Hollywood has an obvious history of whitewashing and disproportionate casting of straight, white, cis-gendered actors in their films, more often than not in the lead roles. We’ve mentioned Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings before on the blog, featuring an all-white main cast despite the show being about Egyptians in Africa, as well as the The Last Airbender movie adaptation of the animated series, where casting calls, according to Racebending.com, listed preference for Caucasian actors for the leads and people of color for the villains, supporting characters and extras, despite the original source material featuring a clear multiracial, non-Caucasian cast.
Exodus and The Last Airbender both ultimately ended up with generally unfavorable reviews, and these are the considerably more obvious examples of the stereotyped discrimination in the entertainment industry. Progress for diversity in representation and casting has been an upward trend, more especially in television though much less so in films. But really, why does it matter if the lead of your new favorite movie is another white (and probably straight, cis-gendered) guy?
There’s long been the argument that as long as the acting was good and race wasn’t an integral part to the character or the story, it didn’t matter who the actor was. There’s a subtler, more pervasive form of stereotyped discrimination for the actors of color in the entertainment industry, though – after all, we can’t have Will Smith and Denzel Washington playing every black lead ever.
According to a 2012 study done at USC, three-quarters of characters with speaking roles in top-grossing films were white. The same study also found that ironically, 44% of movie tickets that were purchased that year were by people of color. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) has stated the difficulty ethnic-minority actors face in finding high-profile parts that weren’t stereotypical clichés or the same tired, typecast roles on the big screen: “There are so few roles out there…it’s not just black people. It’s Asians, it’s Hispanic people if you’re not Salma Hayek…it’s hard to get films funded. It’s a business thing, and you have to change the mindset of people around here.”
There’s another point she brings up in The Guardian article: “Little kids need to be able to turn on the TV and see real-world representations of themselves,” she said. “It’s very important. You need that representation.” Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o attributed her inspiration to become an actress to seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Color Purple; subsequently, Goldberg was inspired by Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek.
Representation, diversity in casting and telling stories is important to accurately reflect the changes in what has become the ‘new’ mainstream American society. TV and film are fantasy, true – people often watch movies and shows to escape reality’s problems, not to look at a mirror portrayal of real life. But to the younger audience, it’s an acknowledgement of existence that is powerful, and they are the ones that will be impacted, socialized through, and shaped the most by what they see on the screen.