Thanks to Matt Damon and #Damonsplaining, the topic of diversity in movies is once again on the front burner — at least for those who are white. For people of color, I don’t think that this particular issue ever leaves the forefront. I am reminded of the lack of POC almost every time I decide to shell out $8 to watch a movie in the theater or turn on my television. Though there are some notable exceptions (mostly thanks to other people of color creating programming), people who look like me aren’t likely to be cast as leads in movies or television shows. They aren’t even likely to be walking around in the background as extras. You know what came to mind when I recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road?
You’re telling me that Black people can survive 350+ years of arduous, violent chattel slavery, lynching season, and Jim Crow, but none of them (other than Zoe Kravitz) can survive the end of the world? Really?
It’s not just black people missing either. There are no other brown people in that movie (though I did just learn that the actress Courtney Eaton is multi-racial) — no Asian people or people of Latin descent. So something catastrophic happens to the world as we know it and only white people are able to survive? For me, this was the most difficult part of the plot to conceptualize — not Charlize Theron being a badass who saves the world.
Of course Mad Max isn’t exceptionally worse than any other movie with regard to diversity — it’s just par for the course. I could name
a hundred thousands of movies that are just as popular and just as problematic.
Sometimes POC do make an appearance in mainstream Hollywood movies. But have you ever noticed what happens when the black (and brown) people show up? The movie takes an abrupt detour to weird or funny — sometimes both at once — rather quickly. It’s like a Hollywood recipe, just add some POC for humor and spice!
The Hangover (2009) is a movie about four Dudebros doing white Dudebro stuff during a crazy Bachelor party weekend. And then the Brown People show up and it gets hilarious! The quirky — kind of effeminate –Asian guy who, of course, “talks funny” in accented English that you can’t even understand! And the black drug dealer who helps everyone achieve self-actualization by realizing where they’ve left Doug.
Let’s not forget Pedro or LaFawndah in the popular Napolean Dynamite (2004). And LaFawnduh should naturally bring to mind “Rhonda” from the movie Road Trip (2000) where dudebros set out on a road trip and of course they end up at a historically black college and well, you know, hilarity ensues.
Or that time when Disney finally made a much-anticipated black princess that I was actually excited about…until I saw the movie. There’s a plot twist: the first (and only) black princess spends the entirety of the movie as a frog. What a crazy twist, eh?
We had a “girls night in” on my last ship and someone chose The Heat (2013) because girl empowerment. I remembered that I had more important things to do and left after Melissa McCarthy excuses her character’s racist speech and police brutality (against black men) with this particular witty line of dialogue: 9 out of the 10 guys I fuck are black.
Add to this list Every. Single. Person of Color in Pitch Perfect (2015). There’s the hyper sexual black lesbian, the super quiet Asian girl who only says weird things, and the immigrant Latina who spent most of her life trying not to die while escaping homeland. BWAHHAHAHAHAH! Those Brown people are just so dang funny and weird, you know? Not quite like the “normal” white people.
I could do this forever. But you get the point. And if you still don’t, there’s a guy named Dylan Marron who edits Hollywood movies so that only POC speak. His project is called Every Single Word Spoken. Here’s every single word spoken by a POC in the Harry Potter Series:
Not much to see is there?
Perhaps you think who cares or why does it matter? To which I would respond a) You most likely see yourself reflected frequently in movies and b) that movies, like any other type of art, show us our humanity. And the overarching problem here is that only one race of people is allowed to be fully human. In films and novel, white people (and the culture that breeds this idea) are allowed to display the full range of their humanity. They are not limited to stick figure, one dimensional characterizations and stereotypes. Unlike POC who exist as punchlines or stepping stones to a white character’s journey. What happens to POC in films, books, and tv shows is dehumanizing.
There’s this part in one of my favorite movies “The Notebook” where Noah and Ally are on their first date and he asks her to dance with him in the middle of a semi-deserted, street-lamp-lit . Billy Holiday’s “I’ll Be See You” begins to play in the background and my heart does this odd dance step. I think it skips a beat, or maybe it just speeds up. I’m not sure exactly, but something happens. My face grows warm and I find that I think I understand something about love.
Later in the movie, Noah tells Ally in the penultimate argument that she is choosing the other guy over him because he has money.
“It’s not about following your heart and it’s not about keeping your promises. It’s about security.”
My heart does that odd flippy thing again when I hear these words. And I think: Aha! There I am. It’s as if someone has triangulated my exact location even though my geolocater is disabled. I’m the girl who might choose security over love.
Movies do this to us, don’t they? They show us the universal themes of life like love and agony and failure and redemption. And often, we see a bit of ourselves reflected back at us,
But the lives that are so often reflected back at me from my tv screen and the movie screen are whited out. The actors who struggle to save the world, or fulfill their destiny against all odds, or just get the girl don’t often look anything like me. I don’t go to the movies very much anymore because I always leave with so many questions:
Do Japanese Americans fall in love? Do black men get their hearts broken? Do young latino boys find magical boxes and go off on mystical adventures? Does a Chinese mother weep for her daughter who got on a schoolbus one day and never came back?
Do people of color exist in fully 3-dimensional ways and not just as punchlines in a movie or a racial sidekick who helps a white character achieve full self-actualization.?
In the real world, they most certainly do. So why isn’t this reflected on the big screen?