In the past year we’ve seen major changes in the diversity of actors in television. This is not simply in the minor roles but often the lead protagonist of many shows. Yes, there have been minor waves of this in recent years with the beloved but barely watched The Wire. Yes, Lost was known for having a large cast of people of color but lets not forget that Jake, Locke, Kate and Sawyer were the leads of the show. Yet in this past year, television as had a rise of big and small parts for minorities. Columnist of the website Deadline, Nellie Andreeva speaks about the sea change, in her controversial piece that examines the “backlash” of too much diversity (or as she incorrectly says ethnicity) in Hollywood. This supposed backlash is coming from executives and agents having a hard time getting work for their white actors. In this supposed overtaking by minorities, we’ve seen shows that were specially designed for non-white actors (Empire and Fresh Off The Boat) and others that were initially designed for a white lead (as is the case of Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder). With the growth of minorities in dramas and comedies, television is not only surpassing films in this “Golden Age” of quality programming but with the realization of the many cultures that inhabit many different worlds.
The Fast & Furious series seems to be the only major film franchise that recognizes the logic of diversity amongst its cast of characters. This multicultural element has been a part of the franchise since it’s inception in 2001 with The Fast and the Furious. Paul Walker, as the FBI agent Brian O’Conner, gets sucked into the subculture of street racing by not only falling for Jordana Brewster but also finding a bond with Vin Diesel’s character Dom, who is the leader of this diverse crew. Yes, there are a few white guys in the crew but Dom as its leader is far from the look of the average leading man. As the series as gone on, we’ve seen an increase of the diversity in the cast. This increase in diversity was especially true once Justin Lin took over the helm, directing F&F 3-6; we saw a range of faces joining the crew. Leaving us to this most recent picture, Furious 7, which showcases our “heroes” as united again for another high-octane adventure. Other than Paul Walker (in sadly his last film do to his death) and Kurt Russell, who has nothing to do here other than to look at monitors while giving us exposition, the cast of good guys is a melting pot of various races. To see such diversity in a popular film, let alone a series of films so popular, is truly unprecedented.
Other than the powerhouse star ability of Denzel Washington and Will Smith, action films are rarely staring non-white men. With an exception of those two juggernauts, no major film is led by anything else than white males or a slew of white males. In various films franchises (The Avengers for example), we’ve come accustomed to seeing our heroes saving the lives of people of various corners of the world but only the F&F series allows those faces, who usually play the victims, to become the leading cast of protectors. Furious 7 earned $392 million worldwide on its opening weekend, showing its continuous growth in popularity. The amount of money isn’t only showing the popularity but also who is going out to see the movie: 75% of ticket sales of Furious 7 were contributed to non-white audiences. This is nothing new with this particular series, yet why hasn’t Hollywood seen the value of diverse cast in other films?
There are a few factors to contribute to the lack of diversity in blockbuster films. Risk being the clearest advocate against this change. Despite what you may think, film studios much rather stick to formulas that have worked for thirty years now. Yes, the danger in the films may change year by year, depending on social relevance (killer shark, killer asteroid, killer Loki), but leading men stay the same. The hidden little secret of the studio system is they don’t want to be the first to do something different (for fear of failure) but instead to be the second to do something different; it’s a copycat industry for lack of a better term. Secondly, many of the characters we see in blockbusters are based on prior material that has already established them as beloved characters. It’s hard to convince producers and fan boys that Donald Glover would be a great choice for Spider-Man when he looks nothing like the Spider-Man we’ve seen the past 40 years (and yes I know recently Marvel Comics made a black/Hispanic Spidey but that doesn’t mean people will forget white Spidey). What little we have seen of established white comic book characters, changing their race for the big screen, has only been of supporting characters, like Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. No one has the guts (yet) to have one of the leading superheroes be black, instead you’ll have to wait for the Black Panther film starring Chadwick Boseman, who has a pinching for playing black historical figures (James Brown and Jackie Robinson). These two points lead us to the final reason the sea change hasn’t happened yet, perhaps Hollywood sees that blacks and other minority actors have their own genre of characters to themselves. Whether it’s slaves, gangsters, or historical figures, certain roles have to be designated to minority actors. We’ve past the point in which white actors play historically non-white characters (oh wait I forgot, Christian Bale played Moses and Joel Edgerton played the EGYPTIAN King Ramses. Never mind). These non-white actors have roles reserved for them, such as being slaves, maids, gangsters, Cesar Chavez, MLK Jr. but nearly impossible to be the leading man of the killer asteroid film. Hopefully, the continued success of F&F will eventually open the floodgates for Idris Elba to play James Bond (wishful thinking on that one).
Written by: Chris Jones