In the past few years, it has become evident that we are not living in a post-racial society, as America told itself after the election of Barack Obama. And yet, the status of race in society and culture is still being discussed, with great fervor. There is one particular aspect of the great debate that is surprisingly controversial – the state of film. Movies simply aren’t that diverse.
More than 70% of movie characters in the last decade were white. Putting aside the arguments that are just straight-up racist, some try to argue economics – non-white people simply don’t bring in the money! Others go for the talent argument – you should only ever cast roles on talent only, race be damned! The massive success of films such as Get Out, Hidden Figures on film and Atlanta on television have weakened the economic argument. Then, of course, there are people of color themselves saying that representation matters.
No matter which side one falls on, diversity is real and only increasing. Movies are undeniably lacking in the diversity that exists in real life. Among the homogeneity, however, differently-colored spots can be found.
How to Make It in America (2010-2011)
HBO’s Girls, which just recently wrapped up for good, was, despite all its praise, also criticized for its glaring lack of diversity. New York City is roughly 60% non-white, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Girls, in which even the extras are white. Just a year before Girls premiered, however, HBO aired another show about New York City twenty-somethings; the sparsely-watched How to Make It in America. Produced by Mark Wahlberg, the series quietly displayed the diversity of America’s largest city: among the main cast members are the Dominican Victor Rasuk, veteran Puerto Rican character actor Luis Guzmán, and Kid Cudi. The interstitials consist of still photographs that also do a wonderful job of capturing the multiethnic nature of the city.
The best part of this is how apolitical the representation is. How to Make it in America is about two guys trying to start a fashion label. The representation was simply part of the deal. This is refreshing because in real life, diversity isn’t always a statement – it’s just how things are. How to Make It in America was cancelled after just two seasons, but had it lasted, or premiered just a few years later, its no-bones-about-it approach to representation would surely be noticed and commended.
A Better Life (2011) and The Visitor (2007)
These movies are quite different, but are listed together because they both deal with immigration. In A Better Life, Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir, in an Oscar-nominated turn) makes a humble living as a gardener in Los Angeles. Like any father, he wants a better life for his son, Luis, but is worried he might go astray. In The Visitor, a professor (Richard Jenkins, also Oscar-nominated) befriends Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician who is squatting in his New York City apartment. A weighty family drama and a cross-cultural friendship; the subject of countless movies. What makes them different, however, is that they are undocumented, and fear every day they may be discovered and deported.
This is an unfortunate reality for an important group of Americans. This is also what makes A Better Life and The Visitor such important movies. The “American Dream” has long been associated with white American suburban bliss. The American Dream in the 21st century is much more complicated. For Carlos and Tarek, it means simply surviving from one day to the next. A Better Life was ahead of its time in that this isn’t even the thesis of the movie; it’s just treated as the reality in which some people happen to live. Both it and The Visitor, are critiques of America’s complicated and unfair immigration system, an issue that has taken on a renewed sense of urgency in the last few months.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann’s controversial take on the Shakespeare classic may not be a perfect example, as the leads are very much white, but it’s the casting of Harold Perrineau as Mercutio and John Leguizamo as Tybalt that require attention here. An unusual decision – even the loosest Shakespeare adaptations usually stick with white people.
Like How to Make it in America, Romeo + Juliet reflects the nature of the world it takes place in, in this case the salad bowl that is Los Angeles. It also, unintentionally or not, makes a statement on Shakespeare’s work: yes, he may be the quintessential “dead white male”, but that doesn’t make his work any less relevant to our more enlightened age. Rather, the works of Shakespeare, and other dead white males, can be revitalized through representation.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
An obvious choice, perhaps, but, in our current political paradigm, deserves attention now as much as ever. Even now, the predominantly black cast of the “Spike Lee joint” looks like an outlier in the film world. In examining racism, its straightforward, confrontational approach is still unusual (see other 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy’s more congenial approach).
Moonlight’s upset Best Picture win has seemingly validated the black experience on film. But Moonlight and Do the Right Thing are quite different movies in theme and style. This is a sign of greater things to come. Black experiences are not monolithic, and soon film could reflect that, no doubt making it richer. If Moonlight got the ball rolling, Do the Right Thing put it in position.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
The Civil Rights Era is often called “ancient history”, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: people with vivid memories of the time are still kicking. So in 1974, a movie mocking racism was a radical statement. It was also historically accurate: the American Old West was much more racially diverse than our media and cultural myths let on. This has been a tough reality to accept. Even now, the few Westerns that come out are mostly white. The Magnificent Seven, regardless of one’s opinion on quality, is a good example of the real diversity of the Old West. Blazing Saddles made almost 120 million at the box office, becoming only the tenth film up to that time to breach 100 million. For its historical myth-busting and record success, Blazing Saddles can definitely be called ahead of its time.