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Does Diversity Bring Dollars?

By Lynette Kee

Courtesy of NetflixAs cultural consciousness continues to play an active part in the film and production industry, audiences are seeing more authentic representations of themselves in movies and TV shows as portrayed by Netflix — from “On the Block” and “Tigertail” to “Never Have I Ever.”

The past few years have seen several breakthroughs in the film industry as Hollywood continues grappling with the idea of representation and inclusion. In 2018, Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther,” the first superhero blockbuster with a majority African-American cast, garnered an overwhelmingly favourable response and became the highest grossing film of the year in the United States. It was then followed by Warner Bros.’s rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians” — the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Asian descent. Both films were seen as huge strides across the breadth of representation, suggesting that studios were finally responding to the ongoing criticism about the lack of on-screen diversity.

Looking forward, a number of upcoming movies hints that Hollywood’s inclusive narrative might be more than just lip service. Enter “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” possibly the next Asian blockbuster, featuring Simi Liu, from the CBC television sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” Awkwafina, comedian Ronny Chieng and Hong Kong stalwart Tony Leung. Elsewhere, Universal Pictures’ spy thriller movie “355” features a multi-ethnic female cast, while Disney touts another live remake of its classic animated films “Little Mermaid” with black actress and singer Halle Bailey as the lead Princess Ariel — who is characteristically known to be white and redheaded in her previous cartoon incarnation.

Although it seems that years of activism have finally been yielding results, minority-led films, despite reaping economic benefits, still prove problematic to some moviegoers — whether because of misrepresentation or stereotypes. This begs the question: Is Hollywood’s embrace of diversity and inclusion a reflection of empathy or simply a cynical, monetary exercise in political correctness?

Once upon a time in Hollywood, films were made primarily for the American audience (North American and European, at best). For a regular moviegoer in that category, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Cary Grant, amongst many others, were great icons who shaped the 20th century film industry. However, entertainment during that period has demonstrated a significant lack of icons for minority groups, aside from an occasional featurette as a sidekick, or worse, a marginalised character presented as a demeaning stereotype.

Blessing or bane, showbusiness has always been a microcosm of the world. While black performers like Louis Armstrong were celebrated for their art, they were still treated with institutionalised prejudice outside of the big screen. Chinese men were also looked upon as effeminate, to an extent where a globally successful Bruce Lee had to outperform in the masculinity arena, just to be accepted.

During the 1970s, the Blaxploitation movement emerged, along with the rise of identity-based films. “In the American context, black people are often made to be (in the popular image) hyper-violent and hyper-sexualised,” says Joshua J. Kurz, a lecturer in sociology and global studies at the National University of Singapore. And central to the idea of Blaxploitation was the plastering of those black stereotypes on screen for commercial gain. But nonetheless, as Kurz says, “It was a moment in time when people in majority white countries were relatively open to seeing films that featured a majority cast of non-white actors.”

Fast forward to 2001, China’s admission into the World Trade Organisation tipped the scales and prompted the needle shift for the industry to focus on exploring identities and overcoming microaggressions. “It was then Hollywood realised that they could make 30 to 40 per cent of the film’s gross just from China,” says Kurz. “But by 2015 or 2016, we started seeing this trend disrupted and some films were starting to see higher global box office returns than domestic returns.” To some extent, the Chinese co-financing of Hollywood productions seems to be relative to the appearance of Chinese protagonists in blockbuster films.

The industry is certainly booming. With the growing population of minority groups representing native Americans, Latinx, Asians, women and the LGBTQ+ community in the United States, coupled with the rise of multiculturalism, Hollywood is slowly, but surely, recognising the importance of representation.

According to the Hollywood Diversity Report 2020, films with 21 to 30 per cent minority cast enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts in 2018, while films with 41 to 50 per cent minority cast in 2019 enjoyed the same distinction. In contrast, films with the least diverse casts in both years were the least profitable, suggesting America’s increasingly diverse audience prefers to consume more inclusive film content. The same study also shows that the minority population has been growing by nearly half a per cent each year, amounting to 40 per cent in 2018 and slightly more in 2019 — leading to the conclusion that people of colour will become the majority in the coming decades.

Unfortunately, as Kurz puts it, “We live in a world where power dynamics that are historically developed continue to have present effects.” And even well-intentioned studios that espouse progressive values inevitably make mistakes. In efforts to correct ethnicity and gender imbalances, studios now find a growing need for experts who can help address issues like unconscious bias.

For Pixar’s 2017 animated film “Coco,” for example, which tells the story of Día de los Muertos, a festival holiday celebrated in Mexico to honour the dead, the movie was set to be director Lee Unkrich’s follow-up to his Best Picture nominee “Toy Story 3.” Unkrich, who has no real connections to Mexico or its traditions, engaged a Latinx cultural consultant to safeguard his film from his blind spots. “The Latino community is a very vocal, strong opinionated community,” he said to The New York Times. “With me not being Latino myself, I knew that this project was going to come under heavy scrutiny.” The film was critically acclaimed and widely regarded as the best animated film of 2017.

To put things in perspective, the effectiveness of good representation in films is often due to vocalisation by minority ethnicities who have felt extremely underrepresented in the past. Likewise, when a film fails to accurately portray a specific culture, the long exhale of disappointment tends to be deafening. But that is not to say that people are not appreciating Hollywood’s progression.

In an ideal world, where equality exists and movies represent the world we see around us, studios needn’t worry that creativity will be stifled in the name of maintaining a quota. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), says Kruz, was one film that was a genuine representation of the LGBTQ+ community, because “the story itself is coming from a place of diverse storytelling.”

On one hand, the role of a cultural consultant illustrates studios’ comprehensive adjustment to a fast widening market. But it has also opened up a glimpse into the movie rosters — where Hollywood’s inclusivity narrative falls short by one crucial measure. “The majority of Hollywood films are still produced, directed, written and financed by white people, especially white men,” says Kurz. The snail’s pace of improvement in this aspect may be largely due to the lack of economic pressure as there are few ticket-buying decisions based on the gender and ethnicity of the filmmaker. As diversity onscreen has steadily gained little victories amongst its audience, it appears there are still inclusion gaps that require more than just Band-Aid solutions.

“Hollywood is a business,” Kurz says. As a business and as a creator, how then do you gauge an accurate response? “So I think they react to the numbers [of a movie like Black Panther] and say ‘You can criticise that we use black North Americans and European actors to play Africans, but it has made a billion dollars and has launched a sub-franchise within the Marvel Universe. What else do you want?’”