Is There Enough Inclusivity and Representation in Hollywood?
by Anjali Shiyamsaran | published Nov. 6th, 2019
The comedy-drama "The Upside" made its way to number one at the box office in North America in just its first weekend in early January of this year. Having been adapted from the French 2011 original, "The Intouchables," "The Upside" takes inspiration from French businessman Philippe Pozzo di Borgo’s incredible true story.
At age 42, Pozzo di Borgo became quadriplegic after a paragliding accident that injured his spine. As he began his difficult recovery, Pozzo di Borgo's profound friendship with his caregiver Abdel lifted him out of the intense depression that followed.
The story’s American screen version stars Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart. Many critics questioned the lack of inclusivity with the film’s casting of Cranston as a character with a disability. I agree with this criticism, especially since one of the most uniquely fascinating notions about film is how invigorated and inspired people can feel from seeing themselves on a screen.
A Lack of Representation
Trevor Noah, comedian and host of "The Daily Show," shared an enlightening comment from an unnamed actor with a disability who emphasized another perspective in favor of hiring actors who are disabled for these roles. The actor argued that it is very rare that a role for a character with a disability comes along, and while it is possible for an able-bodied actor to play this character, it is nearly impossible for an actor with a disability to be cast to do the opposite. In other words, the selection of able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities deprives disabled actors of rightful casting opportunities.
I believe a similar message applies to the film industry’s representation of sexuality as well. For example, the hiring of cisgender actors for transgender roles have stirred mixed reviews several times in the past. Eddie Redmayne earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Lili Elbe in "The Danish Girl" in 2015. Yet, just last year, actress Scarlett Johansson faced backlash after she was cast to play the transgender character Dante Tex Gill in the movie "Rub & Tug." Following the criticism, Johansson withdrew from the film, agreeing that the role would be an excellent opportunity for a transgender actor who could better represent the character. She highlighted the fact that the number of LGBTQ+ characters dropped 40 percent from 2016 to 2017, and that there was no transgender representation in any major studio release.
The idea of casting able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities, or a cisgender actor to play a transgender character, is akin to the act of industry “whitewashing” — when a white actor is cast in a movie role scripted for a person of color. Earlier this year, actress Emma Stone was called out at the Golden Globes for playing the role of Captain Allison Ng, a woman of one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian descent in the 2015 drama/romance film "Aloha."
Discrimination is not just restricted to live action films. In 2016, the stop-motion fantasy film "Kubo and the Two Strings" was released but received backlash for whitewashing its characters. "Kubo" takes place in feudal Japan, yet its leads are voiced by Caucasian actors. Although there are two Asian actors in the film, they only voice minor characters in the story, allowing for a predominantly white cast.
Moving in the Right Direction
Fortunately, the importance of representation has not been lost on all popular television, film projects and animations, such as the 2016 ABC television series "Speechless." The comedy TV series stars Micah Fowler, a young actor who has cerebral palsy and portrays J.J. DiMeo, who shares the same disorder.
Jenny Han, author of the Netflix-adapted novel “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” admitted that the movie took such a long time to make because of studio executives’ confusion regarding Han’s request for an Asian-American lead actress. Despite the fact that Lara Jean Covey’s Asian culture and the plot of the story are mutually exclusive, the character’s race is an irreplaceable part of her identity. Han, an Asian-American woman herself, shared her own experience growing up without seeing much Asian-American representation on television and sought to positively influence teenage girls with Lara Jean’s portrayal.
In 2016, the Disney movie "Moana" shared the story of a headstrong and determined girl living on a Polynesian island called Motunui. Behind the scenes, I admire the filmmakers’ rightful decision to focus on auditions from across the Pacific in order to thoroughly portray Moana’s character and identity. Furthermore, a majority of the "Moana" cast are also of Native Hawaiian, Samoan and/or Māori heritage.
Then there are films like Marvel’s 2018 superhero film, "Black Panther," which broke several box office records and left a massive cultural footprint with its African-American director and predominantly black cast. A main reason behind the movie’s incredible success is that it “served as a rallying cry for diversity and representation.” The film took care to fully represent the vibrant culture of Wakanda, while powerfully embracing people of color and convincing young people of what can be possible.
Opportunity and Viewership
I don’t believe that Bryan Cranston, or any actor who has in my opinion who misrepresented a character, was ever ill-intentioned in accepting and delivering that role. The actors listed previously are incredibly talented, as proven by their many honors and awards, and I have thoroughly enjoyed many of their movies myself.
However, the film industry’s issue lies with who gets opportunities. Directors should put forth more consideration into giving different actors more opportunities rather than sacrificing diversity for popular celebrities.
In addition, choosing a diverse cast of actors even when they may not be as well-known, can actually be a good thing. It increases the amount of fresh, talented actors in Hollywood while diversifying the entertainment industry as a whole. Viewers should also make a conscious decision to support films that strive to accurately represent their characters and are willing to keep an open mind when it comes to inclusive casting choices.
In order to move the needle in a positive direction, film executives must become more open-minded regarding hiring practices. Achieving diversity is crucial, and it is what makes film such a beautiful art form. If the current stagnancy in representation continues, the entertainment industry risks denying untold stories the respect they deserve as well as the opportunity they yield.