Last month, Meryl Streep found herself embroiled in controversy following a Berlin International Film Festival press conference, where she ostensibly brushed off criticisms about the jury’s lack of racial diversity by saying, “We are all Africans, really.” We’ve since discovered that her comment had been taken out of context, but the episode nevertheless inspired some lively discussions regarding the underrepresentation of people of colour (POC) in film and television.
It’s incredibly dispiriting that, even today, the mainstream screen industries consist largely of white individuals in front of and behind the camera. We’re reminded of this fact by the persistence of #OscarsSoWhite, which was rehash(tagg)ed this year after yet another alabaster swathe of Academy Award nominations. It’s also evident in contexts like reality show Project Greenlight, whose Season 4 premiere saw Matt Damon lecturing fellow judge Effie Brown, a prolific African-American director, on how to “do” diversity and the importance of “unbiased” merit-based selections.
The fascinating thing about the “based on merit” defence is that it’s underpinned by the notion of “colourblindness” – a concept that, in reality, perpetuates the oppression of POCs by failing to account for the inextricable link between non-whiteness and disadvantage. Woven into it is an insidious partiality: neutrality correlates with white’s status as a “non-colour”. The mainstream media seems to have indoctrinated us to conceive of whiteness as the default. When characters are written, they are imagined to be white unless otherwise specified (see: the fallout surrounding the casting of The Hunger Games’ District 11 characters). This is even built into the technology of colour photography itself, with film stock – however unintentionally – optimised to respond best to fairer skin tones.
It’s imperative that “minority” audiences continue to see ourselves – in positive ways – in the films and TV shows we consume.
Some may argue that, as race is an outdated construct, labouring it obscures the “progress” we’ve made. While racism is certainly less overt these days, it does persist – albeit in subtler forms. Race-based microaggressions manifest in stereotypes (the “Asian nerd”, the “indigenous noble savage”). POCs are still overlooked for speaking and named roles. Even when actors tick the “correct race” box, this consideration can be appended with the caveat “or close enough” – a phenomenon, known as colourism, that leads individuals with lighter complexions to enjoy favour on screen. Cases in point: Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone in a forthcoming biopic (complete with prosthetic nose and skin-darkening), and Keanu Reeves starring in 47 Ronin, with the actor’s one-eighth-Chinese ancestry apparently justifying his being cast as a samurai.
Whether in products by Hollywood or those by Australia’s humbler industry, the positioning of POCs as peripheral, as Other, as deviations from the white norm, needs to be challenged.
Closer to home, in a country that is no stranger to blackface, instances of explicit racebending on our screens aren’t as easy to pinpoint. But there’s no denying that local film and TV are pearly white. Our most famous films – those at the core of our national mythology, from Muriel’s Wedding and Gallipoli, to The Castle and Crocodile Dundee – reinforce the centrality of white Australianness. US–Australia co-production Gods of Egypt, released earlier this year, was vehemently criticised for whitewashing (and subsequently flopped at the box office). Banished, a 2015 UK–Australia series for the BBC, is a masterclass in erasing Aboriginal peoples from dramatisations of Australia’s early settlement. And it wasn’t until 2014 that Neighbours featured an Indigenous character.
Australia has recently been making strides in terms of POC visibility, especially on television: The Family Law, Legally Brown, Black Comedy, even Here Come the Habibs!. On the big screen, Australia has also enjoyed some masterful moments of inclusive storytelling, including Charlie’s Country, The Sapphires and The Home Song Stories, along with more lighthearted yet still commendable efforts, such as Australia India Film Fund production unINDIAN and Greek–Lebanese rom-com Alex & Eve. While these titles are heartening, we must strive to keep doing better. As mainstream media are potent means by which to “normalise” certain types of lived experience, both reflecting and influencing the popular consciousness, it’s imperative that “minority” audiences continue to see ourselves – in positive ways – in the films and TV shows we consume.
That Mae Jemison, the first African-American astronaut to venture into space, was inspired by black Star Trek character Lieutenant Uhura is a testament to the power of media representation. It’s difficult to envision change without a visual precedent, even a fictionalised one. Whether in products by Hollywood or those by Australia’s humbler industry, the positioning of POCs as peripheral, as Other, as deviations from the white norm, needs to be challenged. We can do this by curing our blindness to colour on and off screen.