by Julia Poage
The smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton has been acclaimed as modern, relatable and captivating based on its refreshing take on early American history. Although the cast portrays the historical actions of white figures, it is made up of primarily black and Latino actors. The show’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda, explained this casting choice by saying to The Atlantic last year, Hamilton “is a story about America then, told by America now.” The cast of Hamilton is an oasis of diversity and representation that other types of entertainment rarely come close to. Hamilton is not the only play in the 2015-2016 Broadway season that portrays universal human experiences with a diverse cast. Though theater has gradually become more representative of non-white identities, the film industry has not established considerable growth towards diversity of representation in the characters it presents.
The cast of Hamilton is an oasis of diversity and representation that other types of entertainment rarely come close to.
There is significant importance in the representation of diverse points of view in the media, and especially in entertainment. A 2011 study by The Opportunity Agenda entitled “Media Representations & Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys” concluded that “negative mass media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men”. The study says that the media presents a very limited view of black masculinity: black men are either disproportionately portrayed as dangerous criminals, or are portrayed as having success only in the limited fields of sports and music. Lack of diversity in hiring actors for blockbuster films is now not only a social issue, but a business issue as well, argues Drew Harwell for the Washington Post. Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos all buy more movie tickets than white audiences, and when they do not see themselves represented on-screen, studios lose money because they are neglecting to represent their core audiences. When media creators fail to accurately portray audiences of color, they harm both their audiences by creating harmful stereotypes which affect the lives of their viewers and themselves by losing potential revenue. It is apparent that the system of media creation must change to include needlessly marginalized minorities.
When media creators fail to accurately portray audiences of color, they harm both their audiences by creating harmful stereotypes which affect the lives of their viewers and themselves by losing potential revenue.
The fact that minority-created and focused performances are ignored and marginalized by the mainstream is evident. To accurately represent America as we know it through the media of film, the control of capital and influence must be more evenly distributed to less represented minorities. Awards shows bring attention to actors, directors, producers, and other media creators, and as such it is essential that there be more diversity of awards and nominations. Though there have been dozens of critically acclaimed films starring and made by minorities in the past decade, the Academy has disregarded these films, awarding, instead, primarily white productions.
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In fact, in the last ten years, no actors of Latino, Asian, or Native American descent have won any acting awards. Mainstream Hollywood must be attentive to this reductive approach to minority media figures. Attentiveness to existing minority media is an essential component of diversifying contemporary entertainment. The film industry should look to modern theater as inspiration and ideal– a model of collaboration, respect and representation as contrasted to the whitewashed film world of today.
The creators of these shows are representative of the characters portrayed in the shows, proving that the most effective way to clearly represent non-white identities is for the media to be dominated with media creators who can identify with the characters they create.
Articles observing the lack of diverse ethno-racial representation in Hollywood have been widespread in recent years, both criticizing lack of diversity in the past and questioning why progress has not been made. In the past year, for example, the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite” went viral when, for the second year in a row, no actors of color were included in the twenty nominations for the acting awards. In comparison, this past year has been an incredibly diverse year for Broadway. A New York Times article entitled “After #OscarsSoWhite, Broadway Seeks a #TonysSoDiverse” lists the shows nominated for awards in 2016, which include plays and musicals with predominantly non-white casts such as Hamilton, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Shows like Eclipsed, a play about the Second Liberian Civil War, and Allegiance, about the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II center upon non-white experiences. The creators of these shows are representative of the characters portrayed in the shows, proving that the most effective way to clearly represent non-white identities is for the media to be dominated with media creators who can identify with the characters they create. Broadway, in its most recent season, shows that it is possible for all ethnicities to be represented fully and accurately.
Change is needed in Hollywood in regards to the portrayal, representation and visibility of non-white characters. With Broadway and the greater theater community as a model, especially in the 2015-2016 season, there must be steps in a more inclusive direction. In addition to encouraging, aiding, and recognizing the work of non-white media creators in the grander scale of the film industry, individual media consumers have a responsibility to bring grassroots change to this problem of whitewashing and under-representation in mainstream film, such as making conscious choices to support minority-led and created media. April Reign, the New York journalist who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, has made a ten point plan to change the underrepresentation of minorities in the film industry. She points out that people of color must be on “both sides of the camera” as both creators and actors, as previously argued, but adds that individuals uninvolved in the film industry directly have the ability to change the focus of diversity in films. Reign encourages consumers to frequent small, local theaters which will more likely play and support films made by minorities and starring a diversity of character viewpoints. She adds that consumers should not simply “boycott” the Oscars, which is commonly suggested, but instead avoid them by watching a film created by people of color. A University of Southern California study concludes that “diversity in TV and film is so bad, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite should probably be changed to #HollywoodSoWhite”, reports Eric Deggans for NPR. The researchers have suggestions to change the industry, however: they encourage studios to make public hiring goals to encourage racial inclusivity, as well as making lists of potential hires that are 38% people of color (the representative sample of minorities in America). These suggestions intend to reshape the industry both through the elites controlling Hollywood and through the actions of filmgoers.
Everyone involved in the mainstream American film industry, from producers, actors, and directors, to the everyday filmgoer, has a responsibility to bring the America of past and present to screens across the nation. While Broadway is making steps in the right direction which are succinctly summed up by the hashtag #TonysSoDiverse, Hollywood producers, filmmakers, and financiers must allow their reductive whitewashing tendencies recede into the past and begin to produce projects, spearheaded by ethnically diverse creators, to become an everyday occurrence.
The opening song of Hamilton tells the story of a hard-working, scrappy, and marginalized young boy who will one day “grow up to be a hero and a scholar”: the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The ensemble questions Hamilton, “When America sings for you/ Will they know what you overcame?” Indeed, the only way America will see the lives of underrepresented historical figures, fictional characters, and contemporary minorities is if fundamental changes occur in Hollywood. Only then can the history of America be sung by its people with accuracy and fairness.
Julia Poage is a sophomore at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas who is planning to double major in Studio Art and English.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.