From Invisible to Invincible – the Need for Diversity in Fantasy Films Essay

”I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me. ” “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, A fantasy film without diversity is like a portrait with only one color. Every year in America, numerous fantasy films are released with casts that exclude people of color. This is a tragedy because cinema and television are major influencers on society.

What we see and hear in mass media plays a role in shaping our identity and self-perspective. Unfortunately, representation of African Americans and other minorities in lead roles like hero/heroine or prince/princess in fantasy feature films is few. People of color are more often than not, invisible to producers and viewers of fantasy films in our nation. I will not address the reasons for this disparity because frankly it does not matter. What does matter is that this type of omission implies a preference. Its implication is clear to all who are exposed to it; whether they look like us or not.

This disparity will only change when people of color cease buying tickets to fantasy movies that do not include diversity, gain creative as well as productive control and support productions that include and are produced by people of color. S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 2 From the time that I was a very young child, reading has been a joy for me. I have been exposed to literature in great quantity and variety. The stories I enjoy most are tales of fantasy that involve magic, beautiful landscapes, fair maidens and of course, heroes.

When I read stories as a young child, I liked to imagine myself interacting with the characters in the story. I also enjoy watching stories unfold in movies. It is not surprising that my taste in movies is very similar to that which I enjoy in literature. At elementary school age, I would imagine myself as a character within the movie just as I did with literature. I was always the fair maiden, and my daddy was the hero. As I matured my understanding of the differences between myself and the characters depicted in stories became noticeable.

Once the difference in race became apparent, I found it difficult to envision myself a part of the stories. It was easier to pretend when I did not realize how different I looked. My eyes are now open to the disparity in cast diversity in movies that could be classified as fantasy. In the era of movies such as “The Wizard of Oz”, “Snow White” and “Mary Poppins”, I realize that minorities were less S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 3 than fairly treated. So the absence of diversity in movies from that era might be understandable, although never excusable. As for modern fantasy movies, I cannot help but feel the cold pang of exclusion.

There is certainly room for improvement in diversity in the film industry as a whole, especially in the genre of fantasy movies. Let me clarify what I mean by “fantasy” movies. I am referring to films that are based in fictional or futuristic settings, involve some superhero type and/or have mystical or magical elements. I would like to explain how I came to feel so keenly the absence of diversity in fantasy movies. My awakening came as a result of doing the things I enjoy, reading stories and watching movies. I am a huge fan of the series “Twilight”, written by Stephenie Meyer. Several of my friends are fans as well.

My friend Christian asked me a thought provoking question about the book. What my Caucasian friend asked me was this: “What would happen if someone your skin color were bitten by vampire as some of the characters in Twilight were? ” That was not a question I had yet considered. I thought for a moment, and I replied to Christian what I thought might happen; “People with my skin tone would most likely fade to a light, barely S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 4 recognizable brown. We would have a skin tone similar to Mariah Carey’s, no matter how dark our original skin tone. Of course I could not be sure, because all of the vampires Stephenie Meyer describes are Caucasian and others not described are presumed to be. So I imagined the vampire characters in “Twilight” would have a skin color similar to that of an Albino. That single question got me to thinking. What would happen if a vampire in the story bit an African American, a Puerto Rican or other person of color? I will never really know, because there are no vampire characters that resemble me within the story. Yet, I was so engrossed with the story that as soon I heard the book was being adapted for film I became eager to see it.

I anxiously searched online to find out who was starring in it. To my surprise, I saw two African American men in the lineup. One of them had a very small part and would only be in one maybe two short scenes. The other however to my amazement, was playing a vampire. You might think that would have been exciting for me. I was not at all excited, actually I felt awkward about this fact. How could an African American be a vampire in this movie? He didn’t belong in the story. I realize now, that the inclusion of an African America S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 5 n the film was a shock to me because the book had led me to believe that all vampires were pale skinned and could not be any race except Caucasian. I never saw myself or anyone that could resemble me as a part of the story. Until I saw an African American in the line-up of the movie, I and anyone who looked like me was invisible. The solidification of my awakening occurred when I asked my mother to attend the movie “New Moon” with me the weekend that it opened. She hesitated for what seemed like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes. She began by telling me that she did not want to disappoint me.

She then told me that she knew how much I wanted to see the movie so she did not want her reply to stop me from doing that. She then added, “But I do not support movies that do not feature minorities in the main cast”. I realize now that my mother rarely sees movies with our family. She decided several years before “Twilight” to personally boycott movies that did not include a diverse cast. I am happy to report that my mother did see the movie with me. She relented because I showed her that there was one African American playing a vampire and pointed out that the werewolf

S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 6 characters were of Native American decent. This exchange with my mother had fully awakened me to the imbalance of diversity in movies. In my research, I asked for feedback from faculty members of the University of California – Davis, Film Studies Program. Dean Keith Simonton, PhD kindly responded to my request. Dean Simonton is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology. He is the author of published research on the trend of women as minorities in film and on African American Achievement `

I asked him about his thoughts on the issue of poor representation of African Americans in fantasy films and he responded: “There is no question whatsoever that there’s a poor representation of African Americans in such roles. That’s why such a big deal was made about Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. And even then, the black female was a cartoon character, not flesh and blood. Only Will Smith has managed to play the hero fantasy role with some regularity, and even then it’s in an offbeat role. ” The information he gave shows me that only one actor has managed to pull some sort of character worthy of recognition.

