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Article – Fantastic Minorities and Where to Find Them

 

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Posted January 8, 2017 by

 
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Fantastic Minorities and Where to Find Them

Modern society is a hotpot of multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic communities, but where do we find that kind of representation in cinema? In ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ apparently. The spin-off film from the main Star Wars franchise is filling more Disney execs’ pockets, but it’s also the reigning king of the December 2016 box office. Two years running, Star Wars films have proven that characters played by minority actors can result in box office gold.

In case you missed it, the cast of Rogue One includes Felicity Jones, Mexican actor Diego Luna, British/Pakistani Riz Ahmed, Chinese actors Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang, as well as Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits and Ben Mendelsohn. The majority of these actors speak in their natural accents (not Mendelsohn though, which is a shame, as it may have been interesting to hear an Aussie accent taking on Tarkin and Darth Vader).

It’s an unusual visual and aural landscape, especially for a blockbuster film. Of course, one could say that Star Wars films have more freedom to take a gamble on unknown names or multiracial actors, because, in the words of Riz Ahmed (who plays Bodhi Rook in Rogue One), the difference between a Star Wars film and other films is that ‘everyone will see it’.

But wouldn’t that same freedom be extended to Marvel or DC films? Unfortunately, we couldn’t pay them to take a similar ‘risk’, because their characters already have a place in our visual memory, which means any aberration in casting requires endless explanations by cast and crew to privileged fanboys. Would it have been such a stretch to cast an Asian actor as Doctor Strange or Iron Fist? How about a woman of colour playing Captain Marvel? It’s not that far-fetched, as Rogue One proves.

Earlier this year ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ hit the screens. Harry Potter fans were excited and overjoyed to be back in the magical world. I think nostalgia played a huge part in many of the more positive reviews of the film. It was poorly paced and tonally confused, but its most egregious sin was the decision to not include any actors of colour in the lead roles. Now, arguably JK Rowling had written the Harry Potter franchise trio as white (though many people read Hermione as Black), but Fantastic Beasts had no such rigid template to emulate. Any number of actors could have been cast, irrespective of race, yet the creators went with the conventional route. Not even that many extras were of colour which, honestly speaking, wouldn’t have made the situation any better.

All these years, Hollywood films have begrudgingly included actors of colour in main roles. For the longest time, unless the actor was Denzel Washington or Will Smith, the role was intrinsically linked to the actor’s race. This has led to many white-passing actors to change their names (Chloe Bennet from ‘Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD’, Oscar Isaac, Charlie and Martin Sheen, Dean Martin, and many more) in order to successfully vie for better roles, or get stuck with being stereotyped. Nowadays, if an actor looks remotely Arab or Muslim, they get typecast as terrorists, or those roles go to Alfred Molina (see, or rather don’t, ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’).

Whenever you call for diversity, a ‘token Black’ is added to the cast. Even now, more often than not the Black guy (very rarely girl) is ineffectual and superfluous to the film. They might as well be TV Sherlock’s Watson, they’re important in name only.

But the world isn’t divided into Black and White, there’s a range of Brown in between, and said Brown people often get left behind when casting calls come around. My family often plays ‘spot the Indian’ when watching films (especially old ones). If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the swish of a sari or a bobbing turban. In 2006’s ‘Superman Returns’, one of Lex Luthor’s gang was Kal Penn. It was a novelty then, despite him having only one speaking line.

Then ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ happened, and Indian actors got a toe into the Hollywood door. Brit Dev Patel continues to bag roles, albeit usually as Indian characters, which does him and the character a great disservice, but Irrfan Khan remains popular (I think talent has a lot to do with that) and pops up in the most unexpected films (‘The Amazing Spider-man’, ‘Jurassic World’ and ‘Inferno’). Other Indian actors have bagged leading roles in numerous productions as well (Priyanka Chopra in ‘Quantico’), which suggests a change in the global landscape of the international entertainment industry.

Not enough though. Asian, in Hollywood, automatically means South-East Asia, hence the sub-continental lot get left behind. And if anyone is Middle Eastern… well, we know what roles they get.

[SPOILER] There’s a moment in Rogue One that subverted the usual terrorist trope. In the city of Jedha, Cassian and Jyn walk right into an attack by militants. Said militants look very familiar to all film viewers, garbed in Middle-Eastern attire and veils, they bomb and open fire in the central marketplace. Except their targets are the Stormtroopers and Imperials who have invaded their homes and continue to torment them. These aren’t terrorists, these are heroes trying to get their city back. How often do you see that on the big screen? [END SPOILER]

It is probably the reason why I was at once anxious and excited about Rogue One. I found it problematic that the film appeared to feature only one female character, and the lack of women in the film really is inexcusable. The creators could easily have subverted the usual tropes by including more women, but they didn’t.

They did however make the effort to cast a range of ethnicities, which is missing from most films, let alone blockbusters. We often hear or read about how the bigger budget films have too much at stake to take a chance on lesser known actors, or women. An excuse that doesn’t hold up against the argument in paragraph three above. At the same time, lesser known directors are given the opportunity to helm our favourite superhero films – how is the studio able to put so much faith in them creating the best product, if they don’t have the experience behind them, but the same courtesy is not extended to the people on screen? What a conundrum.

