Throughout its history, Hollywood has always had issues in regards to properly representing people of color. During Hollywood’s earlier years, people of color had very few rights in the United States. This was reflected in the movies and television that were produced at the time, as the strong majority of roles went to white actors. The few roles people of color managed to secure were small ones with very few lines, and even those were often one dimensional racist caricatures who were crafted to ridicule and diminish certain groups of people.
As the decades passed, people of color have managed to get larger roles in different media aspects. In the modern era, white people still dominate Hollywood as lead protagonists, while people of color are often cast as supporting characters in these shows and films. We are essentially cast so that the production can use tokens to say their work isn’t racist. Our primary focus on screen is simply to aid the white hero in their quest, with a clear example of this found in Lucius Fox (The Dark Knight Trilogy, 2005–2012).
Fox tends to only appear when he is helping Batman behind the scenes. He doesn’t have any backstory, and he lacks any real character development. Fox simply exists to get Bruce Wayne whatever he needs.
Even roles which are meant for people of color are given to white actors through a common Hollywood practice known as ‘whitewashing’, which not only denies minority performers acting opportunities, but erases or replaces the ethnic history of the character. Characters such as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange (2016), who was portrayed by Tilda Swinton, a white woman, was a Tibetan man in Marvel comics.
There are multitudes of people who incorrectly believe that token actors are proper representation for people of color, without realizing that it’s racist to have people of color involved in a project just to avoid claims of racism. Using token actors is dehumanizing; it portrays us as props to be used at a whim rather than actual people, and it tells us that we don’t really matter. People of color are more than just props to use as a counter argument for racism, and we are more than just bystanders in a white protagonist’s story. We are human beings with our own good and bad qualities. We have aspirations and fears. We are complex people with multiple layers.
True representation is supposed to depict that. It’s supposed to show us as well rounded, multifaceted characters. Real representation is us being more than just a faithful sidekick to the white hero or being a convenient background character. We should be depicted with our own interests and aspirations. We should be portrayed with personalities with real depth. True representation also means people of color having as many equal roles as white actors. White leading roles are not a bad thing, but whites should not have most of the leading roles in Hollywood. People of color deserve to be more than background characters. We deserve to have and tell our own stories the way they were meant to be told.
Over the years, representation in Hollywood has certainly improved, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done. Hopefully, we will continue to progress and one day people of color will be treated as equals in Hollywood.
Written by: Jaylen Pearson
Edited by: AJ Wallace