Diversity Is More Than Just Putting Black Faces in White Stories
Black excellence is getting to a place it deserves in TV and film, but there’s room and need for more black stories to be told.
Diversity in Film and TV is More Than Just Putting Black Faces in White Stories
While Little Women was a critical and box office success, it faced all-too-familiar criticisms from certain corners of the internet.
“I’m a huge fan of Little Women, Alcott, and Greta Gerwig”, wrote Princess Weekes. “Yet, just like when I first heard of the movie coming out, I’m struck by just how white it has chosen to be.” The Mary Sue editors complained.
Teen Vogue took a similar issue with film and made a case for having an actor of colour play the male lead. “In the original novel, Laurie is described as a young man with “Curly black hair, brown skin,” and “big black eyes” (Alcott 42) — he is canonically half-Italian.” De Vera Obedos explains. “It is through Laurie that Little Women offered Greta a very unique opportunity that she could have taken: Laurie could have easily been played by someone non-white.”
While all these arguments come from a good place, they point toward a large – and largely unexplored – issue when comes to diversity in Hollywood.
Putting Black Actors in White Stories
Hollywood has come a long way when it comes to casting women of colour. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined 100 highest-grossing movies in the US of 2018 and found 40 of them had female leads. Among those, 11 movies had leads from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. In comparison, only 4 movies had a similar ethnic makeup in 2017.
One doesn’t need to cite studies to understand that Hollywood has a lot more colour now. With Black Panther being a hit, BlacKkKlansman winning an Oscar and Jordan Peele breathing fresh air into the horror genre, black excellence is getting to a place it deserves.
But putting black actors in stories that don’t reflect the community’s experience does little for representation. It promotes the notion of “colour blindness” that many of us in the African-American community despise. Black culture has influenced fashion, music and sports in the USA. To shape the country’s overall pop culture, the resistance and persistence of the black community need to be told in cinemas.
Little Women has been adapted eight times. Eight. Meanwhile, we get a Girls Trip once or twice per decade. That’s the myriad problems with Hollywood. We don’t need a classic white story dipped in chocolate. We just need new stories.
— Evette Dionne (@freeblackgirl) December 27, 2019
So it’s not just black leads that should be in the spotlight – more black stories need to be told as well.
Diversity isn’t so Black and White
The matter of diversity is somewhat complex. The casting of a young black actress Halle Bailey as Ariel in Little Mermaid Live is something that’s been welcomed by the black community – mostly because the Little Mermaid is not a white story. In addition, it gives black girls across the country a princess that looks like them, something that everyone can stand behind.
But it remains to be seen whether this movie would address the race of the title character. Even though it’s a children’s movie about a mermaid, it would be nice for it to give a nod to Ariel’s culture the way Moana honored the Polynesian culture. When diversity is done right, not only do the people feel more represented but it makes for a better, more authentic viewing experience.
HBO’s Watchmen is a great example of how any piece of video entertainment can go about this. The show built on the lore of Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel, this time putting race at the center of it all. It put wonderful black actors like Regina King and Yahya Abdul Mateen in a world which was previously white and depicted black experience unapologetically. The success of Watchmen could serve as a template for anyone that wishes to reboot an already established brand with black representation.
The Way Forward
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Just five years back, #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter as people complained about lack of colour in the biggest celebration of cinema. Things have improved exponentially since then. Black actors and directors have broken new ground and movie makers have learned diversity is good for business.
As America becomes increasingly diverse, movie-goers are demanding stories that haven’t been told before. Movies like Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences are shedding much-needed light on Black America but they’re just a drop in the ocean. Instead of reviving works by Louisa May Alcott with mere tokenism, maybe Hollywood should pick up a novel by Toni Morrison.