Examining racial stereotypes in the entertainment industry

Viola Davis, pictured, portrayed the house maid Aibileen in the 2011 film "The Help." Davis later spoke up about attempts by white actors and directors to silence her. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode)Viola Davis, pictured, portrayed the house maid Aibileen in the 2011 film "The Help." Davis later spoke up about attempts by white actors and directors to silence her. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode)

Whitney Ervin, Correspondent

There’s no doubt that as a society, we have come a long way in terms of race. The amount of diversity in media is increasing steadily, with people of color becoming more commonly found in starring roles.

Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. Most especially when it comes to how people of color are portrayed in the media and how actors of color are approached. Hollywood has been trying in recent years to be more diverse in its casting choices and there are cases when it is done very well. 

However, oftentimes it feels a little too obvious that a film is trying to be diverse but doesn’t actually understand what it means to be diverse. Simply for casting people of color, Hollywood gives itself a big pat on the back. 

To examine this more closely, one has to look no further than the Star Wars franchise. It is arguably one of the biggest franchises in the world and yet it truly underperforms in diversity. 

John Boyega, who portrayed Finn in the most recent Star Wars trilogy, has been the most outspoken with his feelings. John Boyega’s Finn played a major role in The Force Awakens, there were even hints that his character may also be a Jedi. He was a huge part of Disney’s marketing for the film as well. 

Then, as the trilogy continued Finn was largely pushed to the side. By the third and final film, “The Rise of Skywalker,” he only has a handful of scenes and they all serve to propel the white female lead. This is a stark difference from the Finn of The Force Awakens, who carried half the film’s narrative.

“What I would say to Disney is do not bring out a Black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side,” John Boyega said last year. “It’s not good.”

Women of color are especially prone to being stereotyped or placed under more scrutiny for their appearance. 

Sofia Vergara is an acclaimed actress from Colombia, but in order to become such, she had to succumb to Hollywood’s standards of what a Latina actress needed to look like. 

“I’m a natural blonde, like my siblings,” said Vergara in 2011 to Parade magazine. “When I started auditioning for American acting roles, they didn’t know where to put me. A blond Latina? In L.A. they’re used to Latin women looking more Mexican. But if you go to Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, everybody is blond.” 

Actress Thandie Newton has reportedly lost roles for refusing to succumb to racist stereotypes. 

She revealed in an interview with Vulture in July of 2020, that she was up for one of the lead roles in the 2000 reboot of Charlie’s Angels. The character she was set to play was a highly educated and intelligent woman. 

Newton, who attended Cambridge University in England, seemed to be the perfect choice. In a meeting with Amy Pascal, Newton described how Pascal wanted to make the character more believable. 

“She’s basically reeling off these stereotypes of how to be more convincing as a Black character,” said Newton. 

When Newton argued that she wouldn’t do things such as “jump on a table in a bar and shake your booty,” Pascal’s response was that Newton was just “different.”

Thandie Newton responded by turning down the role, despite knowing it would have been huge for her career at that time. 

One of the most recognized and acclaimed Black actresses working today is Viola Davis, best known for her roles in “How to Get Away with Murder” and “The Help.” 

In recent years, she’s become outspoken about how people of color, especially Black people, are portrayed in the media. Even being critical of her own work on “The Help” due to feeling the story didn’t truly represent the struggles of African Americans during the civils rights era. 

She said the film’s take on racism in the 1960s was a bit watered down in order to make the story more palpable. She has spoken about how she has often been silenced by white writers and directors when attempting to offer insight on her experience as a Black woman. 

“I get a gag order placed on me,” Davis said took place when she tried to speak out. “They don’t want to see your liberation; they don’t want to see your mess – they don’t want to see you.”

 There is a lot to be said about the direction we’re going as a society. A little bit at a time, the media we take in is becoming more reflective of the diverse world we live in.

Still, the question remains: is simply casting people of color enough? Hollywood elites, despite all their showmanship, certainly seem to think so. 

When their stories are underdeveloped, the character’s rife with stereotypes and the actors themselves being silenced for trying to convey their own experiences, the answer is a resounding no.

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