There is no denying that white leads are the kings and queens of Hollywood. We find them in the vast majority of films, even those that should have starred people of color like films set in ancient Egypt or films based off of material with people of color as main characters. Audiences are usually quick to jump to outrage and blame Hollywood for this discrimination, while Hollywood is even quicker to blame their choices on their assumptions that audiences are more interested in star power. So, who is actually to blame: Hollywood or us?
Well, the answer seems to be both.
We have more power than we realize:
We as consumers have the ability to directly tell Hollywood what is right and what is wrong. We can flood the box office when Hollywood releases a film that makes racial progress, alerting them that this is what audiences really want to see, and we can boycott films that include whitewashing, letting Hollywood know that whitewashing is not acceptable. Yet, so often Hollywood is right in saying that movies with white leads make more profit, and movies with minority leads aren’t as desirable to audiences.
Last week I was scrolling through my YouTube feed, and an example of this caught my eye. I saw the trailer for Hidden Figures, which only has 689,259 views and was posted on August 15, 2016. Here is the description of the movie (taken from the Movieclips Trailers trailer on YouTube):
“HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.”
Now, this sounds like a movie we should be supporting, right? It is coming out in 2017 (so go watch this if it interests you) and stars three African-American leads. Yet adjacent to this trailer I saw the trailer for Split, which has a monstrous 4,262,159 views (also taken from Movieclips Trailers) and was posted on July 27, 2016, only 19 days before Hidden Figures.
Split has a virtually all-white cast. So, upon seeing how well these two trailers are faring, it is likely that Hollywood will again come to the conclusion that white leads are more “bankable” than colored ones.
Hollywood only casts colored actors in “ethnic” roles:
Though whitewashing is partly because of the consumer, don’t be disheartened; Hollywood is certainly not blameless here. The problem lies in the limited roles available to people of color. White actors are cast in literally every genre possible, from romance leads to action stars to the infamous whitewashing of roles that should have been played by non-white actors. Conversely, colored actors are usually cast only when directors want a black friend, a smart asian kid, or a multitude of other damaging, racial stereotypes. Many colored actors are jammed into films simply to appeal to a larger audience with little to no consideration on their characters’ plot importance, development, or depth.
Now, these roles usually aren’t nearly as much fun to watch as the action movies or comedies dominated by white leads. In doing this, Hollywood has essentially created a cycle of setting up colored actors to fail, and then chalking it up to the fact that audiences just inherently aren’t as interested in watching films with colored leads.
What can we do to fix this?
Again, we must look to our power as consumers. We have the right to let large film production companies know how we feel about their casting decisions, and we have the influence to change future decisions through boycotts and feedback. We also can begin to seek out movies that advance racial equality in film. Independent films in particular are usually pretty noble in their casting choices because many of these filmmakers aren’t as interested in profit as larger production companies are.
So, although whitewashing continues to be a huge problem in Hollywood, it is important that we do everything we can to restore the integrity of filmmaking and ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to experience and benefit from this wonderful medium.