It's Called Diversity, Karen

[Image description: from the film, The Hate U Give, Starr is holding up both hands as a symbol of surrender. She is wearing a light blue t-shirt with her friends face on it as part of her activism.]

Article by Sophie
Content warning: homophobia/ racism/ mental illness/ police brutality/ su*cide

A lot of us love nothing more than settling down for a couple hours to watch our favourite film; but are your cinematic choices inclusive? 

There is certainly a lack of representation within the film industry, as shown by the topics that are covered within media and stats such as: the drop in the racial diversity of LGBTQ characters in 2018, with 42% of LGBTQ characters being people of colour, compared to 57% in 2017. And whilst some companies (such as Universal Pictures) are amending that, I can’t help but feel disappointed that there isn’t more of an effort being made to achieve inclusivity on all grounds (not just ticking a box and reverting to tokenism). 

Hiring diverse actors who accurately represent a social group is just part of the story. A film involves so much more than a cast. Directors, sound technicians, prop designers and a whole host of other vital job roles need to be filled and representation should be present across all grounds. But of course, nothing is more frustrating than finally getting a story line with character which appears to be part of a minority just for someone like Scarlet Johansson to snap it up. This is a typical strategy of Hollywood as they are more concerned about hiring A-listers to guarantee high box office rates rather than representation and diverse storytelling. Key hiring opportunities being missed includes having cisgender actors for transgender roles, straight actors for LGBTQ+ roles and abled body actors for disabled roles. Not to mention the white washing. Personally, I find that having LGBTQ+ actors to fill spots of characters of their orientation brings a whole lot more reality to me as they can truly understand what it’s like to be in that position and is likely to portray the character better because of that. Straight cis people have a multitude of acting opportunities ahead of them so why should it be ok for them to nab the gay, gender non-conforming or transgender roles from others?

A film like ‘Tall Girl’, which has recently been added to Netflix, is one example that shows how the industry chooses to go down the safe route without thinking of how they could spread a positive message for those who are victimised and targeted every day. In many ways this is more detrimental than good as a window is open to slot in a narrative of, for example, a blind person or someone who is non-binary, and may actually be life changing for many audience members.

In any case, I love watching a wide range of films and picking them apart - so I thought I would list a few of my favourites that uphold the representation banner and not in a cringey, doing it for the money, kinda way. 

(As a side note, Letterboxd is a great website and app that allows you to search almost any film that exists and you can watch the trailer, read people’s reviews and leave your own and even create a watchlist so you can collate all the juicy media you want to consume in the future. I highly recommend it if you’re a film buff like I am!)

1. The Hate U Give (2018)
Themes: police brutality/ violence towards black people/ childhood

This film left me in floods of tears. Never before had I watched something that affected me to my core, and this is why everyone should watch it. T.H.U.G follows the life of Starr Carter who switches between a wealthy, predominantly white school and goes home to her impoverished Black community. She constantly has to find a balance between these polar opposite worlds and has a harrowing experience when she watches her childhood friend, Khalil, be unjustly shot and killed by the police. 

The film follows her fight to bring justice to Khalil's memory by exposing the cruel nature of the law by standing up against police brutality with the help of her Black community. 

As a white person, I can’t relate to or speak of my own experience adjacent to this situation and this is why I think it cut me so deeply. I am privileged to not be in this position so seeing the media address social injustice reminded me of the hatred for history and, unfortunately, current day. It is such a raw film, and with a few handheld shots and a lot of lowkey lighting, it brings in the perspective of a young black person which should be explored through film a hell of a lot more. The activism that Starr becomes involved with is crucial for people who are constantly ignored and threatened by the government and their unjust laws. The fact that the film was written by a black man, George Tillman Jr., may also suggest that his own personal experiences have been woven into the plot which only emphasises the need for these voices to be heard and acted upon accordingly. For anyone looking to understand Black Americans’ reality, I’d in no doubt recommend T.H.U.G.

2. Pride (2014)
Themes: historical event/ lgbtq/ hate crime

If you want an LGBTQ+ historical film that gives you all the feels and true story information – Pride supplies it. It depicts a group of gay and lesbian activists during 1984 who clubbed together to raise money for families affected by the British Miners’ strike. It follows the lives of the minorities who wanted to help others, display solidarity and defeat stereotypes and bigotry along the way. ‘Pride’ is a very wholesome film starring Andrew Scott, a gay man himself, because it has interior shots of the characters homes and the personalities are brought out more due to that as we, the audience, can watch voyeuristically. It brings into reality how liberation was kickstarted from moments like this. 

One of my favourite parts about this film is the costume; as it is based in the 80s there’s just this stylish vibe going on that I can’t help but love from the double denim galore to leather jackets that connoted rebellion. It is a visually pleasing and rewarding film that brings a melancholic smile to your face by the end of it.

3. Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Themes: mental illness/ lgbtq/ hate crimes and bullying/ friendship/ coming of age

I’m not typically a crier at many films but this was the very first one I watched that made me bawl. I think I watched it at a time where I was understanding my own sexuality so it hit pretty deep when the character Patrick, played by Ezra Miller, is attacked in his school canteen due to homophobia. The humiliation, shame and hatred in that scene has stuck with me for the last 4 years. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age film that highlights all the typical themes of growing up and understanding yourself but it’s not cringey like you’d expect. Take Miller’s character for example: aspects of him are effeminate which suggests his sexual orientation through stereotypes but we see past that and notice his compassion when interacting with his friends, not to mention Chbosky ensuring that mental illness isn’t glamourised or romanticised.

Along with hits from Bowie in the soundtrack and the importance of friendship it gives such a melancholic, pleasing tone. It also conveys how suicide is dealt with from the perspective of someone who has been affected by it rather than the backstory of someone experiencing thoughts themselves. Charlie is the ultimate introvert which was another point of reason for me being directly moved. He makes his way through school unsure of student life and dealing with mental illness, but the value of the friends he makes is so significant you can’t help but fall in love with him. 

The representation here is evident as well as the fact that in recent news, Miller has displayed their fluidity surrounding gender and gender expression which applies significantly to Patrick who also isn’t afraid to show who he is. In an interview from 2018 they said “Queer just means no, I don’t do that. I don’t identify as a man. I don’t identify as a woman. I barely identify as a human.”

4. Frida (2002)
Themes: biographical/ historical/ disability/ feminism/ lgbtq/ Mexican/ cultural

One of the most inspiring people from history is chronicled in this biographical film, directed by Julie Taymor. The life of Frida Kahlo was certainly not plain sailing but her art and passion for life and liberty is captured so perfectly. The plot delves into her romantic affairs with Diego Rivera and other emotional entanglements as well as continuing to paint despite being in chronic pain. It also shows her uncompromising position towards politics and art and encases her revolutionary stance in feminist history. She is truly awe inspiring to many including myself. 

The colours radiating from this piece is a key part for why I adore this film. Frida embraces and depicts Mexican culture from layered skirts with dashes of orange and red to the cobalt walls of the village. There is a message of endurance and determination throughout the film, evidently inspired by Frida,who was known to do things her way, break through social norms to become her own person, and I love her for that. Another reason why you should check out this film is to observe the way it highlights the success of Latinx people, which is so often brushed over. I also enjoy that her sexuality is sprinkled into the storyline without it being made into a main plotline; there is a scene where she is dancing with a female lover and how it is shot and their proximity and reaction from the room sparks a light inside of me.

Hopefully this inspires you to explore films in a different way and notice when producers are including minorities for profit or genuine consideration. I would have included ‘Carol’ (2015) into this article but after a brief google, the queen that we know as Cate Blanchett has argued previously that it should be ok for straight actors to play LGBTQ+ characters which contradicts everything I’ve just written so… whoops. This was quite a disappointing discovery as I absolutely love the film because I think the acting is impeccable, the score just makes you want to weep and it doesn’t sexualise the two lesbian protagonists which a lot of other LGBTQ+ films do. Again, another genuine opportunity to give minorities a spot to accurately represent themselves, that the producers could have made and didn’t.

Diverse films bring many things to the table: it reminds individuals that their voices are worth being heard, they demonstrate to influential audience members that we should all be seen and respected no matter our skin colour, they support young filmmakers in their dreams to create something groundbreaking and not feel prevented from doing so because they aren’t a straight white cis man. Some films with the theme of race and brutality that are showcasing in coming months are ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Queen and Slim’, which I am very much looking forward to see and perhaps make an analysis comparing them to ‘T.H.U.G’. ‘Honey Boy’ will be directed by Alma Har’el and looks into an off kilter family dynamic that many audience members are sure to want to sink their teeth into. And last but not least, ‘Mulan’ which is a live action film due to screen in 2020. I thoroughly enjoy the Disney animation especially from the point of view that Mulan defeats the stereotype of how Chinese women should live their life as well as the protagonist for a Disney ‘princess’ film not actually being based on a princess.