I am sure it is evident from my other articles that I am a huge fan of Star Wars. I also grew up watching ‘Star Trek’. Trek was way ahead of the diversity game – they had an Asian and an African-American in their main cast. Their greatest villain may have had the name Khan, but he was played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. In ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ we had an unnamed crewman who looked distinctly sub-continental. As a kid, I was always excited to see him on screen, as it suggested I was another step closer to being a Starfleet Officer. But yeah, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali, etc, actors in regular roles are hard to come by.

However, a Pakistani-origin actor was cast in a Star Wars film, and my social media appeared to have posters of him. Surely, this meant he wouldn’t die after one scene. But did this mean he was going to be a bad guy? A thousand questions ran through my head in the lead up to watching the film. Why did it matter so much to me? I wouldn’t know till after I’d watched the film.

After the first viewing of Rogue One, by which time I was hopelessly in love with all the characters, I found something that I never acknowledged was missing – representation. We’re always talking about representation, how much it matters. It’s not about including the token Black, but making that person’s role significant. It hit me as I watched Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook play a lead character in Star Wars, [Spoiler: as a hero no less], who is fully realised and not some hackneyed stereotype in the background, that this is kind of what I’ve been waiting for all my life. It’s not that sub-continental actors don’t star prominently in movies (Bollywood, Tollywood, the South Indian and Pakistani film industries all produce more films than Hollywood per year), it’s that they don’t star in the films that everyone the world over talks about. Or watches. Or geeks out over. Donnie Yen mentioned in a pre-film interview what it meant to him being a Chinese actor in Star Wars. In the same vein, Ahmed’s role in the film is much like breaking new ground, especially given his surname (a sad commentary in itself). I don’t know if I would have been so moved had anyone else been cast as Bodhi, be they Brown or no, but Ahmed brings with his role a great deal of vocal discourse on the treatment of people like him in his home country of England, and in the US. Read his hard-hitting ‘The Good Immigrant’ essay for more insight into exactly why many of us Asians (Brit, or otherwise) feel a great affinity towards him and Bodhi. Finally, Ahmed seems to be reaching his ‘Promised Land’ of acting. Time for other Asians, preferably from Asia itself, reach that stage as well.

It’s why I’m a huge proponent of colourblind casting (in blockbusters, at the very least), though Hollywood’s understanding of that term is hugely problematic. Rogue One is essentially the prototype for my kind of ‘colourblind casting’. Luna, Ahmed, Yen, Wen and Whitaker are their characters irrespective of the colour of their skin. A few years ago, these roles would have automatically gone to white actors, with maybe a Black cast member thrown in for good measure. But Rogue One’s creators went the extra mile and included an Asian landscape, and it’s the better for it.

Television has far surpassed cinema in terms of representation, even in the superhero and science-fiction genres. ‘Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD’ has an excellent mix in their ensemble lead cast as well as in their recurring cast members, and the newest addition of Gabriel Luna’s Robbie Reyes as Ghost Rider (instead of the Johnny Blaze iteration of the character) has added an extra lingual and racial dynamic to the fourth season. ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘Luke Cage’ has a woman and an African-American man as protagonists, while the MCU is still two years away from a woman and an actor of colour headlining their own films. ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ not only has a diverse cast, but also includes diverse guest stars. Even ‘Supernatural’, after years of focusing only on white characters, has begun to include guest stars who are of Asian (including sub-continental) origin. Netflix is your go-to place to catch multi-ethnic casts, what with ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Sense8’ making stringent efforts to diversify the look of their leads (‘Sense8’ even has a global multi-cultural cast, which makes it even more unique). These two shows are also well ahead of the game when incorporating LGBTQIA+ characters and actors, a trend which the rest of the television and film industry needs to pick up.

It’s slow progress, but I’m itching to see this phenomenon take over. Landscapes of movies, books and television should represent the real world more accurately, thereby attracting bigger and better audiences worldwide. And it’s high time the landscape included prominent roles for actors and characters who are female, alternately-abled, of a variety of sizes and shapes – especially when they’re women – are non-binary or gender-fluid and belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. We shouldn’t need to be asking for this in this day and age, it should be a given. Imagine sitting through a film that successfully passes the Bechdel, Shukla/Duvernay/Latif and Vito Russo Tests all at once, what would that be like?

Films and television would also do better if they began exploring new locales, not as exotic destinations, but as settings for ethnic stories. The same way ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ explored the dichotomy of Detroit and Tangiers through the eyes of two vampires, in ‘Sense8’ it’s quite refreshing to witness the politics of Korea and the hang-ups of India in relation to a story about a telepathic community. We need more of the world we live in from the entertainment we consume.

It’s 2017, last year was a step backward in many regards, but if Rogue One has taught us anything, it’s that a group of diverse individuals can do a lot to bring the galaxy some hope.

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Lestat de Lioncourt
Random Thoughts – Lestat’s Blog
@EnsignLestat58
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