Representation matters

The last several years has seen a shift in both the type and the quality of Hollywood films featuring African-Americans. For years, I have felt like there has been a very narrow range of movies featuring the experiences of Black lives and I’m not the only one. I’ve long wished we could see less comedy and trauma/suffering movies and more science fiction or fantasy or period pieces or thrillers. Seeing the wider range of stories and genres covered by the likes of Hidden Figures, Girls Trip, Moonlight, BlacKKKlansman, Straight Outta Compton, and Sorry To Bother You has been a joy.  These were all critically acclaimed and financially successful films that centered the experiences of Blacks and cast Black actors in leading roles.

For myself and many African-American moviegoers, one film has stood out from the rest. Not because the others listed (or those absent) are sub-par movies, but rather, because the Black Panther was the kind of movie we have long thirsted for. The first Black superhero of Marvel Comics got to headline the first Black superhero movie from Marvel Studios, with a Black director, a predominately Black cast, diverse presentation of Black bodies, an Afrofuturist aesthetic, complex nuanced characters largely devoid of stereotypes, a rich backstory, and a massive budget. A monumental box office hit, the movie shattered record after record on its way to a final global tally of roughly $1.3 billion. The movie was a critical hit with audiences across the globe, most especially with its target audience: those of African descent.

Image of actor Chadwick Boseman dressed as the Black Panther, (except for his helmet), gazing upon his hands.

In a country that has devalued Black lives since it began and has a long history of criminalizing Black bodies, it makes a certain amount of sense that our lives, experiences, and stories are rarely centered in Hollywood. After all, most of the people who have been involved in the industry were socialized in the United States. As such, they have been influenced by and have aided in the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudicial beliefs about African-Americans. These racial stereotypes are present all throughout  the media, including the film industry and can affect the emotions, cognition, and behavior of viewers. Especially worrying is the effect of racial stereotypes on children of color, whose encounters with racism and discrimination can have a detrimental impact on their self-esteem and identity, as well as their physiology  (media depictions of racial stereotypes have an impact on adults as well). When a movie like the Black Panther is released, it has an impact, as noted by Yvette Nicole Brown in the Nerdist’s Impact of the Black Panther :

It’s a game changer in a way that I don’t think we can even quantify.”

and Dr. Erlanger Turner in his article on the importance of the movie to the Black community:

Many have wondered why “Black Panther” means so much to the black community and why schools, churches and organizations have come to the theaters with so much excitement. The answer is that the movie brings a moment of positivity to a group of people often not the centerpiece of Hollywood movies. Plus, what we know from the research on RES [racial and ethnic socialization. Read more on that here. –Tony] is that it helps to strengthen identity and helps reduce the likelihood on internalizing negative stereotypes about one’s ethnic group.

As illustrated by the following series of Tweets, Black moviegoers were not the only racial group in 2018 who were impacted by a film that centered their lives and culture:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cast of Crazy Rich Asians at Cinemacon 2018
From left, Awkwafina, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Constance Wu, Sonoya Mizuno. Not pictured Director Jon M. Chu. Image Source: Getty / Gabe Ginsberg

When I first read Kimmy Yam’s Tweets, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear. It was a smile of understanding and comprehension. Hollywood’s track record on racial diversity and representation has long been abysmal (even today). Worse, its impact has crossed all racial lines, negatively affecting all non-whites. For decades, African-Americans have been demanding the same opportunities and representation in the industry that historically have only been available to white people. Black Panther is an example of what we’re talking about.  So it is easy to empathize with Asian-Americans like Audrey Cleo Yap , who feel that viewing Crazy Rich Asians was a profound experience. In Variety, Yap writes:

This singular aspect of the Asian-American experience — the one of straddling two cultures, always afraid that you will slip and fall into the crevasse in-between — is portrayed with stinging effect in the film. There is a moment between Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor, where Eleanor says that no matter what, in the world of Singapore high society, Rachel will always be a foreigner.

