When I was doing research on good tweeters for last week’s beat post, I stumbled upon this piece on The Guardian’s Film Blog. This article discusses the racial controversies surrounding the recently released film The Impossible. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even consider David Cox — the author of this article — for my Twitter post because he apparently doesn’t own a Twitter account (get with the times, Cox!), but I do, thankfully, get the chance to talk about his piece here.
For those who don’t know what The Impossible is about, well, you should click on the link above, but I’ll briefly summarize the film anyway (it’s based on a true story): a British family is on vacation in Thailand on December 26, 2004 when the deadliest tsunami in world history strikes the town they are staying in. The rest of the movie focuses on the separation of the family as a result of the tsunami and their struggle to reconnect.
Anyone old enough in 2004 remembers this horrible natural disaster, which killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The reviews for the film have been mostly positive but a few people, like Cox, are intrigued and/or annoyed by the characters the producers of The Impossible chose to focus on.
In other words, for a film set in Thailand that affected thousands Thai people, one would think that the main characters of said film would be, you know, Thai. Cox wrote the above sentence in his second paragraph, so he wastes little time addressing the issue he plans on talking about.
A few paragraphs later, Cox brings up a quote from one of the stars of the film, Ewan McGregor, regarding the role of Thai people in this film. The quote is convincing but Cox provides a just as convincing counter-argument.
“Naomi [Watt’s] character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her … In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping.” Does this make matters worse? Those who are protesting don’t want to see non-whites patronised [sic] with background roles as saintly ciphers; they want them to play mainstream parts as three-dimensional protagonists in what is, after all, their story.
This is probably my favorite part of Cox’s article. I thought McGregor made a great point and that maybe critics were overreacting to the issues of race in this movie, but Cox’s counter made me take a complete 180.
Reading this section made think of the “token black guy”, aka a minority figure in a movie who doesn’t have much of role other than being one of the few (or only) non-white actors. Cox isn’t saying the Thai people in The Impossible are the same as the “token black guy”, but they’re also not significantly different.
The critics of The Impossible don’t care if the Thai people are painted in a perfect light; they just want them to be the most distinguished characters.
But Cox does not just end his article here. He wonders if there’s a statistical justification for the light-skinned faces that are so predominant on the big screen, and he points to a study that might explain this cinematic trend:
Last year an Indiana University study confronted 68 white college students with a variety of synopses accompanied by casts of varying ethnicity. “The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,” said the report. “Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity.”
This might not be the largest sample but it does point to an explanation for the white-dominated film industry, and there are plenty of other figures that point to a preference for Caucasian stars in film.
Cox noted that “in 2010, non-white actors took leading roles in only two of America’s 30 top-grossing films.” While some may point to the fact that this only accounts for American viewers and that worldwide audiences would likely prefer more diverse movie stars, Cox says that this is simply not the case.
The great wide world at which films such as The Impossible are now aimed is only 17% white. Nonetheless, the predominance of white characters among their protagonists seems hardly to have fallen.
Cox notes that international audiences simply haven’t shown a preference for non-white stars, according the amount of money grossed by films in these markets.
He points to the fact that films like Captain America, Les Misérables, The Hobbit, and Skyfall, which all have Caucasian stars, have done well countries with mostly non-white populations, while China’s film industry and India’s Bollywood are not showing signs of increased popularity outside of their countries.
“Instead,” Cox writes, “both India and China are hiring more and more western actors.”
Cox’s article is only about 1,000 words long but he effectively covers many parts of a complicated issue. He could have just written about the racism in Hollywood — how unfair it is for filmmakers to consistently cast white actors in lead roles — but he chose to search for answers to this phenomenon rather than just providing his own.
Cox sums up his article perfectly: “Not until this picture changes do white people look likely to vacate their throne on the silver screen.” (“This picture” is referring to the statistics of films with white stars doing better than the likes of Bollywood films.).
Cox might think it’s ridiculous for films like The Impossible to cast white actors in the leading roles, but he knows that if audiences continue to show up for films with light-skinned stars more than films starring darker actors, movie producers will have no reason to change their ways.