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How to fix Hollywood's race problem

The film industry’s failure to represent people of colour runs far deeper than #OscarsSoWhite. Can a
Bechdel test for race help persuade Hollywood to rethink? Plus: from ‘the magical negro’ to ‘the sassy
confidante’ – the complete guide to tired racial stereotypes

Nadia Latif and Leila Latif
Monday 18 January 2016 14.11 EST

Most kids watch a lot of TV. But if – like us – you grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, and there wasn’t
so much as a park or playground as an alternative – TV and film was your only outlet. While the
temperature outside was 40C and homework was neglected, we would watch films. Steven
Spielberg, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Woody Allen and the Coen brothers were
favourites. We rooted for Duckie in Pretty in Pink, hid behind the sofa during Jaws, were
baffled by Blue Velvet, and learned about love wandering the streets of Vienna with Jesse and
Céline in Before Sunrise.

All of these films we love to this day, but none of them contain a single named character of
colour. Film may be the land of imagination – but what was Hollywood saying when our heroes
never looked like us?

We grasped at the rare appearances of actors of colour – we loved badasses including Billy Dee
Williams in Star Wars (cape!), Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (guns!), and Tina Turner in Mad
Max: Beyond Thunderdome (wig!). But more often, characters fell into tired stereotypes (see
the sidebar below for 10 of the usual suspects).

No nomination: Samuel L Jackson in The Hateful Eight.
Photograph: Allstar/The Weinstein Company

It’s not getting any better. Last year, there were valiant attempts to undermine the all-white
Oscar nominations with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Newsflash: the average 63-year-old
white male Academy voter doesn’t care about hashtags. Despite an effort by the Academy to
diversify the voting pool, this year we have yet another whitewash. One could argue that every
year at the Oscars is a whitewash – only one woman of colour has ever won best actress (Halle
Berry), and only 7% of best actor winners are men of colour (with nearly 40 years between two
of the black winners, Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington). Some commentators, such as
Andrew Gruttadaro, have even suggested that it’s not the Academy’s fault that “this year, no
black people deserved a nomination”. Yup, like that time that Driving Miss Daisy “deserved” to
win, when Do The Right Thing didn’t even get a nomination.

Halle Berry: the only woman of colour to have ever won a best
actress Oscar Photograph: Timothy A. Clary/AFP

This year’s host, Chris Rock, has dubbed the Oscars “the white BET awards”. Jada Pinkett
Smith noted over the weekend that “people of colour are always welcomed to give out awards
… even entertain, but we are rarely recognised for our artistic accomplishments”. On Monday
Spike Lee announced that he will be boycotting this year’s ceremony. “We cannot support it
and mean no disrespect,” he wrote on Instagram. “But how it is possible for the 2nd
consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white?” And Don Cheadle
tweeted that the closest he’d be getting to the Oscars this year would be parking cars for the

We can all lament the lack of nominations in a particularly strong year for actors of colour
(sorry Idris Elba, Samuel L Jackson, Tessa Thompson, Michael B Jordan and Will Smith), but
let’s be honest, those we would mention are the lucky few who make it onto our screens at all.
The problem isn’t just a lack of recognition come awards season – it’s Hollywood’s staggering
lack of representation across all of its films.

No nomination: Tessa Thompson in Creed. Photograph:
Allstar/Warner Bros

This state of affairs, of course, inspired Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word Tumblr, where he
has edited together all the lines spoken by characters of colour in dozens of films from the past
50 years. In the entire Harry Potter film series, nearly 20 hours in total, only six minutes are
spoken by characters of colour. Most of that six minutes is taken up by a mini Ian Wright
commentating a Quidditch match. Birdman? Fifty seconds. American Hustle? Forty seconds.
Fault In Our Stars? Twenty-eight seconds. Black Swan? Twenty seconds. Frances Ha? Eighteen
seconds. Midnight in Paris? Nine seconds. The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? Forty-seven
seconds, but only if you count the orcs as black.

