Black Panther, Love Simon, and the Importance of Representation in Film

In 2008, one of the top grossing films of the year was Batman: Dark Knight at just over one billion dollars. In the movie, the DC comic book hero Batman (Bruce Wayne) must save Gotham city from a villain named the Joker before it is too late. In this action packed film, one thing stands out. You might first guess what stands out is the amazing acting or the great cinematography, but in this case it is something else entirely. There are relatively few people of color in the cast. Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Michael Jai White as Gambol are the only two named characters in the movie that are not White. While there are one or two more unnamed characters who are also of color, the majority of the cast is for the most part Caucasian. The director, producers, and even the screen play writers are all also White, with just one female among them. This may seem relatively normal, and not something that stands out at all, and while the truth is it is normal, it really shouldn't be.

 Source:  CNN

Source: CNN

This might still be the case today, yet fast forward ten years later to 2018, and the box office is an entirely different place. 2018 has featured an array of unique titles that are changing the face of film. One such movie is Black Panther, a movie which has already earned $644,000,000 and is still continuing to bring in money. In Black Panther, the story focuses on the Marvel super hero, also called Black Panther. When the main character's father dies, T'challa becomes the king of an African country named Wakanda, and assumes the role of Black Panther to defend it and the world against harm. In a lot of ways it has the same characteristics as Dark Knight. It is still a strong man fighting against crime with the odds stacked against him. Yet this time in an exciting twist, the main character is a person of color, and so is very nearly all of the cast. In a world where only a tiny fraction of main characters are anything but Caucasian males, it is a surprising twist to the normal we see in films.

In another film out this year, Love Simon, a teenage boy who is in the closet experiences high school drama at its finest. This heart warming high school drama follows Simon as he discovers another possibly gay person at the school, and begins communicating with him through messages. Drama ensues when these messages are discovered by another high schooler, and used as black mail. Eventually, he is forced to come out to his friends and family, and suffers school ridicule because of it. Thankfully the story has a happy ending, with Simon finding his true love and his friends and family supporting him. 

 Source:  NPR

Source: NPR

Another example of the widening of cinematic scope that is occurring in 2018, is the Lara Croft remake. In this film we follow the main character, a female archeologist, through ancient tombs and hazardous ruins around the world as she seeks to complete her mission to find her father. In this high action film, the main character is not only female; but also presented as highly intelligent, resourceful, and capable. This flies in the face of the traditional “damsel in distress” trope, showing Lara (and for that matter, womankind’s agency). These stories are incredibly different from each other, but they are also the same: They feature characters from real life not typically seen in film. 

While there have been a few films that feature Black protagonists, women, or even gay men, they are extremely rare. Since the first silent films started rolling in theaters, the actors of Hollywood have been overwhelmingly white. Major characters are predominantly male and straight. When women and people of color are depicted, they are often minimized, or given one demential roles that don't truly show them as they truly are. As early as the 1960s, scientists have been analyzing this lack of minorities in major roles, and worrying about what the world wide ramifications of this may be. In 1976, it even got a name. “Social Annihilation.”

The theory of social annihilation was created by George Gerbner, an immigrant to the USA from Hungary, who specialized in the study of communication. He coined the term to describe the lack of minorities in film and other media, and to make a point. Seeing yourself, or people who look like you, portrayed in film and fiction matter. When you don't see yourself, you start to think that this is normal. That your place in society is to be invisible, and to let these people who don't look like you take the lead.

In particular, when a person of color is portrayed as a specific way in virtually every film, a person of that same color may come to think that is what the world expects of them. If you are Asian, you must be geeky and goofy as well. If you are Latino, you must be part of a gang. This can lead to catastrophic effects on the minds of the minorities who watch these films. Some may say that movies are just movies, but when you start to wonder if the only role you are supposed to play in the world is as a ditsy receptionist, or a goofy sidekick, you might hesitate to follow your dreams and go to college. After all, it isn't what the world expects of you. Why try?

This may seem a little extreme, but scientists throughout the past few decades have perceived it as a very real threat. Just a couple years after George Gerbner brought up social annihilation, he spoke again, this time with many other voices joining him. This time instead of in a detailed article it was in a short, four chapter long book called, “Hearth and Home: Images of Women in the Mass Media,” published by Oxford University Press.

This book, though short, adds a lot of clarity into the understanding of just what it means to not see yourself presented in media, or worse, to see yourself only ever presented in a negative light. It likened television as a new sort of religion or culture, and that media was being used to resist change.

Though it is now 40 years later, the book reads scarily true and accurate. We are still using media to normalize violence, to stereotype minorities, and to whitewash the world around us. Evidence of this is plentiful, and much more recent than the 70s. In fact, just three years ago in 2015, “Pan” was released (and summarily flopped). It's greatest note in history is not its huge price tag or the lack luster reviews, but the outcry created when “Tiger Lily,” a Native American character, was played by a white woman. Played by one despite the fact that a Native American (Devery Jacobs) and a Kenyan/Mexican (Lupita Nyong’o) auditioned. 

This is a relatively common practice, and we repeatedly see the few fictional characters that are traditionally of color given to people who aren't. Bible stories are often shown as white, even though technically speaking most or all of the characters should have been Middle Eastern or Black. “The Last Airbender” and “Ghost in the Shell” also had their ethnic characters whitewashed out by Hollywood.

