The Arise of Representation in Film | Teen Ink

The Arise of Representation in Film

October 8, 2020
By Sinclair10 BRONZE, Champaign, Illinois
Sinclair10 BRONZE, Champaign, Illinois
3 articles 3 photos 0 comments

As a result of my research, I learned that in the early 1900s actors played in movies were mostly white males and displayed many problematic racial stereotypes that would not fit with today’s media, though representation in film has grown since then, with more actors and even directors of color. This has made diversity more of a necessary factor in movies then it was back then.

I started my research wanting to learn more about the history of representation in film. I would keep seeing the things I already knew, like the mass of blackface and white-washing in white Hollywood. Having a deeper understanding of this made me wonder if there were any films still doing these practices even with them being look down upon in today’s society. I found out that some recent movies were guilty of whitewashing. Interested in how representation changed or did not change, I decided to steer my research to the present to see what got better.  

I got a lot of mixed opinions in my resources. Some articles were more optimistic by saying that diversity in film is better than ever and has increased so much. Other articles and a source I found from Gale took more of a realistic approach by pointing out that the progress is slow and still needs to improve due to the overwhelming ratio between the white and people of color actors. Author, Ali Wong explained in her book that due to the lack of representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood, she got more recognition by being one of the few Asians that were in the industry. Paving the way for more women of color to never take no for an answer. 

Even though I didn’t have extremely high hopes, a lot of the stats I found of percentages of people of color in film surprised me. I was learning new things every time I researched. I was fascinated to see that many people were interested in this topic, and wanted more people to acknowledge it so people can understand the importance of diversity in the media.

A)    Representation in film from the 60s to now has not have been as productive as it should be, but the important thing is that it continues to go up and not down. Ramos reports that “diversity of representation among Hollywood films remains largely unchanged from a decade ago” (np). Though most of the research denies that it has indeed increased but not as much as it should. Sonaiya Kelley indicates that there has been a steady increase in diversity in the media but “the progress is slow” (np). 

I was happy to see that racial stereotypes in movies weren’t as open to the media as in today than the 60s but disappointed to see that it was still hidden in many films if you paid attention. Blackface, when nonblack characters use makeup to portray a black character inappropriately was common during the early 1900s but know looked down upon in the media. I was surprised to find out that popular actor, Robert Downey Jr. did blackface in a movie as recent as 2008. This made me rethink the idea that everything got better with time. 

Another thing I noticed is the amount of whitewashing in film. I did not realize how big of a thing it was into I read a New York Times article about it. Author, Manhola Dargis claimed that “white-washing is still common in the 2010s”(np). In 2016 movie, Doctor Strange a white actress, Tilda Swinton played an Asian character called “The Ancient One”. Another article, written by Kira Schacht pointed out that actress Scarlett Johansson was also “guilty of white-washing”(np) in her movie Ghost in the Shell. I knew white-washing was a practice they did in white Hollywood, but I thought it died down. 

An example of white-washing in the 60s is from a classic movie called Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When a white actor plays a character called “Mr Yunioshi” who was supposedly an Asian man. Throughout the movie the portrays this him with a “sibilant accent, taped eyelids, and buck teeth,”(Schacht np) this character “persistently comes up whenever the topic of Hollywood racism comes up” (Schacht np). Though back then it was not despised, it surely is now. This movie, in general, would not have gotten the same praise it got 50 years ago.

B)     Hollywood has made bigger leaps than ever to make sure they represent people of many backgrounds in their films. Entertainment company CBS became the “first to sign the foundation’s pledge to commit to auditioning actors with disabilities” (Ramos np). Ramos also found out that Sundance announced the “4 Challenge,” which urges producers to commit to work with a female director — especially a female director of color within 18 months” (np). This puts out more opportunities for people that want to learn and share their ideas in the film industry. Taking strides is what the film industry is all about and it encourages more companies to put light on their diversity and grow. 

  Despite 2018 and 2019 were great years for progress in movies such as Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther. The Oscars “plummeted when it came to diverse winners and nominees”(Ray np). This created the sequel #OscarsSoWhite (Ray np). The only person of color nominated was actress, Cynthia Erivo who played Harriet Tubman in the movie Harriet. This disappointed many people because from the media’s view there has been a lot more TV & Film with people of color.

 Focusing on having more diversity in movies is director Jordan Peele. When asked if he had “any interest in casting a white male, he responded, “he has seen that already’” (Kelley np). His movie Get Out is the perfect example that movies with people of color as their lead can do just as well, maybe even better in the box office. Peele even made history for the first black writer to win an Oscar for best original screenplay (Kelley np). This is huge for all the minorities in the film industry because it can only go up and hopefully, more people will follow after Jordan Peele. Liao reported that “among 1,223 directors over 11 years, 5.2% were black or African American, 4.3% were women and 3.1% were of Asian descent” (np). When people of color see other people of color gain success in areas that are not predominantly known to them it inspires them to consider the opportunity. It is just as important for diversity behind the camera as well as in front of the camera.

C)     The importance of having diversity has significantly increased in the media. More women and people of color are speaking out on how they want to see people that look like them in film. Most of the time when people of color are in movies they almost always have the role of the stereotypical sidekick or best friend, but rarely the lead. Directors also often cast women as a side character that is not relevant in the plot, but only there to ease the male lead. Actress Gal Gadot was the lead in movie, Wonder Woman, and will continue to be its female lead in the sequel. Wonder Woman is a great example of a successful movie with a woman as its lead. Though from my gale source It indicated that when Hollywood discusses women they are thinking of white women. 

A similar claim to that is from the book “Dear Girls” by Ali Wong. Ali Wong is an Asian American woman, who has made her way up by becoming an actress, comedian, and writer. She explained that she didn’t grow up to any Asian women that were not portrayed as a stereotype. When she was trying to persuade her career as a comedian she didn’t get the recognition she expected due to how different she was compared to other female leads. It took sometime before she fame. Ali Wong realized she got her fame due to how unique her personality was. Her race played a factor in her career and her being a role model for Asian Americans in the film industry.

The film industry is becoming more popular for people of color and this brings more TV shows and Film with people from different backgrounds. Most of the movies that get bigger recognition are ones with diversity. Fortunately, diversity has become more of a necessary factor in the media and due to that more and more films are including women and people of color.

In conclusion, I found that throughout the years, representation has had its ups and downs. Though the early 1900s were a rough time for diversity in Hollywood, things are becoming much better with the help of directors, actors, and other people that know the importance of including people with all different backgrounds. More and more films are putting women and people of color as their leads and are hitting big numbers in the box office. Going into the matter that people want to see people that look like them on screen. 

I learned that it is important for people that have a lot of power to help people with little. Without these directors and companies giving more roles or support to minorities, we wouldn’t have had this kind of representation in film. We would be at the same place we were back in white Hollywood, where people didn’t go out of their comfort zone to hire actors of color that were just as good as the white actors. I acknowledge society wasn’t as woke as it is now. Back then it wasn’t as important to have diversity in film because many people didn’t even have equal rights. 

 Diversity in the media is deeper than just including some minorities to act as an equalizer. It is about making people feel cared for and comfortable, but at the same time understanding different cultures by interacting with them. That is why representation film is a big deal because it creates more opportunities for people and gives people more hope, especially children. How a child sees the media can affect what they will grow up to be and how they see life. Representation in film because it can have a huge impact on someone’s life by just inspiring them.    

The author's comments:

My name is Syd and I am a young writer and future film director. This article explains how important diversity is. While writing this I became even more compelled to go in film. I aspire to be one of the film directors to finally have inclusion in my work. Hope you like it :)

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