Since the 1980s, the Bechdel test has become the go-to method to measure whether women
are adequately represented in film. It’s simple – two women must talk to each other about
something other than a man. There have been attempts at a racial Bechdel test. The
eponymous test posited by author Nikesh Shukla (two main characters who are people who of
colour who talk to each other without mentioning their race) highlights one problem facing
actors of colour. But the reality is even worse: most don’t get to talk about race; they just get to
talk about the film’s white protagonist. If they get to talk at all. So we propose the following
five questions instead: Are there two named characters of colour? Do they have dialogue? Are
they not romantically involved with one another? Do they have any dialogue that isn’t
comforting or supporting a white character? Is one of them definitely not magic? (See below.)
The test is not designed to be failed. We set the threshold at two characters. Just two. Any two.
Of this year’s best picture Oscar nominees, only three of the nominated films pass the test (The
Big Short, The Martian and The Revenant), two fail (Mad Max and Room), and three do not
have a single named character of colour in them (Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn and Spotlight). Last
year, only two of the eight nominated films passed our test (American Sniper and Selma) and
half of the films nominated did not feature a single named character of colour (Birdman,
Boyhood, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything). In 2014, four out of the nine
nominated films passed, in 2013, six out of nine passed (a bumper year boosted by Django
Unchained, Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild). If you look at best picture winners over
the past 15 years, six pass our test (including 12 Years A Slave, Slumdog Millionaire and Crash)
but seven do not have a single named character of colour.

No nomination: Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Photograph: AP

Blockbusters fare a bit better. Of the 10 biggest non-animated films of 2015 (we couldn’t get
our heads round what all the different character colours in Inside Out meant), seven passed:
Jurassic World, Furious 7, The Martian, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Avengers: Age of
Ultron (by the skin of its teeth), Pitch Perfect 2 & Ant-Man. All 10 films have at least one named
character of colour in the cast. But it’s a sad day when you’re celebrating the appearance of a
single non-white face in a film.

Highbrow and indie cinema fares much worse – white characters dominate the back catalogues
of Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, Spike Jonze,
Terrence Malick, and most other Croisette darlings.

A simple test is not enough. As with the Bechdel test (Run Lola Run is a very feminist film that
fails, and Showgirls is a questionable one that passes), our test has its limits. Passing it does not
mean that a film automatically becomes a diversity hero, or even any good (we’re looking at
you, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). Some are decent films, but are simply retreading
narratives that we are fed again and again: our particular favourites are when White-People-
Solve-Racism (The Help) or Arabs-Are-Up-To-No-Good (The Hurt Locker). But other films that
pass the test contain troubling representations of race, whether that’s the faceless violent
Arabs of American Sniper or the cliched gangbangers of Crash. What our test does do is force
you to analyse what you notice in a film. We hope that, once you see these things, you cannot
unsee them.
No nomination: Michael B Jordan in Creed. Photograph:
Allstar/Warner Bros

Is it political correctness gone mad to insist that every film has an allotted number of people of
colour cast in it? There are undoubtedly historical settings that might require very specific
casting (though the erasure of people of colour from the historical narratives of films such as
Suffragette is grating). We’re not going to insist on a black man being cast in Valhalla Rising
any more than we would insist on a woman being cast in The Shawshank Redemption. But the
whitewashing of Other narratives is an epidemic in Hollywood today.

In the last few years, there has been Emma Stone’s casting as an Asian-American in Aloha, and
the all-white casts of Gods of Egypt, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Noah. The internet implodes
when a black actor is cast in a role of non-specified ethnicity – highlights include the trolling of
14-year-old Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games, and the collective
online brain fart that happens if you dare put the words “Idris” and “Bond” in the same
sentence. We are sick and tired of seeing films set in the bustling metropolises of London, New
York and Los Angeles and not seeing the reality of those cities represented. Instead of thriving
diverse communities we are treated to the same pallid visions of cities where everyone looks
exactly the same, but never like us. What distresses us even more is the idea that only people
of the same ethnic group can be friends, let alone love interests. Returning to the world of
Harry Potter, the character of Lavender Brown was recast from a black actor in the first films to
a white actor just in time for her to become a romantic prospect for Ron Weasley. Our white
grandmother married our black grandfather in 1955, but in 2015 we are still longing to see
interracial relationships enacted on screen.

In 1988, Eddie Murphy, while presenting the best picture award, broke with his usual clowning
and said: “I will probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but what the hey, I gotta say it … I
came down here to give the award, but I feel we have to be recognised as a people. I just want
you to know that black people will not ride the caboose of society or bring up the rear any
more.” Over a quarter of a century later, we have utterly failed to meet those demands.

What do we want? Change. But who has to do the changing? As Viola Davis said, the only thing
that separates actors of colour from everyone else is opportunity. So casting directors need to
diversify their thinking. Directors need to demand to see different types of actors. Writers
should be making more of an effort to write interesting parts for actors of colour that defy
stereotypes, or implementing a Geena Davis type solution (simply change any character in a
script into a woman) for race.