It’s poignant and heartbreaking, feelings that my fellow Asian-Americans might recognize as we are consistently asked to prove our authenticity as Asian or American, depending on where we are in the world and with whom. There’s something powerful about seeing that discomfort on screen, of reminding people that being considered foreign is a status that changes with latitudes and time zones.

Because seeing your existence not just represented, but also acknowledged and understood is deeply moving when you’re only used to seeing shoddy, cheap facsimiles. Invisibility doesn’t have a stinging effect as much as a numbing one; you get used to just not being there.

As an on-air host, I have felt that perhaps in an even more visceral way and have engaged that numbness to shield myself from when my ethnicity, coded as “my look,” has been used an excuse to not consider me for a position. One instance stands out in particular, an executive who wrote to my former rep that he didn’t feel the need to meet with me because “he already had someone Asian, thanks.” Numbness, then, acts as a buffer. It lets you budget your frustration, your disappointment, your anger.

So, to see the existential crises I have personally undergone as Asian-American, to feel the internal struggle of both belonging and not, told through authentic voices at a pitch that anybody can hear but rings particularly true and clear to me — it’s the opposite of numbing. It’s catharsis.

“Crazy Rich Asians” puts these varied experiences — of being Asian in Asia, of being Asian in America or Australia or in the U.K. — front and center as if to say, “Look. We’re not all the same.” Because the persisting assumption that we are mitigates our unique perspectives of the world and lived experiences moving through dominant cultures where we are seldom represented.

One problem with increasing the representation of racial minorities in Hollywood? Film executives and directors, who tend to block diverse talent and reward pre-existing relationships (in other words, “work with people they know”). Since the vast majority of those executives and directors are white (bc opportunities in the film industry have largely been restricted to only white people for most of the last century), the talent they largely have rewarded has been white. As a result, the vast majority of the films put out have been white-centric. If Hollywood had historically not been dominated by

Image of Bao serving food to her surrogate child, a dumpling that has come to life.
If you haven’t seen this Bao, I urge you to watch it.

the interests of white people, we might long ago have seen movies like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians. Or animated films featuring lead characters of color, such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which has a 97% rating at Rotten Tomatoes) or Bao:

 

 

Several years in the making, Bao is a personal fairy tale inspired by Domee Shi’s own upbringing, culture and family. And of course, food. Born in China and raised in Toronto, Shi is the first woman at Pixar to direct a short film. She’s currently in the early stages of developing her debut feature.

Consider this: Crazy Rich Asians, which defied all odds and made a ton of money, was certifiably the most significant stride for Asian American representation in Hollywood in decades, by many measures. But Bao, which played in front of The Incredibles 2 — currently the number 3 film of 2018, earning over $600 million at the domestic box office — was the arguably the most-watched Asian (North) American story at the movies this year.

 

It’s easy for me to get excited about the cinematic representation of Blacks in recent years. Movies like Moonlight, Girls Trip, Get Out, and Black Panther demonstrate that Hollywood is making strides to diversify itself and be more inclusive. In addition, quite a few African-Americans directed films in 2018. For African-Americans eager to see themselves represented in diverse ways in cinema that is progress worth celebrating. But it is still insufficient because such representation and diversity is not the norm for Hollywood. There aren’t a slew of mainstream movies one can point to with a predominately Black cast, a huge budget, a Black director, etc. As seen in the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report, there is still much to do within the industry before it can truly be diverse and inclusive. While we agitate and push for greater opportunities for African-Americans within Hollywood, there is a greater discussion that we should not lose sight of.

