We Need More Than Diverse Characters In Film and TV Shows

The poster girl for Hollywood’s cancer patients are white, petite, teenage girls with pixie haircuts who are more interested in their love life than their terminal illnesses. Now is Good (2012), Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Restless (2011) are only the some of titles in the genre. If the terminally ill person isn’t a young, white girl than it’s a white woman. Brain on Fire (2017), Girl, Interrupted (1999) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) all portray white, ‘troubled’ young women. Girl, Interrupted stars Winona Ryder as 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen and her experiences in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, following her suicide attempt. In Silver Linings Playbook, we watch Jennifer Lawrence play Tiffany Maxwell, a young woman with depression. In Brain On Fire, Chloe Moretz portrays a successful young journalist who suddenly becomes ill with an autoimmune disease. Of course, white men aren’t left out of the equation. This is evident through films such as 50/50 (2011) where Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a radio journalist diagnosed with cancer or The Sessions (2012), featuring John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, a poet paralyzed from neck down who decides to hire a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity.

This is not surprising as Hollywood’s biggest issue is lack of diversity. However, with demand from the audience, filmmakers are changing this stereotype. Webseries Giants (2017) by James Bland is a refreshing series about 3 young black friends and their lives. Each character has so much representation to offer and the actors do amazing jobs to bringing them to life. Lead character Malachi (Bland) quits his corporate job to move to LA in an attempt to change his monotone life, while questioning his Christian upbringing. We have his best friend and roommate Journee (Vanessa Baden Kelly) who is a manic depressive and Ade (Sean Samuels), a former engineering student who has decided to pursue his dancing passion instead. Each character has their own complex set of interpersonal issues to deal with but Journee’s feels the realest. Depression in the media is generally portrayed unrealistically and offensively and, in real life, is even moreso dismissed and invalidated.

Though there is nothing outwardly wrong with her, there are days when Journee cries for hours and other times where she cannot go to work. Malachi spends most mornings wiping her tears and helping her perform daily tasks that depression often debilitates. We see her being helped out of bed by Malachi and dressed all up to go to work only to see her a few hours later back in the house, trying to explain her illness to her friend and facing the very realistic skepticism mentally ill people face. ‘I cannot physically make myself go to work’, she explains. Malachi’s response is: ‘I don’t know; I feel like sometimes you make up stories as a way out’. Another time, she tries to explain her illness to her sister but again, receives doubt and is told that depression is merely an excuse.

To a lot of people, far removed from the illness and the strife that comes with it, depression is a fictitious disease to mask laziness. The disorder is particularly dismissed in the black community, so the inclusion of a mentally ill black character not only sheds light on many unheard black voices, but hopefully teaches something about the illness.

The 100 is another series that has good representation of non-white characters that struggle with illness and disability. The show takes place 97 years after civilization is destroyed by a nuclear war and follows the lives of 100 people from a spaceship of survivors that are sent back to Earth to repopulate it. Raven Reyes, the best mechanic and one of the most intelligent people in the series, serves as an amazing representation of both Latinx and female excellence. When she suffers from nerve damage after being shot in the leg, she doesn’t just give up. She fights back and struggles through her pain. Reyes quickly became a favourite of mine on the show. Her character is short tempered and fierce, but is also allowed to be vulnerable and soft at the same time, which is a realistic and organic personality type that is not often enough given to women- of color especially- in the media. Reyes is and will continue to be one of the most important Latinx characters on TV.

‘This should’ve been done a long time ago. George Lucas said himself, his Star Wars was inspired by many Asian philosophy, culture and movies and its only natural to have an Asian character in the film’. This quote is from Donnie Yen talking about his character Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story during an interview. Yen is the first Chinese actor to be given a major role in the Star Wars franchise. “It’s only recently that Asian actors have been recognized for their artistic contributions,” Yen says. His character Chirrut is one of the guardians of the Whills, who volunteers to steal the plans for the first Death Star along with the Rebels. Yen revealed it was his idea for his character to be blind, which in itself explains why films and TV shows need diverse actors and diverse minds.

The science fiction genre is lacking so much already, where alien characters are more in number than non-white characters and disability is almost never covered, so to have an Asian and disabled character is rare in mainstream media. (Shout out to Toph Beifong for being the OG.) Although Chirrut is blind, he is never portrayed as weak and we are never prompted to feel sorry for his character, knowing he is capable of so much.
Having racially diverse characters in TV and film is extremely important. Even more so is the intersection of racial representation with other issues we face on a daily basis but are virtually invisible in the media, such as illness, disability, sexuality, gender, etc. The importance of these representations cannot be emphasised enough and it’s imperative that POC do our part and support them when they are presented to us.

Author: Busra Mutlu

Editor: Madison Wade

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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