Maybe it just comes down to money? This year the box office success of films like Straight
Outta Compton proved that actors of colour can score with all audiences. Furious 7 was not
only a huge box office hit, but has a totally diverse cast. This black box office boom trickled
down to other high scorers like Creed and Beyond The Lights, and a film like Tangerine
becoming a critical darling (though another Oscar snub). “Black does travel”, so to speak, but
it’s nowhere near enough. It seems that the only way to encourage the studios to throw their
weight behind more diverse films is through ticket sales. It’s over to you.

The usual suspects
Our top 10 list of stereotypes for people of colour on screen
1. Magical negro

A wise folksy black character: Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.
Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

One of the most popular cliches for black characters, a wise, folksy black character with some
connection to magical forces or spiritual insight. They only exist to enable a white character to
grow as a person and/or reach their goal. Examples include Will Smith in Bagger Vance,
Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and most of the roles
that Morgan Freeman has ever played.

2. Thug
Heart of gold with unstable home life: Cuba Gooding in Boyz n the
Hood Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

Either (a) an aggressive young black man or woman, with zero education, no explicit
motivation behind their aggression and generally dispatched easily: Ice Cube in Boys in the
Hood, Clifton Collins Jr in 187, Noel Clarke in Kidulthood. Or (b) with a heart of gold, more
resilient, and whose aggression is normally rooted in an unstable home life: Cuba Gooding Jr in
Boys n the Hood, John Boyega in Attack the Block, Renoly Santiago in Dangerous Minds.

3. Superhuman athlete

Potential unlocked by white protagonist: Michael B Jordan in
Creed. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

Their true physical potential is unlocked by a white (possibly has-been) protagonist believing
in them: Quinton Aaron in The Blind Side, Cuba Gooding Jr in Jerry Maguire, Michael B Jordan
in Creed, the whole bobsled team in Cool Runnings.

4. Super-rich evil Arab sheikh
Kathleen Turner and Spiros Focas in The Jewel of the Nile Year
Photograph: Alamy

Too rich to know the value of anything, lecherous and obsessed with the American woman.
The documentary Reel Bad Arabs does an exhaustive analysis of this stereotype, but examples
include Eugene Levy in Father of the Bride II (who gets extra points for donning brown-face
and talking in gibberish), Spiros Focás in Jewel of the Nile, Richard Romanus in Protocol.

5. Awkward desexualised Asian

Unlucky in love: Kal Penn in Van Wilder. Photograph:

A man who is unlucky in love, though often played by extraordinarily good-looking actors. The
character can never get a girlfriend, and if they do, it’s down to the intervention of the white
protagonist. Generally nerds for good measure. Examples: Kal Penn in Van Wilder, Steve Park
in Fargo, and special mention to Jet Li in Romeo Must Die who is in no way awkward but still
can’t get a kiss from Aaliyah.

6. Mammy
Happily serving a white family: Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the
Wind. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

Generally a warm, overweight black woman, happily serving a white family, with zero
aspirations. Mammies are never sexual, poorly educated, and full of earthy common sense.
Think Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, Cicely Tyson in The Help, Lillian Randolph in
It’s a Wonderful Life.

7. Jaded older police officer

Often ignored: Morgan Freeman in Se7en. Photograph:
Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Acts as a counterpoint to a younger, more energetic white police officer. Provides advice based
on his own wealth of experience but is often ignored in favour of the white police officer’s
instincts. Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard, Morgan Freeman
in Se7en.

8. Eternal sidekick
Limited skill and usefulness: Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element.
Photograph: Allstar/Gaumont

Is either (a) quick-witted – limited skill and usefulness but whose quick wit proves to be (often
accidentally) insightful (see Chris Tucker in Silver Linings Playbook, Chris Tucker in The Fifth
Element, Jonathan Ke Quan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Or, (b) loyal and
unquestioning – normally possesses physical talents but whose only motivation is to help the
white protagonist towards their goal (see Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters, Arthur Wilson in
Casablanca, Shaobo Qin in Ocean’s Eleven).

9. Sassy confidante

Simplistic insight: Stacey Dash in Clueless. Photograph:

A woman who exists to listen to the white protagonist about their career and/or love life and
provide simplistic but ultimately correct insight. Jennifer Hudson in Sex and the City, Stacey
Dash in Clueless, Viola Davis in Eat Pray Love.

10. Terrorist
Mindless cannon fodder: Art Malik in True Lies. Photograph:

Dangerous stock villains, although often incompetent. Mindless cannon fodder, the extent of
their dialogue is often repeatedly screaming “ALLAHU AKBAR!”. Think of the Libyans in Back
to the Future, Sayed Badreya in Executive Decision or Art Malik in True Lies.

Nadia Latif:

Leila Latif:

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