Black And White: Diversifying Pop Culture

I think the first time I was struck by the whiteness of Hollywood, was in my formative years as a young cinephile, when I decided I’d be going through all of AFIs (American Film Institute) Top 100 movies and I got to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. A black and white movie in which Charlton-fucking-Heston sports a terrible fake tan and an even worse Spanish accent playing a (I kid you not) Mexican police detective on the border. Charlton Heston had already played Moses so I guess fuck it, but that role stuck with me perhaps because my environment (school/neighborhood/friends) were always so diverse. In any case, it is through that lens that I’m experiencing Hollywood’s apparent wokeness as an important step forward.

Putting Culture back into Pop-Culture

I’ve always believed that film, is not just a storytelling medium, but as a time capsule. We use movies not simply to tell each other stories, but to tell future generations what it was like to be us. Film as an archeological relic is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Films like The Social Network and Get Out will be studied much in the way we study Homer and ancient Greek art, to learn about a time an a place. So then, if films are to act as a time capsule of our history and culture, representation in front of (stories) and behind (story-tellers) the camera should feel like a given. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re making strides and some of the biggest brand makers in the industry have started to listen.

Your childhood was white AF but your kids’ don’t have to be

This year, Disney has made some very significant announcements, among them the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in their upcoming Little Mermaid live-action remake, their Marvel’s Eternals cast which includes Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Dong-seok Ma and Lauren Ridloff, a deaf actress portraying Marvel’s first deaf hero. Oh, and The Eternals is also being directed by the Chinese born Chloé Zhao (The Rider) - because the diversity in front of the camera will be best utilized by diverse storytellers. Disney also announced their first Asian American superhero film Shang-Chi, which will be portrayed by Chinese Canadian actor, Simu Liu, and directed by Hawaiian Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), AND will also feature the legendary Tony Leung as the villain. I can continue, but I think the point is made - Disney, and their Marvel branch, in particular, are making it a point to diversify.

Oh, also, James Bond’s next film with features Lashana Lynch, a black woman, holding the 007 codename - Craig’s Bond is still the film’s lead but he retired at the end of the last movie so, you know, someone’s gotta hold down the fort.

This diversification is not limited to the big screen either - the cast of the new Game of Thrones prequel spinoff took it upon itself to make sure the kingdom of Westeros was far more representative.

It should be noted that this isn’t new per se - the latest Star Wars trilogy, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Love, Simon, A Wrinkle In Time, the Creed movies have all been a step in this direction, but now we’re getting to a place where it’s feeling more normal, and that’s the important part.

Just how sincere is this diversification?

With some of the world’s largest conglomerates leading the way, the question is often raised, how sincere is this? Is Disney really worried about the next generation of kids, no matter what they look like, to see a version of themselves as a Disney Princess, or are they simply worried about the potential backlash? Maybe they see this as a trend and are looking to capitalize, maximizing their revenues? 

All of these things are at least half-true. Not long ago, Disney and fellow major studios were unsure if a major release with a black or a female lead would prove financially successful. This was undoubtedly backward but also entirely part of the accepted norm. At some point, a combination of the above - social pressures and trends, maybe even some genuine desire to push a progressive agenda - led to Wonder Woman and Black Panther (I would include Get Out, but it wasn’t a financial risk even though its success was undoubtedly an important moment).

I guess what I’m trying to say is...

Does that even matter?

Ultimately, this is an industry where the bottom line will always be profits, so of course even the most seemingly noble of efforts needs to be backed with the promise of some form of gains. In other words, yes I do think the diversified representation major studios are prioritizing is (to some extent) financially motivated… but it’s getting done anyway.

The film industry (like many others) has been built on a foundation riddled with racism and sexism (along with every other ism you can think of). In order to fix these issues, we can’t just continue to build on what’s rotten, we need to dig in and try to set things right. This might translate into decisions that seem to prioritize an agenda (e.g. an all women’s Ghostbusters and Ocean’s movies), and maybe they did (as in the project was fast-tracked before a revised and polished script could be completed) but in a few years, these movies will be normalized - some will be good, some won’t, as is usually the case with all movies.

What is new will be old

What is new, is often different, and change is innately scary. Today The Lion King is made-up of photorealistic CGI lions the industry continues calling “live-action” (photoreal animation is still animation guys), and I don’t get it… but it’s not for me. I’m not the audience, and my Lion King must seem outdated af to kids today. Also, my Lion King was far too white-sounding, and maybe it’s not such a bad thing to have Donald Glover and Beyonce’s voices in this (still) animated musical. Also, nothing is fucking sacred, my version of The Lion King was a ripoff too (other than being Hamlet) -

Parting thoughts

I wrote this namely as a reaction to the reactions I’ve seen online and in my daily life to these events, so I guess what I’ve been trying to say is - having a more representative pop-culture is a positive thing for the culture consuming it, even if it doesn’t feel totally sincere, down the line the results will be pretty similar - kids growing up with multiculturalism as part of their own culture.

Jorge Chaparro is a Montreal based writer