decades the increase of characters, films, and television shows that are representing more and more underrepresented groups in society. However, this is not to say that the problem has been completely solved and that more shouldn’t be done to accurately depict what the world really looks like today.
In early 2016, amid the announcement of the Academy Award nominations, social media united in their disappointment regarding the lack of diversity amongst the nominees, creating the term #oscarssowhite. Many of the notable projects of that past year included critically acclaimed films that had given opportunities to stories about people of colour, including Creed, Beasts of No Nation, and Straight Outta Compton. Many believed that these snubs were a reflection of the Academy’s bias against non-white artists; however, this was actually about something greater than simply the Oscars. The lack of diversity amongst the nominees was not about the award show itself but rather about the general casting process in Hollywood, which eventually manifested itself into that particular list of nominees. What we should take away from this is that although organisations such as the Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press should broaden their horizons, the responsibility doesn’t ultimately lay with them but the people who actually decide on who we see on our screens. This top-down approach will allow more stories and characters based on underrepresented minorities and women in a way that is authentic.
Examples of where this has paid off include the 2017 box office hit Wonder Woman, which has made more than $750 million and counting. This success was carried out by not only a female lead actress but also a female director, Patty Jenkins. This in itself is a rarity with Sofia Coppola being only the second woman to have won in the Best Director category at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. Additionally, critically acclaimed Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins is a film with an all-black cast telling the story of a young black gay man in America. The film went on to win multiple awards, including Best Picture at the Oscars in early 2017.
In the previous case, we discussed the issue of there being a general lack of acknowledgement for stories about or told by underrepresented minorities and women and how perhaps there has been a slight shift for change. However, an issue that also stands alongside this is whitewashing. This concept, for a while, was not something that was being focused on in the media, but actually takes place in many interpretations of characters traditionally from underrepresented communities but in fact played by white actors. Some may not see this is a major issue; however, when dealing with a system that already overshadows many communities, taking established characters from any of those groups and having them played by white actors further diminishes the amount of representation for that group.
In Doctor Strange, a major Marvel blockbuster of 2016, the character of the Ancient One, a historically Tibetan character, was played by Tilda Swinton rather than an actor of Tibetan descent. Although this choice may have filtered into greater political reasons regarding the major film audience in China and the conflict between China and Tibet, this is just one of the many examples of characters of colour being swapped out for white ones when they are already so represented in the media anyway. Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson also dealt with this when casting a white actress to play a traditionally Japanese manga character. Aloha directed by Cameron Crowe cast Emma Stone to play a Hawaiian character, and the Netflix film Death Note cast Nat Wolff to play a Japanese manga character.
Often when we try to find evidence for how there is now more representation in film and television, we look at projects such as Girls and Big Little Lies where an ensemble cast mainly includes women and, at their core, has been pushed forward by women. These two shows, in particular, have undeniably allowed for the developments of well-explored three-dimensional female characters on the screen; however, this does not mean that these depictions are without fault, especially when we look at the lack of intersectionality. In Girls, none of the four female leads represents any other underrepresented group besides being women, while in Big Little Lies, all but one of the five female leads are non-white. Zoe Kravitz, the one non-white female lead, probably received the least screen time compared to the other lead actresses.
In order to reach a point where there is a somewhat even playing field for all communities in the media, Hollywood needs to utilise its influence and represent more realistic portrayals of the world we live in.
Words: Keisha Schneider
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