How Movies like “Black Panther”, “Rogue One” and “Get Out” Are Making History

"Black Panther" (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)

If you’ve been keeping up with cinematography-related news, you may already know Marvel’s most recent massive success “Black Panther”, directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, and Lupita Nyong’o, the movie features a predominantly African cast. The movie was an instant hit, with countless praising the film’s representation of people of color as superheroes. The “Star Wars” franchise has also been successful – “The Last Jedi”, its most recent installment, featuring actors John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Kelly Marie Tran, earned 1.321 billion dollars at the box office, and “Rogue One”, Gareth Edwards’s Star Wars spinoff starring Diego Luna, Felicity Jones, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker and Jiang Wen, earned 1.056 billion. Also recently, the film “Get Out” (directed by Jordan Peele and featuring actors like Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, among others) took home the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, with Peele’s work now being referred to as a game-changer

You may be noticing a pattern here: these two massive hits had plots centered around people of color and featured actors of color in their cast and crew. Both were very well-received, as people didn’t find them to be stereotypical, but rather, highlights of non-Western cultures that aren’t appropriately represented in the media. We’ve all heard the same tales: African-American men are depicted as thugs/criminals, Latinos play happy-go-lucky gardeners or drug lords, Middle Easterners are terrorists, Native Americans are just ‘indians’ and Asian men are just geeks; Latinas are sassy and sexual, African-American women are always angry, and Asian women are fetishized and portrayed as sex workers. Sadly, it’s not simply racial stereotypes: LGBTQ+ individuals are portrayed as promiscuous, and rarely is it that we see a lead role have some form of disability. Minority groups are reduced to small roles that sometimes crosses the line of problematicness, while the white lead thrives. If we go watch some of the most popular films and shows, we’ll be able to spot these stereotypes.

However, it’s not all bad. Many actors have come forward to criticize the tendency of spreading these negative images. One case is Kal Penn’s, who you might know from the Netflix show “Designated Survivor” and was actually the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement during Obama’s administration, who revealed he struggled early on in his career, as he was only offered roles that made fun of Indian culture and names, some of which required him to force a more “authentic” Indian accent. “Fresh Off The Boat” Constance Wu star has also addressed the lack of Asian representation in media by saying: “An Asian person who is competing against white people, for an audience of white people, has to train for that opportunity like it’s the Olympics,” she said. “An incredibly talented Asian actor might be considered for a leading role maybe once or twice in a lifetime. That’s a highly pressured situation.” However, as Wu points out, diversity is also about fostering writers and actors of color so their stories are brought to light. 

It’s also often said that the lack of representation has an impact on children and the younger generations, as they struggle to find confidence upon not seeing themselves portrayed in the media. This can impact them deeply. Many adults also identify with this problem, though. Children spend a lot of time watching TV after school, so much that what they’re shown by the media affects them and their way of thinking. Not finding a character they might share a physical resemblance with, the kids’ self-esteem is damaged. At a  larger scale, the characters represented in shows and films do not mirror the world’s real demographics.

Stats Lack of diversity in Media and entertainment - Race and Ethnicity

Here is where “Black Panther” and “Get Out” come in. Also extremely worthy of being mentioned are “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, starring characters of Guatemalan, Nigerian, and Vietnamese ethnicities and its already-mentioned spinoff, starring actors of Pakistani, Chinese, Mexican and African-American ethnicities and featuring one blind character; the movies have gained special attention and received plentiful positive reviews, bringing the attention to the stories told by people of color and with disabilities (like Yen’s character.) Thanks to the success of movies like these three, a study was carried out,


which revealed that movies with more diverse casting earned more money at the box office. 

"Get Out" (dir. Jordan Peele)

Coming back to Wu’s point, movies like “Get Out” (movie that received a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes) and “The Shape of Water” (which surprised many by feature a mute lead and African-American

women as the lead roles) have also been acclaimed and awarded. 

At the most recent Academy Award Ceremony, Jordan Peele was awarded the Best Original Screenplay Award for his work “Get Out”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro won an Oscar for Best Director, Pixar’s “Coco” (featuring well-known Latinx actors and hiring large amounts of Latinxs for the crew) and Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” starring transgender actress Daniela Vega took home the Best Foreign Language Feature statuette. Last year, Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali won the Supporting Actors categories, and “Moonlight” (dir. Barry Jenkins), film about a young gay African-American man living in a Miami neighborhood, won the Best Picture category. To add to this list are the before-mentioned “Star Wars”, “Black Panther”, and, as you may have guessed, all of these films are similar in the sense that the stories featured the same people at their center: people of color. The work of actors, writers, and directors of colors has gained a lot of attention as of late, and rightfully so, as they have demonstrated the beauty of the accurate stories the minority groups have to show, staying away from portraying them under a bad light. People of color are getting cast as the heroes, the leaders, the protagonists. These stories, previously overlooked, and these voices, previously silenced, are finally being recognized. More and more children can see someone who physically looks like them and with each diverse film/show released, the saying that “art imitates life” seems to become truer.  

"Rogue One" (dir. Gareth Edwards)

Overall, it looks like we might see more diversity on screen sometime soon. We’ve come across terrifyingly problematic movies in the past, like “The Birth Of Nation” (directed by D.W Griffith, following a white family being tormented by African-Americans slaves), or movies that resorted to the use of face makeup applied on white actors to help they portray characters of other races (like the beloved classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, regarding the character of Mr. Yunioshi.) Mor recently Adam Sandler, famous for works like “50 First Dates”, “Grown Ups” and “Click”, was criticized for the wrongful, insulting portrayal of minority groups in his move “The Ridiculous 6” (the actors even left the set and quit the project so actors of other ethnicities wore makeup, wigs, and costumes to fill in the parts.) Although the cases of extreme problematic happen less frequently than in the past, there’s still progress to be made (just look at the distribution of races in leading roles in the film.)

We like to think that we are on our way toward a more inclusive society, and we can see this in the newer TV shows and movies that are focusing on broadening the spectrum of the characters’ races, ethnicity, religion, and gender. Award ceremonies are acknowledging more actors of color than they used to.  Works with leads of color are becoming more popular (think TV show “Dope”, Disney’s “A Wrinkle In Time”, “Dear White People”, “Orange is the New Black”), and with works showing the marvel and vibrancy of others’ stories (as well as how successful they can be) it could be expected of film studios to feel more encouraged to produce this kind of content.  Here’s to hoping that one day, we can live in a world where we can all see ourselves depicted on-screen.