Hollywood has always had an issue with portraying people of color. Going back to the days where blackface was acceptable (and it still is to some people), to the horror trope of the “black character dies first”, to the whitewashing of historical minority characters; trying to make it in Hollywood as an actor of color has never been easy.
Every bit of success achieved is cause for celebration; few successes have ever been bigger than Black Panther finally joining the MCU in Captain America: Civil War and John Boyega being cast as Finn, one of the main protagonists in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Even these victories have been tainted with the subtle racism of the film industry.
Black Panther isn’t the most recognizable superhero, especially if you’re not a comic book fan, so it was a great moment when he was placed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly alongside Marvel mainstays Captain America and Iron Man. What wasn’t so great was how his character was, whether intentionally or not, mocked and emasculated. T’Challa is one of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe, just as skilled as Cap, and richer than Tony Stark. It was unnecessary for the “Meow” caption to be floating next to his head in fine print. The cover’s subtext was even more upsetting.
“The biggest Marvel movie yet introduces Black Panther. He’s tall, powerful — and has claws that a Real Housewife would envy.”
Black Panther is one of the most important superheroes of color in history. Why is he being compared or equated to a reality TV show? This just proves why diversity is so important in not only casting, but also in media coverage. Any writer or editor of color would have taken one look at that and suggested a change. At the very least, minorities–and black people specifically–can be thankful that they didn’t try to pull off the “black man in a dress” trope that has been thrust upon the vast majority of established black male actors.
Even more concerning than how the media covers black actors and characters, is how the studios themselves market their films. It’s no exaggeration to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is one of the most anticipated movies of the last decade; fans all over the world have been eagerly anticipating the seventh entry in the epic space opera. As such, it’s not unheard of for John Boyega’s character Finn, one of the main protagonists of The Force Awakens to be plastered all over the place by the Disney marketing machine.
Unfortunately, the Chinese poster almost completely removes any trace of Finn, relegating him to a small corner at the bottom of the poster, and removing any trace of Oscar Isaac and Lupita Nyong’o. The simple explanation for this can be found in the massive Sony email hack from 2014. Studio execs state that “black actors don’t sell overseas”. For example, the Denzel Washington led action flick, The Equalizer, made $191 million worldwide–with 45% coming from overseas markets. Studios–or at least Sony Pictures–want that number to be closer to 60%.
Personally, I don’t think China is any more or less racist as a society than any other country in the world. Chinese moviegoers may not necessarily be drawn to a movie with minority leads, but to be fair to them, how many major releases of the last year or couple of years have had an actor of color in a lead role? Even taking a look at the Captain America: Civil War international trailer, you can see that most of the clips with Falcon in them–and all of the scenes where he is speaking–have been removed; same goes for War Machine. There is a chicken/egg situation here that must be analyzed to assess whether minority actors aren’t given roles in major releases because they won’t sell as well overseas, or if movies with minority leads aren’t selling well because there isn’t a significant number of them.
Even though these problems have been one affecting black male actors, other races face just as many hurdles. These issues are systemic and won’t be solved by a few token diversity hires. We as fans and consumers have to demand that we see actors and stories that reflect our histories and cultures; and when they are made, we have to go out an support them. A real world example of that success is the FOX drama Empire; it had a primarily black cast that was extremely talented and the ratings matched the talent level. The ratings for each episode were better than the episode before, and the finale had the highest ratings for a new show in a decade. See Hollywood? People of color DO sell.
Images: Fox, Lucasfilm, Entertainment Weekly, Darian Robbins