 Source:  Paste Magazine

Fortunately, things are starting to change. When a rumor started that Disney's live action remake of Mulan might have white main characters, the backlash was so strong Disney had to put out a statement saying that the characters would retain their ethnicity. A small victory, but a victory none the less. While Hollywood still struggles with adding diversity to its cast despite the overwhelming demand for it, more minorities are being seen as major characters. The biggest drive for this may not be social change, the concern of scientists, or the will of the people however. It may be as simple as how much diversity pays off at the box office.

In 2017, Hollywood hit it big with several movies starring minorities. “Get Out” grossed a shocking $253.5 million world wide, despite a paltry $4.5 million dollar budget. In this satirical horror, Chris Washington, a Black man, visits the family of his White girlfriend Rose Armitage, for that first awkward “meet the parents” dinner. At first he thinks the family is just trying to accept his race in a kind way, but as time goes on he realizes to his horror that is not what is happening at all. The movie itself is terrific, refreshing, and original. While it may not be a surprise to those who watched it that it would be a hit, to Hollywood this may have been a rather big shock. After all, the lead was not only Black, but an unknown actor at that. The director was also a first timer, making this an exceptional but very interesting case.

 Source:  NPR

Source: NPR

That very same year, Wonder Woman also took the world by storm, with not only a female heroine playing a strong role, but with a female director as well. The movie follows the story of Diana, the person who would become Wonder Woman. Her life begins on an island protected from the world and its people, where she learns to be a brave and fearless warrior. When a man washes ashore on the island with troubling consequences, Diana sets out with him to try and help save the world. As the story progresses, she embraces her role as Wonder Woman and faces every challenge thrown at her. It is once again an exciting story with a great plot, and audiences loved it. Wonder Woman fetched over $800 million at the box office, and is getting a sequel thanks to the fantastic turn out.

It's no surprise that movies featuring minorities are hits at the box office. A study done by USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative took a look at 39,500 speaking parts in over 900 films. Of those 39,500 parts, only 30.5% were female, and only 3% were Latino. Considering there are five million Latinos living in Los Angeles alone, this is a huge market not being tapped into.

Latinos are one of the most loyal movie goers, with a quarter of the Latino population visiting the movie theaters regularly. As Netflix and Hulu command a greater share of movie goers, it makes sense to yield to the pressure and add more minorities to movies. Especially at a time when what used to make up the majority of movie goers, Caucasians, are actually declining in how often they visit. With this shift in who is putting down money in the box office, it makes sense to start catering to the people who are paying for the movies in the first place.

This brings us back to 2018, with the continuation of the fantastic progress made with Wonder Woman and Get Out. The promising new movies we spoke of earlier, Black Panther, Love Simon and Lara Croft, are both hits in their own unique ways. Black Panther may well end up the highest grossing super hero of all time, and while Love Simon had a less adventurous box office weekend at just $11.5 million, it is one of just a hand full of movies to receive an A+ rating from Cinema Score. Since Love Simon cost only 17 million to make, it is likely that it will make a small profit for 20th Century Fox before it leaves movie theaters.

These movies are important because they are showing people of color as protagonists, LGBTQ people as normal, and women as leaders. They are giving the minorities that go to the movies every month, a very rare and important chance to see themselves portrayed as someone important. 

Because this change is relatively new, we can only guess at how the future may change if Hollywood continues to embrace diversity the way it is. Wonder Woman may inspire young girls to choose to reach for the stars, because they saw a strong and brave super hero winning against the odds. Perhaps young Black men will be inspired by Black Panther in much the same way, or a closeted gay teenager may watch Love Simon and realize he's not alone.

As Michael Morgan, former professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts so eloquently put it, “Stories Matter.” While we might be quick to blow off the movies we watch, or the television we turn on out of boredom, as simple light entertainment, they have a profound effect on us. Stories don't just tell us how things are, but often how we think they should be. They tell us our place in society, and what is right or wrong. Stories can inspire us to a great future, or teach us to mistrust others. 

While Lara Croft, Love Simon, and Black Panther may just be stories, they may also teach a generation to feel like their actions matter. It may cause people who otherwise wouldn't try to challenge themselves, and the result may well be something more solid than stories---new medicines, new technologies, from new faces in this busy world. Letitia Wright's character in Black Panther may just inspire a new generation to close both the gender and race gaps in our tech sectors- something that is becoming more and more of an obvious issue we need to solve. 

In a unique study done by Kapor Center for Social Impact and Harris Poll. The study looked at over 2,000 people who voluntarily left the tech industry in order to find out why. The answer was disturbing. Racist jokes, stereotyping, and bullying were so common that it was simply easier to leave than it was to stay. While this study is far from the movies we have discussed during this essay, it is by no mean unrelated. Stereotyping starts in the stories we tell ourselves, and that guy on tech support who is always played by an Indian man with a heavy accent is part of the problem- or that tech CEO played by a Caucasian male. By changing how underrepresented people are portrayed, we can change how they are perceived in the work place, and thus change the very core of why people are leaving in the first place. Movies like Black Panther are vitally important, because they are the first steps toward the change that will hopefully be seen around the world.

With any luck, the movies we have seen in the box office this year will continue to be a thriving example of the movies we see next year, and give the current generation a fresh new chance at life. We can only guess at what the potential of such stories may be, but if they can undo even a sliver of the damage done by years of being marginalized, it will be well worth the effort.

 

Image source: Forbes