Marvel. Star Wars. Warner Bros. DC films. These are all major franchises that have seemingly embraced the casting of diverse talent, whether it’s in front of or behind the camera, in major roles. People of color and women are finally starting to make some progress in Hollywood. With Warner Bros. launching the first major female lead superhero film, Wonder Woman, in 2017, Marvel coming with the first Black superhero TV series with 2016’s Luke Cage on Netflix and first flick in 2018 with Black Panther, and Lucasfilm shifting the Star Wars franchise from boys to girls, many have patted themselves on the back and are resting assured that the problem is fixed. Well, news flash: it isn’t.
Diversity only means representation, which is why I have a problem with the word. You could only have two Black characters and one woman, and the cast would technically be considered diverse. I’m much fonder of the word inclusion—not just having token characters of color, but having those characters get major roles and actually be prominent parts of the story.
Now, I’m not disputing that there won’t be major roles for actors of color and women in Wonder Woman, Black Panther and upcoming Star Wars movies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has a cast almost entirely of actors of color. Black Panther’s cast, according to Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, will be “90% African-American or African”. And Black women in particular got some meaty roles in the first season (hopefully there’ll be a second) of Luke Cage.
But there’s still the problem of the fact that, though Rey was the main character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and though Finn and Poe, a Black and Latino man, were her supporting characters, women were still largely sidelined in the movie—as were people of color.
Smacking a “diverse” actor or actress in a lead role might be representation, but it’s not full-on diversity. We want to see casts that are evenly split between actors of color and white people, evenly dialogued between men and women. Even though there’s barely any white characters in Rogue One, the lead is still a brunette white woman. Why does Hollywood think women of color can’t star in a movie?
Though Wonder Woman’s cast is mostly full of women, 99% of those women are white. Though director Patty Jenkins has assured worried fans that Themiscyra will be a diverse place, there hasn’t been one actor or actress of color in any of the promotional material for Wonder Woman thus far, and Gal Gadot has confirmed that the character—who is confirmed to be queer in the comics—will only enter a relationship with a man in the film. The DC Extended Universe’s Justice League is also largely white, save for Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg.
And don’t even get me started on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every film to come out so far has starred a straight white male character. This will soon change with Black Panther. But even though Marvel is also trying its hands at a female character with Captain Marvel, the movie will star Brie Larson—who is a brunette white woman. Though Marvel is trying to diversify themselves a bit more—the cast for Spider-Man Homecoming is extremely diverse—they remain largely white and male. They even admitted they wouldn’t make the villain in Iron Man 3 a woman because “it wouldn’t sell toys”, despite the tremendous interest in a Black Widow movie and toy sets.
Of course, we have to discuss the elephant in the room—whitewashing. That’s still a tremendous problem in Hollywood, as well. Speaking of Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson herself accepted a role that was written as Asian, the upcoming Ghost in the Shell film. People have defended that choice, because Johansson is surrounded by Asian talent. But at the end of the day, who’s going to be on all the posters for the movie? A white woman.
We suffered this similar problem just days ago with the announcement that at one point, Disney had considered erasing the character of Li Shang from their upcoming Mulan live-action remake and making it a white man—who would come to China, fall in love with Mulan, and “help her” save the country. In other words, he would be the person to save it—removing Mulan’s defining characteristic in favor of a white male lead. This was confirmed to be only a jump-off point, of course, but the fact that they would even consider it makes my head hurt.
Why does Hollywood continue to whitewash and favor white actors for lead roles, when the Fast and Furious franchise has proved time and time again that people like diversity in their movies? Even when it comes to the superhero genre, a number of people reported that their prime reason for wanting to see Suicide Squad was its diversity. An even number of women and actors of color—the right recipe for a movie.
I’m not disputing that things are changing. The Black Panther cast is incredible, and I’m extremely excited for all the other diverse projects coming down the pipeline, not just from Marvel and DC but from the other studios. But we shouldn’t be patting Hollywood on its back just yet. We still have a lot of work to do.