The many parallels between cultural expression and political processes suggest that, whenever there is a hostile political climate, the institutionalized stereotypes that result find ways to seep into our entertainment. Post 9/11, for example, there was an influx of jobs available for Arab actors – to play the role of terrorists.
During the Obama administration, perhaps in an assuage of white guilt and confrontation with the “post-racial” dreams that accompanied his election, new movies and series such as The Blind Side, Django Unchained, Lincoln, 12 Years A Slave, The Help, and Orange is the New Black, were churned out that called for black actors to play characters of differing levels of systemic disprivilege. It is possible that with a black man in office, Hollywood felt pressured to put more black men in their movies. Yet with each of the aforementioned movies hitting Hollywood at that time with many more black roles available, there seemed to be a pattern of black characters being overshadowed or paraded around by benevolent white characters who inevitably took the lead. That or the black characters were doomed to tell only stories of black oppression and misfortune.
For every emergent imaginary race-based archetype introduced into social and political spheres, it seems another job opens up for Muslim, black, and Asian actors in Hollywood. And for every “thug” a black actor plays, the further diffused historically culminating, systematic criminalization becomes in the American psyche. While it is important that actors of color get paid and get work, the more those stereotypes play out on the silver screen, the more ingrained they become in the brains of consumers, and the more validated the pernicious social biases that fueled them become.
In Hollywood, actors of color are often told to use their race to their advantage in order to get roles white actors are overlooked to play. Yet, those white actors are being overlooked because they’re not subject to the same racist stereotypes actors of color are so often cast to play. Instead, they’re more often sought after to play the lead. Too often, even in movies with people of color, white actors play the narrator or hero and Muslim and black actors get cast as the sassy best friend, the older, wise man with three lines, or the villain. They’re pigeonholed as the support or the anti-hero.
In an article for The Independent, actor Amrou Al-Kadhi discusses his career as an Arab actor in Hollywood, where his first role at the age of 14 was playing the son of an Islamic terrorist. Since then, he’s been given 30 scripts that ask him to play a terrorist. Likewise, another Middle Eastern American actor recalls having to change his name in hopes of getting work outside of roles as a terrorist after moving to L.A. in the early 2000s. And when movies such as Argo or American Sniper gross hundreds of millions of dollars in box office earnings, what does that say about our consumer culture? Americans are literally buying into these harmful stereotypes.
While it’s true that Hollywood has made significant strides in diversifying over the past thirty years, the same phenomena still apply for black actors. In 2013 there were five major blockbuster movies with predominantly African American casts: 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Best Man Holiday, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Save for Best Man Holiday, the black actors in each film had characters whose main role was about black oppression: slavery, servitude, apartheid, and police brutality. Yes, it is important to talk about those things, and yes, they were all historically accurate. The reason that seeing so many movies about slavery or apartheid is so troubling is because they seem to be some of the only movies with starring roles for black people. You rarely get to see a black actor just playing a normal, standard, Hollywood character, like the prom queen or the heartthrob. They always have to play a character that is historically or indisputably black, as if characters in movies cannot be black unless the role explicitly calls for them to be. And like the success of movies like Argo or American Sniper, the success of movies like The Help and 12 Years A Slave, while great for the black actors cast in them, it is still somewhat disturbing. Is Hollywood only willing to give black people recognition if they are acting out the role of an inferior? The recent success of Moonlight at the 2017 Oscars lends itself to a promising “no,” and yet Moonlight is just one movie out of thousands. When movies like Moonlight become the norm, perhaps the “no” will be more certain.
According to a Vox article published in September 2016, the roles of “thug” or “gang member” are still disproportionately played by black actors, the same way the role of “terrorist” is disproportionately cast as Muslim. Sixty-two percent of actors who appear in movie credits as “gang member” are black, sixty-five percent for “gangster,” and sixty-six percent for “thug”. Meanwhile, of the actors who appeared in the credits as “doctor,” nine percent were black. The persistent type-casting of actors of color in Hollywood becomes a real issue though when you consider that if a notion or idea becomes heard and seen enough, people seem to have a hard time believing that it’s not true. For instance, after the widespread popularity of the film Jaws people had a hard time seeing sharks as anything but vindictive killers, to the point where the Western Australian government was able to change its policy to encourage the killing off of rogue sharks, finally having enough public support. If you apply the “Jaws Effect” to the Hollywood movies discussed above, it’s easy to see how the consequences of type-casting could be potentially chilling and even deadly. The more black actors are uninterruptedly portrayed on widely-viewed screens as mere thugs or slaves, the easier it becomes for the consumers to accept racist and subtly widespread notions that black people really are either threats or inferiors; the more Muslim actors are cast as terrorists, the easier it becomes for consumers to see Muslims as mere militant jihadists. These movies aren’t the origin point for the idea that black people are inferior or threats, but they fit into a systematic criminalization and general subjugation of black people in popular propaganda and media production. And the more familiar people become with people of color as the aforementioned racist stereotypes, the easier it potentially becomes for governments to pass discriminatory or violent laws towards people of color. As fact becomes blurred with fiction and stereotypes with reality, the people of color who aren’t being paid large sums to star in those movies lives become potentially threatened by things like incarceration or immigration bans.
Knowing all this, some suggest boycotting movies where people of color are largely cast in one-dimensional roles or hurtful stereotypes. However, that potentially takes away from the earnings or recognition the actors of color would receive. If a boycott works and reduces the demand for these sort of movies, actors of color could potentially be cast in more dynamic roles – but they could also be pushed off the big screen altogether.
Moving forward, what can be done to help is for consumers to go out of their way to support films that cast people of color in more complex roles or as leads and narrators. New movies like Moonlight and Moana are excellent examples and true beacons of hope for an issue that surely plagues Hollywood and conjunctively, politics. Similarly, as more youth of color are hopefully encouraged to pursue careers as directors, screenwriters, and producers, the more movies will be made that do not center around a white perspective or feature detrimental institutionalized stereotypes. Instead, actors of color might finally have a chance to play the roles of superheroes, surgeons, prom queens, and billionaires that white actors have been occupying for decades.