Tom Jolliffe looks at the recent growing numbers in ethnically diverse projects coming out of Hollywood…
In recent years we’ve had a lot of anger aimed at Hollywood for a variety of reasons. Of those, diversity has been a key point of discourse. Whether stemming from ‘white-washing’ or a lack of diverse representation at the Oscars, it appears that finally, the production houses and the distributors might just be taking notice.
You might have assumed in the 21st century, in a multicultural and diverse landscape in Western civilisation, that the days of white-washed casting were over. Picture John Wayne as Genghis Khan for example. It’s an archaic image of a time not far beyond regular yellow facing, or black facing. That recent years could see the likes of Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone take on characters previously established as non-Caucasian, suggests a still tired studio preference. It’s also not as if many said actors who’ve been tarnished by white-washing (the personal stick they get is a bit much, they’re merely accepting well paid work. Blame the studios) are exactly box-office titans. Scar-Jo has certainly had a degree of box office success, but then her most controversial film of late, Ghost In The Shell tanked at the box office.
My issue isn’t really to do with specific roles. If you want to redevelop Ghost In The Shell with a white lead, do it. Wanna make Bond Black? Go for it. But do so, only if you’re pushing and developing a diverse range of projects elsewhere. The era of movie-stars is waning now. It’s concept and franchise that rule. There’s no one star that remains box-office bullet proof, even Dwayne Johnson suffered a rare flop with Skyscraper. Marvel could produce any superhero film and turn a tidy profit. That they’re doing a female lead Captain Marvel is good (and the ‘unexpected’ success of Wonder Woman was good for Hollywood). Black Panther, which saw a predominantly black cast absolutely smash the box office was also great to see. Audiences will watch the films. Maybe it’s come to a point that the atypical white-male (and often affluent) lead in 95% of the films, is just a bit tiresome, or ‘diverse’ roles being shared out between a select few stars is also a bit lazy. There are more black actors than just Sam Jackson, Morgan Freeman and Denzel for example.
In the US, Crazy Rich Asians is currently showing something pretty rare. It’s not just the all-Asian cast, but it’s box-office legs. It’s not just a museum piece or a curio, it’s a decent film in a genre that perennially does well (if you do it right). The fact is, as Get Out also proved, if your film is good, people will watch it. Good films have the potential for box office legs and that can be as key now as the fabled ‘opening weekend.’ It gets tiresome to see haphazardly, lazily churned out movies. If they happen to also feature predominantly middle class, Caucasian casts, then it’s doubly lazy. If you give everyone a fair shake of a platform it also alleviates issues like the recent Jack Whitehall ‘controversy.’ Apparently an affront to diversity for not casting a gay person in a gay role. Well, how about this… let’s just forget the sexuality of an actor. Yes, a lot of straight actors have played gay. To a lesser extent the opposite has also happened, but lets cast the best person for each particular role. I’m no fan of Whitehall, but he’s likely to do something entertaining with that role. He’s there on merit. Communities of whatever racial, sexual or class demographic get defensive and possessive over roles because they’ve been undervalued. Value them and then it matters not if Whitehall takes a ‘gay role’ in a Disney film based on a theme-park ride, that’s likely to be very generic (and rest almost wholly on the talents of the cast).
Right now we’re seeing development of sequels for films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. That’s also good to see, but potentially problematic. Do not forget to be original. You can only repackage the same film so many times. Maybe Crazy Rich Asians 2 does well. Then a third? What if that’s the one where audiences wane? There’s a danger of studio regression. Of course historically they never associate bad returns on anything relating to white male. If a female lead picture fails, or a ethnically diverse lead film fails then it’s perceived to be because of that.
Crazy Rich Asians aside from being an Asian cast is also another rarity in Hollywood. It’s the low/mid-budget picture. It’s this middle ground of budget that we’re not seeing as much of in the last 10 years. It seems to be all or nothing. Indie films struggle against a wall of Disney monopoly to get distribution space. The big studios spend big in the hope of Billion dollar returns and seem a little less interested in shooting a film for 20 million dollars in the hope of doubling their money on it. We need more mid-budget pictures and more space in theatres for Indie projects, of every kind of group and demographic. What’s more, making films for well under 100 million dollars also allows them to gamble more on original ideas. Searching, which sees John Cho given a rare leading role is a film with an original concept, which was daring enough to not just make the standard casting choice of going white. It’s as important as Crazy Rich Asians. It’s weekend gross of just over $5 million dollars (after expanding from a limited first weekend opening) may not scream hit, but it is a film that was probably shot for around 10 at the most. It’s also got a good screen average, and still on a fairly limited release of just over 1000 screens in the US (as opposed to 3.5k-4k that the top releases get). Those numbers suggest another expansion in screens would be a good idea, particular in a quiet time of year. Whether the distributors are brave enough to speculate a little more in the hope of accumulating more returns, remains to be seen. This was the case with Get Out, another small, indie picture which had exceptional growth. These films deserve a chance.
The key point now is to avoid falling into the trap of laziness. Don’t just put together all Asian/Black/etc casts in under cooked films. This isn’t the time for cynical wave riding and cash cow thinking. It’s the time to recognise a need for good, engaging cinema. For representing everyone. Stories can be universal, but still offer an interesting cultural representation that shows wide audiences something engaging. Crazy Rich Asians is both totally relatable, but also, to other demographics than the films principals, interesting and maybe even a little exotic. In the 70’s the blaxploitation era offered not only a selection of cinema catered to the demographic it portrayed (rather fantastically) but also was popular among white audiences too. Somewhere along the way, Hollywood got into the lazy thought that most of its audience were white male and thus most of the stories should relate to that. It’s Hollywood Hays-Code era thinking, that belongs back in the 40’s.
So be original. Spend less on remakes and reboots that people don’t want (like another Terminator film) and put that money into pushing an array of diverse, interesting and engaging stories. In addition I’d like to see more respect given to audiences for what they will watch. Your general audiences are often treated with a patronising attitude. Studios need more respect for the intelligence of the movie-going public. Yes they want the Avengers etc, but you can show them other things too, and in addition you can open up more theatrical space for World Cinema. Believe it or not, audiences aren’t entirely fearful of subtitles. We don’t need to remake every Japanese horror to appreciate the concepts of Japanese horror for example. Give the originals a proper showcase.
As many of the cast of Crazy Rich Asians have pointed out, their film was the first mainstream all Asian-American (not forgetting Brit’s own Gemma Chan of course) cast film in Hollywood for 25 years. Now is the time to maintain open and fair ground for everyone, free of marketing cynicism. Here’s hoping.