Hollywood's Racism Behind the Camera

From Hollywood to your local movie theater, the concept of diversity has never been more centerstage.  With the recent success of films such as Marvel’s Black Panther, award-winning LGBT drama Moonlight, and even ensemble-focused action flicks such as Power Rangers, it is becoming increasingly apparent that America’s moviegoers are no longer satisfied with the traditional model of a white, male, heterosexual protagonists.

More and more, lovers of film and television across the country are calling for greater representation for minorities, for the media they consume to be a better reflection of their friends, family, and neighbors.  It’s a reasonable demand; if a person is using their hard-earned money to support the arts, they more than deserve to see their own lives and experiences reflected in them.  While this desire is noble and has lead to significant strides in the moviemaking industry as far as diversity and telling the stories of those often ignored by Hollywood are concerned, it has also presented a number of new and largely unprecedented problems for minority members… problems that are, more often than not, caused by writers who lack a direct connection to and understanding of their unique cultures and conditions.

The last few years have introduced a number of up-and-coming diverse writers, directors, producers, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sociocultural makeup of the average major film or television company is not representative of the audiences they seek to court. That is to say, while the casts and fanbases of popular movies and shows are becoming more eclectic, the teams who write and produce them are not. This has lead to more than a few instances of minority groups being reduced to stereotypes and token characters: the Asian who excels at martial arts, the effeminate gay best friend, the thuggish, street-smart black man… the list goes on.  These individuals are recognizable: they are safe, easy to package and digest without much thought, and can be tempting to fall back on for lazy writers seeking to spice up their work.  But today’s viewers aren’t interested in boxes and labels half so much as they are authenticity, and in order to both please and do justice to them modern creators must face what should really be an exceedingly simple question: is it really that hard to come up with good, well-rounded, diverse characters?

Personally, I would have to say no.  The average big-time television or movie writer has been in the industry for years, has, more likely than not, received some sort of formal education in film, literature, or a combination of both.  They more than possess the creative capacity to invent a sympathetic character whose sociocultural background differs from their own.  Doing so in a respectful way may take effort, yes, may involve the work of breaking down their own biases, going out into society, and listening to the stories of the people they hope to represent, but it is more than worth the result of creating a quality work of art with a diverse cast and enriched world view.  White writers can stories centered around black protagonists.  Straight directors can produce films with LGBT leads.  Males can pen strong female characters… but they cannot be the only ones doing so.

In the past, Hollywood has been an industry that has catered primarily to an overwhelmingly white demographic.  However, its audience is changing, and creators must recognize this if they wish to hold their attention.  The world is full of talented writers, directors, and producers who come from minority groups; if show runners wish to create a diverse cast and draw diverse viewers, they should emphasize maintaining a diverse writers’ room.  If film companies wish to represent the members of their increasingly culturally rich audiences, their hiring choices should reflect that.  Writers from culturally privileged backgrounds can write stories that happen to be about characters who are minority members, but they cannot write about the experience of coming from such a group.  If Hollywood truly wants to create authentic diverse characters, they should allow those who relate to them most to tell their stories.

By Dana Taylor