What is up with the lack of Black representation in film?

It’s time to increase representation in media. Graphic by Elizabeth Hein.

BREANNA WILSON | OPINION COLUMNIST | bcwilson2@butler.edu 

I enjoy film just as much as the next girl — and no, not in a pretentious way like the self-proclaimed “film bros” do. It’s one of many mediums that allows stories to be told; from totally unrealistic alien-versus-space monster films to an insane biopic of a man who wears flashy suits and sings rockabilly tunes, the range of what can be produced and consumed is endless. Regardless of how realistic a film is, they have detailed characters that viewers can relate to. 

So what happens when you don’t see yourself being portrayed on the big screen? This is a big question that Hollywood must reckon with. What is with the lack of Black representation on the big screen?

Behind the screen

Growing up, I wanted to direct films and write some kick-*ss scripts. I was always a creative mind and wanted to be the next Spielberg, like my white male peers. As I got older, I began to see how hard it would be for me as a woman — a woman of color, at that — to achieve that dream. Even 95 years after the conception of the Oscars, only one Black woman has achieved the feat of winning two Academy Awards. 

If I asked a “film bro” to name a Black director, they’d immediately go for Spike Lee for pretension or Jordan Peele for popularity. They’re not going to name John Singleton, who was the first African American nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for his revolutionary film “Boyz n The Hood.” They also won’t even mention Steven McQueen, director of the award-winning drama “12 Years a Slave.” While they will recognize the strength of these films, they refuse to acknowledge the issue they underscore, which is the insane lack of major Black directors in Hollywood. 

Claire Shaffer, a first-year political science major, feels as if Hollywood has struggled to create opportunities for people of color based on the racism embedded in our society. 

“I think it’s just straight-up racism, and Black people are given less opportunities than white people to get into leading roles,” Shaffer said. “The racism present in Hollywood, it’s just an extension of racism in society.” 

Film has historically been dominated by white wealthy men. Many tend to gatekeep the art of film with their pretension and insane film vocabulary to make it seem inaccessible to people uneducated in film. Since these actors and directors tend to be wealthy, they are able to attend the top universities for film, which allows them to have access to endless connections and networks. If you do not attend elite film schools, it is difficult to get your ideas and talent out to major production companies and agencies. This blatant classism and racism go undiscussed and are even protected by white filmmakers in Hollywood, making it nearly impossible for Black filmmakers to break out in Hollywood due to the color of their skin. 

Junior English major Alena Finnell believes that the film industry is inaccessible for people of color due to there being many opportunities that are only accessible to the elite. 

“I think that there is a little bit of elitism in terms of access to film education,” Finnel said. “ … It’s really hard to even develop that education on your own. And I think that there is this elitism where if you don’t have an education or you don’t have the knowledge, then you’re looked down upon, and so I think that’s where classism is extremely prevailing.”

It is difficult for anyone to break out in the film industry, but imagine being a person of color going up against a white man. You’re already looked at as lesser based on stereotypes, but even if you do get the job, will the general public even want to listen to your story? 

The audience

Many Black stories go untold or are unpopular amongst white audiences. Recently, the TV show “Abbott Elementary” on ABC broke the mold in Black television by bringing in conversations such as teaching equality, public schooling and being an educator while Black. The main target audience for this show has been people of color, teachers and students and has gained mass popularity across all platforms. Shows like “Abbott Elementary,” “Blackish,” “Grownish” and many other modern Black stories have become popular in the last decade, but it is because of their Black target audience or the strong stories they present that they are being consumed by the world. 

Victory Sampson, a first-year multilingual studies and strategic communication double major, feels like the only people supporting Black media are Black people and other people of color due to the relatability of the content and visibility it provides for marginalized groups. 

“I feel that [audience perception] is completely dependent upon the piece of media that is being created,” Sampson said. “For example, ‘Abbott Elementary’ — I am a part of the target audience. The target audience are teachers, students and specifically, Black students and Latino students that have been underrepresented in the schooling system … However, if you’re — just saying — a business major at a small liberal arts college with all of your tuition paid for by your parents, and you’ve never been to any school that isn’t a private school, I doubt that it’s [relatable].” 

Representation on the screen

Lack of representation on the big screen stems from the century-old idea of not acknowledging Black film. The most controversial example of this would be “Moonlight” winning Best Picture over “La La Land” in 2017. This awarding received a lot of backlash and, no, not because someone f*cked up and read the wrong card. The decision by the Academy received backlash over the idea that a film highlighting the Black queer struggle seemingly lost to two of Hollywood’s biggest names dancing on stage to a story about how hard it is to be an actor and musician. This shows that no matter how moving or how popular a film can be, it could always receive unwarranted backlash compared to its white big-name counterpart. 

Shaffer believes that the recent Hollywood and major award shows gravitate towards white stories on the basis of relatability. 

“I think people consider white stories to be more relatable, which is kind of ridiculous because people of color have to relate themselves to white stories, and we should be able to relate to people different from us,” Shaffer said. “But white stories are seen as more relatable than Black stories. And I also think that white stories are seen as more complex or more inherently intellectual than Black stories, especially in a Black film. A lot of [African American Vernacular English] is used or stuff like that that’s inherently seen as less intellectual, less complex than white film.”

I couldn’t write this article without talking about possibly one of the most controversial films of the decade: “The Little Mermaid.” It baffles me how a movie about a mermaid becoming a human princess pisses so many people off. It doesn’t piss people off because of the antiquated gender roles embedded in the film — it pisses people off because Halle Bailey, a Black woman, was cast as Ariel. 

Time and time again, we see white people cast as people of color and no one bats an eye. We have infamously seen this with Scarlett Johansen playing an Asian woman in 2017’s live-action “Ghost in the Shell” or Mickey Rooney literally doing yellowface to portray an East Asian character in the 1961 classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” 

Finnel feels that changing the ethnicity of beloved white characters challenges the status quo, which causes an immense amount of racist backlash from the world and media.

“[Representation of POC] builds connection, which I think also upsets people,” Fennel said. “I think the idea that a previously beloved white character could have similarities to people of color and the experiences of people of color angers racist people.”

Moving forward 

Right now, it can feel like the whole world is against you as a Black creative, but that isn’t always the case. Many strong Black directors, such as Barry Jenkins who used a comparatively small $1.5 million budget to create “Moonlight,” have shown that it can be about the stories you tell, not the amount of money, education or resources you have. With the mass creation of Black content, it is important that we support Black creatives outside of the mainstream. 

Finnel urges everyone to go beyond what they see on the trending page and that it is just as important to support small creators as it is to support major Black films and filmmakers.

“I think there’s such a diverse array [of films] from Black men, women and the LGBTQ+ community,” Finnell said. “I would encourage them to look at independent movies, look for up-and-coming creatives and really support people who are on the rise, and not just the big directors that we know and love. I love Jordan Peele, I love Spike Lee, but there are baby Jordan Peeles, baby Spike Lees, and we should be supporting them.”

With some students at Butler wanting to pursue art mediums such as film, it can feel very lonely when you don’t see representation. Sampson wants Black creatives to know that they are not alone and to keep their dreams alive when it comes to creating. 

“If you are a Black person that happens to be reading this article, be encouraged — we do exist,” Sampson said. “We are out here. We still can make money. We still could be stable off of our work. It is possible. Just know that there will be a system of people trying to fight against that happening for you, and know that you must rely on your community in order to garner the resources and the fame and success that you want … So stay with your community and you should prosper. That is what I have found in my own journey.”


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