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Picketing for Representation? Hollywood Should Make Space for, Not Replace, Black Characters in Roles

Picketing for Representation? Hollywood Should Make Space for, Not Replace, Black Characters in Roles

We should always want to see diversity in television and film because our world is diverse and everyone deserves to see themselves represented. It’s equally important to see how impactful differences can be in these spaces. If we choose not to consider color, ethnicity, skin color, body shape, or gender, are we really progressing?

The struggle for representation in Hollywood continues to be a long, uphill battle. You would think that in 2023 the entertainment world would be more receptive and inclusive. However, we have to remember that Hollywood is a mirror of what is going on in the world. As long as we battle racism and fight for diverse representation, Tinsel Town will reflect that battle.

Disney released Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever within four years of each other, which is something that probably wouldn’t have happened 40 years ago. We witnessed a Black leader of a rich and powerful nation. This was not only a proud moment but real progress.

After that incredible milestone, Disney decided that Ariel, in its live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, would be Black. Some saw this not as progress but as token representation in the form of race swapping. While little Black girls were finally able to see themselves on screen as a princess, many people argued that it was a travesty.

We know there are countless Black stories Hollywood could invest in that would create more opportunities for Black talent. Hollywood doesn’t have to race swap an existing story about a traditionally white character when real stories about Black people exist. At the same time, there was no denying the significance of Ariel being a Black girl with braids. It did open the door for more.

As we watch movies, we bring our own life experiences. Showing to an audience of all colors that everyone matters, no matter the role they play, can significantly impact the people Hollywood wants to reach. But when a character’s race is not even specified, people will get angry when a non-white actor is cast as a character they’ve perceived as white. Since race gets a disproportionate response, it’s clear that this kind of criticism is coming not from an accuracy-focused standpoint but from a racist one.

As a Black woman writer and poet, I’ve seen how my actions have affected others — those who look like me and those who don’t. My performance of poetry for people of color (POC) and white audiences gives perspective to my life and theirs as well. Some relate to my stories because of the color of their skin. Some can understand my background because of our similar past experiences with culture or race.

For the rest, they can see into a world that, for them, previously didn’t exist. Though their experiences with color may look different from my own, they can still appreciate my storytelling — through which they can see the world in a new light — and respect the differences. This is what art is meant to do.

Of course, filmmakers have the right to cast whom they want. Perhaps they could consider what the ramifications are for that kind of interpretation. In the case of something like Queen Charlotte, I understand that POCs get a chance to play roles usually denied to them and POC fans get a chance to see themselves in those roles. But in a history-hostile culture such as ours and where our real history is buried, escapism may in some way make a big problem even bigger.

Hollywood does the dance of escapism and racism regrettably well. It’s been served to us as real life. The truth is that when it chooses to tell or reimagine certain stories and ignore others, it can lead audiences to believe that all stories of POC are just make-believe.

If directors and filmmakers were more willing to be creative in their casting decisions, Black actors could obtain better roles. We can’t ignore that whitewashing is a problem that has been in Hollywood and media for a long time. People race-bend characters because they want to see characters that look like them. The problem with whitewashing is that it takes away representation from people who don’t see themselves on the screen. 

Just like corporate America, the television and film industry is less diverse in top management and in boardrooms, where impactful decisions are made. This creates a significant disconnect with the people we see on screen and how they are represented. Addressing that inequity alone could help spur solutions to raise the level of inclusivity of the industry for all marginalized groups.

As SAG actors and WGA writers are on the picket lines, they are negotiating over pay, streaming residuals, and use of their image for AI. It’s also about representation, fairness, and respect. From the writers’ room to the actors who put it in motion, it all goes hand in hand. We hope for a day when Hollywood can respect the difference between make-believe and history. It’s something that will be better for us all.

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