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Sep 05 2017
by Jamie Su

The Problem with Underrepresenting People of Color in Hollywood

By Jamie Su - Sep 05 2017
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With the majority of films these days starring a picture perfect white lead and casting white actors for roles meant for people of color (POC), we have a huge problem with diversity in Hollywood that we need to address: Why aren't people of color being represented in roles that belong to them and getting equal chances in the film industry? With no accurate portrayal or chance to prove themselves in Hollywood, people of color are often sidelined and stereotyped. This problem is extended beyond the big screen and affecting talented directors and cinematographers, as well, who are people of color.

Hollywood has warped us into thinking that the ideal lead character is someone who has the beautiful features that a white person has. This lacks the representation of racial minorities that people of color seek. Though a casting director may attempt to include non-white characters, that does not imply that a film is diverse, if stereotype casting is involved and POC are not given an opportunity to break into Hollywood and be more than just a punch line. Recently, we've achieved a victory step towards racial equality in Hollywood; actor Ed Skrein announced his decision to leave the "Hellboy" cast due to the unjust whitewashing of the half-Asian character he was set out to play. However, we need more than one actor to stand up against the blatant favoritism white actors have compared to actors of color. One actor is not enough to change the racial bias engraved in Hollywood's history. How much longer do we have to fight this never-ending battle to actually strike change and have more genuine POC representation? 

What is whitewashing?

Tanja Heffner via Unsplash

So, what exactly is whitewashing? The actual definition of the verb "whitewash" is to use a whitening solution to whiten something or to conceal a crime. This word then developed a new meaning, which became a popular term in the late 1990s. It's frequently used today to explain the inability of Hollywood to cast people of color, be it actors, directors or cinematographers. "Whitewashing" is also used to refer to how non-white characters and roles are given to white actors, which has been exemplified in the past and even to this day.

One notable moment of whitewashing was in the classic film "Breakfast At Tiffany's." Released in 1961, this film features white actor Mickey Rooney depicting a Japanese man. It is a stereotypical portrayal of what Asians are like, and an ignorant attempt at a comedic approach, with Rooney mimicking the accent of Asians. Moreover, with the use of makeup to alter the appearance of a white man to make him have the features of a Japanese man, Rooney plays a racially offensive character that depicts yellowface

We may think that the time era was different then and that our society has progressed towards one with equality and free of racism. Though Hollywood has evolved, how much progress has really been made if we continue to face issues such as lack of representation, yellowface and blackface in film and television?

Has Hollywood made progress now?

Maria Darii via Unsplash

Diversity in Hollywood has made little progress despite what we may think. According to the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report created by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, minorities were underrepresented in the 2014-15 year, with approximately three to one among film leads, four to one among film directors and seven to one among film writers.

After the Motion Picture Association of America's Theatrical Market Statistics report was released, the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) came to a conclusion that the more diverse a cast was, the more diverse the audience, indicating an increase in revenue due to the greater audience. According to the study conducted by the CAA, people of color represented 47% of the audience during opening weekend for the top 10 grossing films in 2016. Furthermore, people of color dominated the opening weekend audience for seven of those highest-grossing films at more than 50%.

Contrary to popular belief, non-white people do exist in America. Minorities constituted around 40% of the U.S. population in 2015. So, the diverse audience is there, but the diverse cast is missing.

Recently, Hollywood has released movies with questionable casting concerns, which many people regarded as whitewashing. Scarlett Johansson starred in the 2017 film, "Ghost in the Shell," based on a Japanese manga in which her character was originally a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi. Instead of casting a Japanese actress as the lead, Hollywood simply favored a famous white actress over a person of color, as usual. Similarly, in the 2016 film, "The Great Wall," Matt Damon was cast as the handsome, ever-white hero, saving China from doom.

Although we shouldn't blame the actors/actresses taking on a role or opportunity that they're given, we must ponder over how the lack of representation is a recurring event and admit that this is part of the problem.

Conversely, there have been phenomenal films with diverse casts, representing people of color and rewarding us the non-white literary protagonists we lack. Some of them include "Hidden Figures" and "The Big Sick," featuring POC characters portraying realistic struggles they face due to their race and culture. Additionally, we have to applaud "Spider-Man: Homecoming" for taking a leap towards inclusivity with its multicultural cast.

Another positive outlook on Hollywood's progress towards better representation is due to an actor speaking out against whitewashing and leaving a role he was initially set out to play in order to do the right thing. Ed Skrein, who was cast as half-Japanese character, Major Ben Daimio, in the "Hellboy" reboot, chose to leave the role amongst protests and backlash online and let it be awarded to the appropriate Asian actor. Skrein's decision to leave "Hellboy" was no easy decision, but because of his consideration for people of color, we can only hope that others will follow his stellar example and acknowledge the problem and help stop whitewashing in Hollywood altogether.  

This all proves one thing: Hollywood has the capability to cater to ethnic diversity. We're moving in the right direction, and all we need are actors and actresses to advocate equality in the film industry to ensure that people of color's voices are heard. 

