By Matt Watson
Five years after portraying racial barrier-breaking baseball legend Jackie Robinson in “42,” actor Chadwick Boseman is leading people of color in breaking down Hollywood’s racial barriers.
Last year, the Boseman-led “Black Panther” became the highest-grossing superhero movie in U.S. history and the first of the genre to earn an Oscar nomination for best picture. It’s also the first movie with a predominantly black cast to make $1 billion worldwide, surpassing “Titanic” to become the third-highest-grossing domestic release of all time.
2018 was a banner year for films featuring people of color, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California. The school’s February 2019 report found that 28 of the 100 highest-grossing films in 2018 featured a person of color in a lead or co-lead role, up from 21 in 2017, 14 in 2016 and nine in 2011.
But for all the success of recent films such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” the numbers of people of color on screen and behind the camera remain a long way from proportionately reflecting the U.S. population, according to UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report.
People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, but the report found that in 2016-17 people of color constituted just 29.8 percent of film leads, 12.6 percent of film directors and 7.8 percent of film writers.
Films released in the last two years such as “Moonlight,” “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Girls Trip” have changed the way DaShawna Jackson thinks about film. The Metropolitan State University of Denver elementary education student and treasurer of the Black Student Alliance helped plan many of the Black History Month events on campus, including screenings of “Sorry to Bother You,” “Higher Learning” and “The Hate U Give.”
Jackson leads a book club for sixth- and seventh-graders at Florida Pitt Waller K-8 school in Denver, and she took those students to see “The Hate U Give” after they read the book. She said she appreciated how that film and other recent films have explored multidimensional depictions of people of color.
“Black and African representation in media doesn’t have to always be angry and sad. It doesn’t have to be civil rights. ‘Selma’ was great, but we’re more than Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” she said. “During Black History Month, we always get stuck on the social-justice aspect and civil rights. But we did that.
“How can we go forward?”
Remember #OscarsSoWhite? The movement spawned by the dearth of diversity in the 2015 and 2016 Academy Award nominations feels like ages ago, not because the problem has been solved but because of the swelling volume of and acclaim for films featuring people of color since.
“Moonlight” became the first film with an all-black cast to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017, while Jordan Peele was the first black screenwriter to win best original screenplay (“Get Out”) in 2018.
2019 saw more firsts. Three of the four acting awards went to actors of color: Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”). Meanwhile, Ruth Carter ("Black Panter"), Hannah Beachler ("Black Panther") and Peter Ramsey ("Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse") were the first black nominees to win best costume design, production design and animated feature, respectively.
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” garnered the Mexican director Oscars for cinematography, foreign-language film and directing, meaning that five of the last six awards for best director have been won by Mexican filmmakers. Spike Lee, who boycotted the 2016 Academy Awards as part of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, won the first Oscar of his long career for best adapted screenplay (“BlacKkKlansman”) but was less than thrilled about the eventual best picture winner.
The increased representation at the 2019 Oscars isn’t an accident, said Vincent Piturro, chair of the film and media studies minor at MSU Denver. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars, has made concerted efforts to diversify its ranks.
“The Academy actually made very specific inroads in that area. In the last two years, the Academy invited almost double the number of participants as they have in the past. Many of those were people of color,” Piturro said. “I think they should open it up to even bigger groups of people.”
Hollywood still has a marketing problem when it comes to films that feature people of color, Piturro said. The marketing for films featuring people of color too often targets small audiences even while they often have broad appeal.
In fact, UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report found that films with black and Latino leads and majority-minority casts were released, on average, in the fewest international markets in 2017.
Another reason the Oscar nominations are approximating America’s demographics this year is that Hollywood has figured out that its audience isn’t just white suburban kids, Piturro said.
In fact, minorities accounted for the majority of ticket sales for five of the top 10 films in 2017, as well as half of the ticket sales for a sixth top 10 film, according to UCLA’s report.
“If you make good movies, people are going to the movies to see them," Piturro said. “‘Black Panther’ is the perfect example of that. It’s not a ‘black movie’; it’s a movie. A great movie, period.”
Kenyan filmmaker and artist Wanuri Kahiu visited MSU Denver last week as the keynote speaker for the campus’ Black History Month programming. Kahiu is the co-founder of an African media company called AfroBubbleGum that supports, creates and commissions fun and frivolous art. She encourages joyous representations of black and African people instead of focusing on war, poverty or terrorism, which dominate media coverage of the continent.
“History is a place to start pulling apart what we know to be true and adding the narratives that have almost been forgotten,” Kahiu said. “Truth is not told by one perspective.”
Having grown up in Kenya, she recalled not seeing African people kiss in a movie until she was a teenager.
“Europeans fell in love repeatedly. Americans kept falling in love. But there were no images of Africans in love. How did we know we were allowed that kind of joy if we didn’t see representations of it?” Kahiu said. “If it’s true that seeing is believing, then we need to see different images of ourselves.”
Her newest film, “Rafiki” (Swahili for “friend”), was banned in her home country for its depiction of two young women falling in love. The government classification board asked her to change the ending to make the characters remorseful instead of hopeful, but she instead sued the government for freedom of expression and won a weeklong injunction that allowed the film to screen and become eligible for awards. It became the first-ever Kenyan film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.
Kahiu is also a fan of forward-looking representation of people of color in art such as “Black Panther,” which contains themes of Afrofuturism, and the symbolism that such themes convey.
“We project our images into the future and start to create stories of ourselves in the future because we’ve never had control of the stories of our past,” Kahiu said.
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