When US actress Constance Wu recently slammed the new Matt Damon flick The Great Wall, she didn’t hold back in her criticism when she declared her feelings on Twitter: casting a white actor in a Chinese story was not just perpetuating the idea that only white people can be heroes in Hollywood – it’s plain racist.
Wu was quick to say this wasn’t about attacking individuals: “Rather, it's about repeatedly pointing out the racist notion that white people are superior to [people of color] and that POC need salvation from our own color [sic] via white strength.”
This, not long after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is in charge of the annual Oscars ceremony, gave in to the backlash of #oscarssowhite and invited hundreds of new members to diversify its judging pool. Without a diverse group of voters, it’s unlikely you’ll see a diverse group of nominees, as the nominees of 2016 proved.
As someone of Arab heritage, lack of positive representation is something that has long affected me as an avid watcher of movies.
Yet, Wu’s criticism is but one recent example of increased pressure on producers not only to start accepting that heroes don’t have to be white, but also to stop casting white actors in roles that belong to people of colour.
Audiences are notably uninterested in the tired clichés that forget its audience is global and social media-savvy – criticism is instant and harsh. The predominantly white-cast Gods of Egypt tanked at the box office, unable to be saved even by Gerard Butler’s impressive pecks. Meanwhile, Tina Fey’s Whisky Tango Foxtrot put audiences off before its even hit screens due to its casting of white actors in the roles of Afghans.
The film itself received praise for its positive representation of Afghans, a disclaimer that is insulting; audiences shouldn’t have to be grateful that Hollywood didn’t deliver another purely racist, egocentric take on Afghanistan, even as, breathtakingly, the film failed to include ethnic actors in primary roles.
And so it is that, again and again, audiences are asked to peer into other cultures through Hollywood’s condescending lens.
Hollywood’s racism dates back to its earliest days of silent films and far beyond its depictions of Arabs and, by extension, anyone with a beard or who eats with their hands. In 1915, DW Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation was a box office success. It was applauded for its technical breakthroughs in cinema, but a century on, it’s remembered for its unabashed racism against black people.
As someone of Arab heritage, lack of positive representation is something that has long affected me as an avid watcher of movies. Even seemingly innocuous films like Aladdin and The Mummy, trade in degrading stereotypes that Arabs are inherently sneaky, criminal and unclean.
The problem, I would say, is that it is not left up to us to tell our own stories or to even have a hand in them. It might be improving, but we don’t have enough diversity behind the cameras. Writers from minority backgrounds, like all writers, are encouraged to write what they know – this often leaves them writing niche, indie stuff that requires them to poke fun of or criticise their own cultures for a predominantly white audience.
We don’t have enough diversity behind the cameras.
The dangers of this extend beyond public perception. As a recent Vulture piece on film Not Without My Daughter noted, a film’s influence can shape the daily lives of those it purports to portray, often by mere associations. The forgettable, critical flop that was Betty Mahmoody’s autobiography brought to the big screen had such an effect for young Iranian-Americans.
Of course, even having a more diverse on-screen culture isn’t enough. Orange Is The New Black, which has been praised for its onscreen diversity and portrayal of different cultures, doesn’t have any black writers in its writers’ room. Its showrunner, Jenji Kohan, told an audience at her VIVID Sydney talk that her writers are generalists – meaning she doesn’t bring in writers who may have particular insight into a minority.
Still, onscreen diversity is a place to start; it normalises “the other” so often made the villain in Hollywood. Because as long as Hollywood cashes in on the latest fear, you can be assured that you are getting someone else’s perspective on your culture, life and troubles – and how it affects them, not you.
And it’s worth asking, as Wu has, how stories continue to be financed on the strength of white heroes when the world is so clearly diverse.