Guest column by Sanjeev Bijli: Diversity and representation in cinema
The recently released Marvel film, Eternals grossed more than $400 million worldwide and gave much-needed respite to cinemas around the world. What this film may also have achieved is a highly diverse cast and crew for a quintessentially White American fable. Helmed by Chinese director Chloe Zhao, fresh from her Oscar-winning film Nomadland last year, the film had Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Kunal Nanjiani and Brian Tyree Henry, all actors of colour, in pivotal roles. Brian is also shown as happily married to a man and raising a daughter. Gender diversity, race diversity, LGBTQ representation in cinema—it all seems to be heading in the right direction.
But it has taken Hollywood decades to shed stereotypes and embrace inclusivity.
Circa 1939, Hattie McDaniel played a maid in the multiple-award-winning film, Gone With The Wind. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the first African-American actor to win this. But it was presented to her at a segregated ceremony.
In the 1961 super hit Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Mr Yunisho’s accent was exaggerated to mock Japanese people. The same stereotype was portrayed by Appu in The Simpsons. This enraged Indians all over the world and finally resulted in the network apologising, and Hank Azaria withdrawing from voicing the famous character.
History has been full of such stereotypes: Black men as thugs, Asians as nerds and Latinos as drug dealers. But we seem to be on the cusp of a transformation.
In the year 2000, the first big screen adaptation of the popular TV series Charlie’s Angels saw the casting of Lucy Liu as Alex. That was perhaps one of the first attempts to cast an Asian actor in an iconic white role. In recent years, we have seen some very interesting casting choices. Dev Patel as David Copperfield, a black female 007 in the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, and actors of colour for the roles of the Queen of England and a Duke in 16th century Britain in the hit rom-com series, Bridgerton.
The box office numbers have been outstanding. Wonder Woman, helmed by woman director Patty Jenkins, grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. So did Black Panther a few years ago.
Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans have been making a mark in the entertainment industry recently, perhaps because more than half the audience is outside the US these days, and even the 330 million plus population of the USA is highly diverse, making it imperative for the studios to appeal to a more mixed demographic. We have also seen the emergence and acceptance of Korean pop culture, which was unheard of a few years ago.
On October 11, International Coming Out Day, DC revealed that Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent’s son, was bisexual and had a boyfriend. Not only is the son of Superman queer, his latest crusades are also topical, like climate change and school shootings.
This isn’t the first time that the world of comics has embraced a more diverse and inclusive narrative. After a few initial missteps, it had gay characters in Batman, Aquaman and the first gay Captain America, introduced in June by Marvel.
Films and entertainment may be at the precipice of some very exciting changes by finally embracing inclusivity. Of course, there will always be controversies like the one currently brewing at the Golden Globes, which stands accused of having very little diversity, but the fact that there has been a huge backlash is a positive sign. We may have come a long way, but we also have a long way to go.
Arts and media have the ability to alter mindsets. We all look forward to a utopian world where we would not need a Coming Out Day or a Woman’s Day. Where we will not need to fill forms with answers on race, gender and ethnicity, but will have just one answer, Human.
To quote from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
Sanjeev Kumar Bijli is the joint managing director of PVR Ltd
From HT Brunch, January 2, 2022
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch