Representation in film is a huge issue to tackle, arguably too big for the industry itself to fully interrogate and deal with. Twitter throws out its thoughts on how actors should be able to play any role, and that it doesn’t matter if Bryan Cranston plays a disabled character or Eddie Redmayne a transgender character in a film; it’s their job to put on the guise of another life, and to some extent, this is true. The actor is a chameleon, and it is their job to transform and move between narratives in order to tell a story. However, what slips past the casual viewer, even a liberal viewer who is happy to see the on-screen representation of disabled and trans bodies in films like The Upside and The Danish Girl, is that there is an inherent privilege that actors like Cranston or Redmayne have. Being a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered performer is advantageous because studios prefer to work with bodies that are marketable across as many genres, characters and narratives as possible, instead of disabled or transgender actors who have minimal opportunities to work in film as they are prescribed to solely play these identifiers rather than other characters, and even then, it’s Cranston and Redmayne taking the stories aligned with their experiences. In the case of age, gender, race and sexuality this also applies; while roles are more readily available, there are conventional archetypes that characters fall into and it is harder to find roles that offer nuance as those are saved for leading white, heterosexual men rather than the diverse bodies who support them on screen.
Film is an innately capitalist system where bodies are sold to an audience who want to see themselves and the idealised lives that they could lead. Profit stems from wealthy audience members who are typically older able-bodied straight white men with enough income to pay for themselves and their families to take regular trips to the cinema. Hollywood films are designed to make a profit. Genre films, franchises, type-casting: all of these are components that are manipulated by studios in order to bring audiences back again and again for more. Why risk something ‘experimental’ that the masses might reject when there’s already a winning formula that can reap millions of dollars?
This isn’t to say that changes aren’t underway in the industry. Black Panther is the first feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have a black director, screenwriters, lead character and a predominantly black cast. Crazy Rich Asians is the first all-Asian cast in a romantic comedy for twenty-five years. Even so, it still struggles with colourism: reducing multiple complex ethnic identities into a single race and erasing others in order to streamline for white audiences. This doesn’t undo the phenomenal work that went into this film and the success it has enjoyed, but underscores the steps that still need to be made in order to make sure the voices we hear are not homogenised.
Despite the success of these two films, the true step to make in terms of representation isn’t just to provide diverse narratives, it is to begin writing films with narratives just inhabited by people. In an interview for Widows, Viola Davis pointed out that she was attracted to the project because the lead character was a wife avenging her husband. ‘I’m dark, I’m 53, I’m in my natural hair – I’m in bed with Liam Neeson. And he’s not my slave owner. I’m not a prostitute. We simply are a couple in love.’ Representation is an important process in how we critique the hegemonic formula of Hollywood films, but diversity in casting where actors of all backgrounds have equal opportunity for a role and their race, gender, sexuality, age, ability serves to inform the character’s narrative, rather than becoming prescribed attributes on a producer’s checklist, should be our goal, for myself as a creative in the industry as well as all of us as consumers.