Casting a Change

By Lauren Nehorai

Sitting in anticipation, Chance Walker ’21 munched on her popcorn while watching the previews for several movies, all of which seemed to blend together. A caucasian biologist on a secret expedition, a blonde heiress haunted by the souls of her previous homeowners, a white teenager who wakes up in the body of a different white teenager everyday and a blue-eyed couple in a relationship plagued by sickness. But when the lights grew dim and the sounds of “All of the Stars” by SZA and Kendrick Lamar filled the room, Walker became overwhelmed with emotion as the words “Black Panther” appeared across the movie screen.

“Finally,” Walker said. “A black superhero defending his country, a black inventor creating solutions to every problem and black names taking up all the top slots on the credits.”

While Walker said she enjoyed the special effects and acting in the movie, her enjoyment largely came from the underlying theme of black pride.

“I never thought I would smile that much while watching a Marvel movie but it really made me proud,” Walker said. “The movie made history for good reason; it reinforced a sense of unity within the black community and showed how race is becoming less of a barrier in achieving success.”

“Black Panther” had one of the biggest theatrical debuts in history, earning over $426 million in the box office worldwide in one weekend, according to Fortune. In the 2019 Academy Awards, the movie won awards in Production Design, Costume Design and Music score, and it was the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture.

Walker said she believes “Black Panther’s” success is undermining the traditional bias within the film industry that typically surrounds movies with black-led casts. She credits this success to its cast, as it represented an increase of diversity.

“It was a really empowering film to watch,” Walker said. “We grow up being told that we can do anything, and be anything, and it is nice to see that vision as a reality, it makes it seem more feasible.”

“Black Panther” is not the only recent movie with a black-led cast. In the past three years, the amount of black-led casts has increased from 12.5 percent of movies to 17 percent, according to a Hollywood Diversity Report by the University of California Los Angeles.

New York University Tisch student Shayna Farahnik said she recently noticed a new trend in the movie industry of minority-led casts attracting viewers instead of sparking discriminatory remarks. Farahnik attributes this to the fact that our society has grown to empower minorities, she said.

“I think this was something that was very overdue,” Farahnik said. “Our environment of change and demanding equality for minority groups has definitely brought attention to discrimination in all aspects of society, including the film industry. I think these movies such as ‘Black Panther’ do a great job of representing diversity and inspiring others.”

Similar to Farahnik, Immi Shearmur ’20 said she believes that now is the optimal time for minorities to flourish in the film industry. With figures such as film director Ava DuVernay working hard to promote diversity, attaining success with a minority cast seems much more feasible, she said.

“I think people really gravitate towards familiar faces in movies and TV, meaning people who look and act like them,” Shearmur said. “Especially in a world where the majority of leading roles go to white men, people who don’t identify as such appreciate seeing themselves represented on screen, especially when it happens so rarely now a days. I think that 10 years ago, unfortunately, movies like ‘Black Panther’ would not have been as successful due to racism and misogyny, which is still present but diminishing.”

In addition to an increase in minority led-casts, there has also been an increase in success with female-led movies in the past year, according to Brookings. In an field dominated by white men, Gal Gadot, star of Wonder Woman, led the movie to an $821.8 millionbox office, making “Wonder Woman” the highest grossing superhero original film.

Amelie Zilber ’20 said she admired the way Gadot represented the strength in her femininity and championed the idea of female empowerment. She believes that women have been battling inequality in the film industry for too long, and through Gadot’s defiance of sexist barriers, they are moving in the direction of change, she said.

“When I watched ‘Wonder Woman’ I realized it was so much more than a feminist take on a traditionally male-dominated genre; the movie was an endorsement of female strength and power, a means by which to uplift young girls and encourage them to embrace their identity,” Zilber said.

Professor at Los Angeles City College’s Cinema and TV Department Linda Beal said increased technological advancements and accessibility allows for more people’s stories to be told, giving more opportunities for minorities to showcase their work than ever before.

“Decades of shifting ethnicities and demographics have helped lead to a growing crop of talented filmmakers of color,” Beal said. “With advanced technology and the impact of the current digital society, filmmaking tools and equipment are more accessible, so young filmmakers can more easily gain experience to develop their craft and business savvy.”

Beal also said that audience support as well as publicity on social media platforms have proven the potential of these films and opened doors for more inclusive representation in the industry. Their success has spurred a sea of change of artistic expression across the board as minorities gain more opportunities to publicize their work, she said.

In terms of recognition, Beal said that a major contributing factor to the recognition garnered by films with minority-led casts was the recent change made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

“Throughout the years, there have been several protests against the Oscars’ lack of diversity and inclusion,” Beal said. “In response to the most recent complaints, the heads of the Academy expanded the composition of its voting members to reflect more racial representation of the Hollywood community. This change undoubtedly led to a more diverse pool of nominees and winners.”

Associate Media Professor at Emerson University, Miranda Banks credits the high grossing rates of these movies to the previously untold stories they convey.

“These films are well written, well made, well acted and give people characters and stories that excite them, which is the most important thing about getting a huge audience,” Banks said. “They are also stories that, while they know the genre (action, romantic comedy, melodrama, et cetera), Hollywood hasn’t told the stories of Asian American and Asians before. It’s new and fresh in its perspective. That has as much to do with the actors as it does with the people behind the scenes who are telling stories authentically, wish fresh perspectives and hitting the marks of everything audiences crave in the action-adventure and rom-com. And that’s a recipe for a hit.”

While acknowledging the recent success of minority-led casts, Banks said that there is still a long way to go until this becomes the norm.

“Those who run Hollywood still want to tell white stories--even when the story is about race,” Banks said. “We need to careful to avoid praising this change because the history of injustice within the film industry will take more than a few years to undo.”