There exist a plethora of racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Any larger discussion of diversity within the film industry must not ignore that multiple groups have been historically treated as non-existent. The 2018 release of Crazy Rich Asians and the animated short Bao were profound and noteworthy strides for Asian-Americans. The 25-year gulf between Crazy Rich Asians and ‘The Joy Luck Club‘ –the last film with a predominately Asian cast that centered Asian experiences–shows how infrequent those achievements are. As seen in the annual Hollywood Diversity Report, Asian-Americans, along with Arab-Americans, Indigenous people, and Latinx folks have much lower levels of representation than African-Americans. These groups have seen the years and decades go by while the movie industry has ignored them, treated their cultures as a joke, and/or cast them in roles riddled with stereotypes. Asian-American films featuring Asian characters can and should be made without the racist White Savior Trope or Asian Mysticism. Arab-Americans deserve an end to their depiction in Hollywood as terrorists. Indigenous folks (who are all but erased in movies) deserve to see themselves represented and the diversity of their cultures celebrated. Latinx children should absolutely be able to see a superhero on the big screen who looks like themselves and their families. And these marginalized communities absolutely deserve access to the careers and job opportunities within the film industry. None of this is me advocating for an end to movies about or for white people (as if such a thing were likely to happen). It means that white people are not the only ones who deserve access and representation. It means that People of Color ought to be the ones telling the stories of our cultures. We ought to be the people starring in films about our cultures. And the stereotypes that have plagued us for decades need to be eradicated. It is due to the pro-white bias within Hollywood that these problems have persisted for so long, and it is long past time for that bias to end.

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Representation matters
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6 thoughts on “Representation matters

  1. 1

    I wrote something similiar to this in my blog entry, called White Male Pandering, where I stated that everything USAmericans know about the world, and all other cultures, are often seen through a white, straight, middle class, cis gender, and male lens, which has a vested interest in denigrating the people of other cultures, in order to centralize and uplift white men.

    Far too many of the stories of others are not being told by the poeple they are ostensibly about, and this extends throughout the entire industry, from deciding which stories are important enough to be produced, to the critics reviews, which decide which stories will receive accolades.

    And this is outside of racial issues as well, as I singled out, in particular, stories about fat people which have not been written by fat people, for example, and the many stories about poverty where impoverished people were never consulted about what it’s like Ike to be poor, their stories written by people who’ve never experienced poverty themselves.

    I just want to see different kinds of stories being told. There is a wealth of books that could be adapted for the big screen, instead of the umpteenth retelling of some white guys suburban boyhood, or yet another reboot of a franchise we didn’t ask for the first time.

  2. 2

    I completely agree.
    And I also wonder about all the stories never told. All the movies never made. All the art never created.
    I wonder how many women in history never even had the chance to even think about writing a novel bc they were denied bodily autonomy or reproductive rights.

    Or how many works of art could have been produced if the thousands upon thousands of African-Americans were not lynched.

    Or how much creativity was sapped from LGBTQIA+ people forced to hide who they are for their health and well-being, rather than being socially and politically free to be their true selves openly.

    Only a tiny slice of the total human population–thanks to a host of privileges–has had the opportunity to create new music or to imagine new worlds or to paint their dreams on a canvas.

  3. 3

    From a purely venal point of view as a white person who hasn’t been subject to having my reflection blotted out of culture for centuries, I’m at the point where predominantly white movies and tv shows are inherently more dull, less interesting, and have to overcome that hindrance to entertain me at all.

    I want to see more types of people in shows. I’m not so emotionally stunted that i need the character in front of me to look exactly like me in order to identify with them. Whitewashed stories aren’t just pandering, they’re assuming the audience is incapable of imagination and empathy.

  4. 4

    I’m remembering the existence of touristy novels, like, things where some brave white woman experiences an exotic location or travail. That’s the half-assed way to show other types of people, still too cowardly to center their stories, to trust the white people in the audience to bridge that little gap in their heads.

  5. 5

    Good analysis. BTW, what do you think about the people, mostly white, who look down on Black Panther supposedly just on the basis of it being a “dumb” superhero movie? I’ve seen those comments coming even from fairly progressive folks.

  6. 6

    Santiman,
    Unless they have a coherent problem with the movie that can be picked apart and discussed, I pretty much ignore them. It’s saddening to hear such BS coming from progressive folks, but I have to keep in mind that being progressive on some issues doesn’t mean someone is on every social issue.

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