S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 7 I also asked Dean Simonton what might impact a positive change in this trend. He referenced his 2004 published work entitled, The Best Actress Paradox: Outstanding Feature Films Versus Exceptional Women’s Performances. ” “… it’s too easy to say that producers and casting directors need to be less racist. Yet that is certainly true. [W]omen actors (even white ones) are ghettoized in lesser films. As a consequence, the best acting awards for women are more likely to appear for movies that were not considered for best picture awards, even less receive them.

I think the same holds for African Americans. Denzel didn’t get a best acting award until he performed in “Training Day. ” This information tells me that African Americans are likely to receive an award for portraying stereotypical, negative roles. Dean Simonton recognizes that African American males are often “threat objects” in movies. When it comes to “fantasy” movies, people of color whether male or female are rarely featured at all. I examined the cast list for many of the 2009 American movies that fit the description of “fantasy” in the Nash Information Service listing.

Movies that fit the description of “fantasy” fell into three creative categories, fantasy, Super Hero, and Kids Fiction. Within the three creative categories there were a total of 67 movies. I estimate that there is less than one minority person out of every thirty actors. S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 8 There have been a few fantasy movies that featured actors of color as a lead or main character. Will Smith in “I-Robot”, Will Smith in “Hancock”, Will Smith in “Men in Black”, Laurence Fishburne and Jade Pinkest-Smith in “The Matrix” and Brandy in the remake of “Cinderella”.

We fair slightly better in animated films where only the actor’s voice is used. My arousing included some recollections that make me uncomfortable and even ashamed. I am uncomfortable when I realize that I, my friends and my family have laughed at how frequently the black man dies first in movies. In fact, my eleven-year-old brother calls the only African American male in a film “Dead man walking”. He has been saying this since he was nine-yearsold. This makes me very sad. I am ashamed of my reaction to and acceptance of the exclusion or negative depiction of minorities in movies I have paid to watch.

For instance, Edi Gathegi plays the only African American vampire in “Twilight” and “New Moon. ” I was delighted that he did not die in Twilight. My previous movie experiences had tainted my view so that I expected he would die, and likely die first. Minorities have looked at this disparity and laughed far too long. How dare we laugh while buying movie tickets that make biased S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 9 producers rich? We should not spend our money on flicks that have gone from belittling us to practically ignoring our very existence and thereby rendering us invisible.

Consider that the 67 movies that could be classified as fantasy grossed $3,502,399,023. 00, roughly 33% of the market and grossed ticket sales of 466,936,537. Only ten featured at least one person of color in the main cast. “The Motion Picture Association’s Theatrical Marketing Statistics for 2009” lists Hispanics and other ethnicities as the highest percentage of movie goers at 72-73% of their population. If people of color collectively boycotted the 57 fantasy movies that lacked diversity, I think Hollywood might start to see the “invisible”!

Because of my discovery of the imbalance in fantasy movie diversity, I desire fantasy films with faces that are as diverse as the real world that I live in. I want to see people of color that are invincible and possess the same admirable characteristics of Caucasians protagonist. That will require more opportunities to engage diverse groups of future screenplay writers and filmmakers. This could be done in the same way that diverse groups are introduced to careers in engineering and science. In the article “Flocking to S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 10 film school – minorities and the film industry’ by B.

Denise Hawkins, dated June 16, 2007, features a program that is now known as the “William H. Cosby Future Filmmakers Workshop”. The program accepts only about ten percent of the applicants and is free to the students that are accepted. It offers fifteen students twelve weeks of intensive training during which students are exposed to all aspects of filmmaking. Programs of this nature are few. Yet, the Motion Picture Association boasts of the 2. 5 million jobs, thirteen billion dollars in income, and an average salary for production employee of over $74,000. 00 as of 2007.

Through these type programs young filmmakers of color will develop the knowledge and expertise to make a difference. I also recognize that when producers of color or others, create movies that include diverse casts, we must be willing to support them and to see them. We must embrace the Kwanzaa principle of Ujamaa, by backing what we create and buying what we produce. We have to support in word and in action: reject the “bootleg” copy, buy the ticket, see the flick and then tell others about it. We have made strides in this nation when it comes to race relations; small but steady strides. For the betterment of society at large and the

S. A. Jones Gloucester County Branch #2345 11 continuation of positive improvements in these relations, we must endeavor to put our money behind what we believe in. As we entered the year of 2010, the first Disney animated movie featuring an African American princess was in theaters. “The Princess and the Frog” is a long awaited first. One can hope that there might be more movies of fantasy featuring minorities in the future. For this to happen we must extract stories of fantasy from the imagination of authors, pens of screenplay writers, money of producers and vision of directors who look like us.

I believe that all people of color should apply the suggestions I have made within this essay. If we do, producers will be motivated to create fantasy movies that are diverse as well as entertaining. They will portray imaginary worlds that reflect our nation’s diversity and the world it can be. To propel this change, we must never accept being the “invisible”. We must instead, diligently exercise control, create the stories, and produce the movies that will make us “invincible”.