POC actors/actresses who have spoken about diversity:

Aziz Ansari

David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Most known for his roles in "Parks and Recreation" and his Netflix series, "Master of None," Aziz Ansari is an Indian-American actor, comedian and filmmaker who addresses the issue with Hollywood's prominent under-representation of minorities in film and television. In a personal essay written for The New York Times, Ansari wrote, "[s]eeing an Indian character in a lead role had a powerful effect on me, but it was only as I got older that I realized what an anomaly it was. I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures."

Chloe Bennet

Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Chloe Bennet, formally known as Chloe Wang, is an Asian-American actress known as Daisy Johnson in "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." As someone who is half-Asian and half-white, Bennet has faced some of the same racism and prejudice any other person of color has. According to The Daily Beast, Bennet had to change her last name in order to further her career in Hollywood. She was able to get a booking from a casting agent after her first audition with her brand new name. 

Despite changing her name, Bennet mentioned that she is proud of being half-Chinese. “I want to be clear because some of my Asian-American fans seem to think I did that [changed last names] because I didn’t want to [be] known as Chinese, but it’s so the opposite. I just wanted to be known as me and let my personality define who I was, rather than my ethnicity.”

Jason Momoa

Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

There's no doubt that every aspiring actor/actress has to work hard towards creating a name for themselves in the entertainment industry, even more so for minorities. Polynesian actor Jason Momoa, who played the character Khal Drogo in "Game of Thrones" and is Aquaman in the DC Extended Universe told The Daily Beast that "[he's] had to bust ass to be in this industry." 

Proud to represent Pacific Islanders and play a renown superhero of color, Momoa stated, "Aquaman is especially cool because being a Kanaka Maoli — being Hawaiian — our Gods are Kanaloa and Maui, and the Earth is 71 percent water, so I get to represent that. And I’m someone who gets to represent all the islanders, not some blond-haired superhero. It’s cool that there’s a brown-skinned superhero."

What do POC college students think of diversity in Hollywood?

Doug Swinson via Unsplash

Saman Aamer, Rutgers University - New Brunswick

"Hollywood today tries to include more diversity. It's not perfect but people are getting more educated on equality in all aspects. White felt like the default when a storyline didn't depend on any specific appearance. I never questioned it because that's how I grew up. It hurt to feel so different from the default, which included so many characters I admired. Then when I was fourteen, I found myself interested in acting and tried out for many projects. But one day during my 'acting career', my friend, a person of color, was denied a lead role [because] 'the look [didn't] work.' I realized how hard it is for actors of color. Even when they find work, it's as a stereotype ... People aren't 'white' or 'people of color'. There's white, black, East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino, Pacific Islander, and more. And we should all celebrate our differences on screen. Guess what? We're all beautiful and deserving of the same opportunities."

Joseph Shaju, University of Waterloo

"I feel sad how a lot of good talent is not being used. I feel like Hollywood doesn't cast a lot of Asian people in general. They have mainly white-based roles and we see how there has been a start for black lead male and female roles. But I feel like diversity if brought to the movie screen will bring more audiences to watch the films because there are more people from different races, including the usual white people, so that makes it appealing to all types of races."

Maya McCollum, Howard University

"The diversity in Hollywood is one that has [begun] to 'look good' but diving deeper reveal[s] the same dynamic that has been there for years. There are still white directors, white crew, add in gender, most of them male on the majority of blockbusters. There are more black and other POC stars on the big screen now than I've ever seen in my lifetime and it makes me so happy but it also makes me so furious when I remember that Ava [DuVernay] (director of '13th', 'A Wrinkle in Time') is still one of the only big black female directors. As a filmmaker and playwright, I want to see more people of color writing, producing, directing in Hollywood, yes, having them star is amazing, but I want them to also represent behind the scenes too." 

Sherneese Tan, Singapore Institute of Management – Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

"Definitely, there is a lack of diversity in Hollywood, evident from the extensive all-white casts in many films, especially for characters that were given roles of non-specified ethnicity or casting white people for POC roles. Also when they do cast POC, they are almost always associated with stereotypes. Is the underrepresentation of POC becoming better? I don't think so. But with the audience realizing that there's something so fundamentally wrong with this, [they] can probably 'force,' for lack of better word, the industry to perhaps take them into account and be more inclusive."

Although there IS progress within Hollywood, it still isn't where it should be because there continues to be faults and stereotypes when it comes to casting. Furthermore, POC actors/actresses are not the only ones who suffer; so do directors, film writers and cinematographers. Overall, what we can do as a society is speak up against whitewashing, racism and lack of diversity on social media because every single comment matters. Hopefully, more celebrities like Ed Skrein will not only voice the people's matters, but take action. It is only a matter of whether we continue to let the issue slide or constantly fight for what is right as we strive for better representation of ethnic diversity in the media.

Lead Image Credit: RatPac Entertainment

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Jamie Su - University of Waterloo

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