There’s a problem with representation in our cinemas. Audiences around the globe are being shown a disproportionate world of fiction, a world where variations in ethnicity are inordinately rare. That’s what makes what happens in the film industry over the coming years so important.
We have a responsibility – A responsibility to represent those who are underrepresented in film with role models and aspirational characters playing a variety of leading roles to show audiences that the role of ‘hero’ is not reserved for white men. But this won’t be easy.
If we look back across literature and cinema over the past one hundred years or so, taking into account what’s really considered as ‘classic’ fiction; how many of the protagonists are black? Or any race other than Caucasian? Very few, I’m sure. Those characters that do make it through are often typecast, pigeon–holed into roles as maids, slaves, criminals, tribes people, etc. A common problem, particularly with cinema adaptations, has been an issue called ‘whitewashing’ – Taking what few non-white roles there are in modern fiction and casting caucasians in those roles. Which leads me to some very current examples…
J.M Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ remains one of the most beloved characters in family literature, having been reincarnated in several plays and films over the past few decades. Importantly, the world of Peter Pan offers one of very few representational opportunities for Native Americans available to mainstream western audiences. Though arguably a pretty vicious stereotype created by a Scotsman who’d likely never encountered any person of an ethnicity other than his own; Tiger Lily and the other inhabitants of Neverland gave uninformed viewers and readers alike an opportunity to see Native Americans as something other than the savages they are so often and wrongly depicted as in cowboy westerns. So when the first trailer for Joe Wright’s upcoming adaptation ‘Pan’ aired online and in cinemas at the end of November, there was a deserved backlash when it was revealed that white, New York-born actress Rooney Mara was to take the role of Tiger Lily. Adding further insult to injury, it was then revealed that actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Devery Jacobs (Kenyan/Mexican and Native American respectively) were both given auditions and were turned away.
Further furore arose with the latest work from writer/ director Ridley Scott. Tales from the bible have long been adapted for cinema, dating back as far as 1922 with Alexander Korda’s ‘Samson and Delilah’. Scott’s upcoming film ‘Exodus: God and Kings’ tells the tale of Moses and his uprising against tyrannous pharaoh Ramses. Now given that this is a story set in Africa, with African (Egyptian) characters; you would expect that at least one of the films leading roles would be African. No such luck. With the casting of Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Aaron Paul and bizarrely, Sigourney Weaver; Scott failed to cast any person of colour in any of the film’s major roles.
However, scroll a little further along the cast list and there are plenty of roles of non-caucasians. Unfortunately for those performers, the roles are almost entirely limited to bit-parts as servants, thieves and manual workers. In fact, Ridley Scott’s adaptation was so determined to feature a largely white cast they went as far as to make a to-scale recreation of the sphinx purely so that they could adjust and replace it with more European features. When questioned about his casting choices for the movie Scott was quoted as saying…
”I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
For people of colour trying to get into such an exclusive industry, it must seem as though Scott’s words surmount to a bit of a dead end.
So exactly how well are minorities, more specifically black people, represented in the film industry? The answer, as I’m sure you can guess, is not very well. Over the last 6 years only 33 of the top grossing 600 movies were directed by a black director, of which only two were women. Only 5 of the top 50 grossing actors of all time are African-American men – Eddie Murphy, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith and Denzel Washington respectively.
When it comes to recognition for their work, black filmmakers struggle even more. The Academy (the panel of people that choose the Oscar winners each year) is approximately 93% white and it may well show when it comes to recipients of the most revered awards. Since its inception, there have only been eighteen black winners of any of the nine major honours at the Academy Awards – a statistic made even more baffling when you consider that the ceremony has been running since 1929. So what’s needed to change these numbers and perceptions?
For starters, audiences need to be exposed to more black filmmakers and performers. It’s not as though there isn’t a demand for it; in the USA alone, African American yearly buying power is nearly $1040 billion, with the same ethnic group visiting cinemas more than twice a month. Fortunately for everyone there’s a huge wealth of talented black filmmakers creating work now and over the coming months for audiences around the globe.
Ryan Coogler stunned audiences with his feature debut ‘Fruitvale Station’, telling the true story of Oscar Grant, a black man living in San Francisco. Coogler’s future shows much promise with his second feature ‘Creed’ (a spin-off from the ‘Rocky’ series) due for release in late 2015.
This year director Steve McQueen became the first black director to receive the Best Picture award for his film ’12 Years A Slave’. Often focusing his work on social issues and activism, McQueen’s first two features ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’ were both met with critical acclaim. With his movie ‘Codes of Conduct’ due for release next year, he only looks likely to receive more praise for his work.
It’s not just filmmakers who should receive our full and undivided attention. Huge production studios like Marvel and DC have both taken into account criticism about a lack of diversity in their work and gradual changes are beginning to become more prevalent. The introduction of a black Spiderman began what became an upheaval of standard casting practices in cinema, with the likes of Zoe Saldana cast in box office smash ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, Anthony Mackie in the ‘Captain America’ series and Michael B. Jordan starring as Johnny Storm in the upcoming ‘Fantasic Four’ adaptation. Of particular note is the forthcoming ‘Black Panther’, the first superhero movie of its kind to have an African American (Chadwick Boseman) in the titular role.
So there is a glimpse of change in the future, though we’re a long way off from any kind of fair representation. What’s needed from us as audiences and critics alike is a willingness to commit to and support black cinema. To demand and to support cinema which depicts the lived experience of main characters of different ethnicities and different cultures. To watch and embrace work from around the globe created by artists from varied social and cultural circumstances. Then and only then will there truly be equal representation on our screens.