Sexism and Racism in Hollywood: The Black Force Awakens

Pim Razenberg on the politics of minorities and women in blockbuster superhero movies…

“Alright,” he sighed, the look on his face implying that a more serious tone was to follow. Squatting down next to the dead-still body of a man lying face-down in a puddle of mud, he paused a short moment to observe the seemingly beaten down individual’s shredded black uniform. “You’ve been beaten. You’ve been broken…” Without making a sound, the battered man slowly raised his head towards the speaker. “…You’ve got nothing left but what’s inside.” Small drops of rain started making splashes in the puddles surrounding the man’s broken body. The sound of the raindrops echoed through his ears. “I want you to reach inside. Reach into the depths of your soul. I want you to try to find that power within. That power that only we can feel. Others… they don’t understand. They will never understand. But we do… and that makes us special.” The speaker stood up, raised his back, and looked up to the sky, while the increasing rainfall soaked his clothes. A third individual, dressed in dark gowns, sporting a mechanical arm, stepped up out of the shadows in ominous silence… “You have to find that power. The power only a black person can have.”

“Alright, brother… I heard you,” Chadwick Aaron Boseman nodded, planting his face back in the dirt. “Fantastic,” the African-American director smiled, stepping backward out of the artificial rain shower’s reach. Taking the megaphone, he looked around, raised his hand, and shouted: “Black Panther, scene 95, ‘Final Fight’, take 3… Action!”

Is that it? Is this scenario the driving force behind the decisions of today’s hottest movie studios? Is this vision their reason to look into Hollywood’s repertoire of black directors to pull off “the impossible”; to direct a movie about an African-American superhero? Does Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige truly believe they have to find a black director to be able to create a worthwhile movie about a black superhero character; does Warner Bros. really feel they have to go out of their way to find a woman to direct Wonder Woman; and is it really necessary for a Star Wars movie to be directed by a female?

No… but perhaps, in this world, it’s in their best interest.

The dawn of the “cinematic universe” came with the rise of Marvel Studios – now the proud owner of the most profitable movie franchise in the world. Warner Bros. and DC Comics were a bit slow to follow, but they are gearing up to challenge the ever-growing red giant… and that puts both of them in the foreground of modern pop culture.

A few days ago actor Anthony Mackie stated he doesn’t think Marvel Studios’ Black Panther needs a black director, adding to the ongoing discussion on who gets to direct the studio’s first minority-centered superhero movie. As Anghus Houvouras has pointed out in a response to the discussion last year, choosing a black director to direct a black comic book character and a female director to direct a female one is actually the very definition of racism and sexism. In the end, any decision surrounding a movie should be made in service of that movie. It’s about finding the right person for the job, regardless of race and gender.

Sexism and Racism in Hollywood
(Credit: Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Marvel Studios, however, is not just in the business of making movies. Marketing-wise the studio was founded to bring Marvel Comics’ superhero stories to the big screen “as they should be”: the studio was set to make their own series of films that “would stay true to their source material”. Speaking from a business point of view, however, you’ll need to strip the company’s statement from its sugary marketing coating to get to the underlying truth; Marvel Studios was founded to capitalize on the 21st-century superhero boom. Making money is their business; and that is arguably more important than serving their fans. These objectives shone through brightly with the announcement of Ant-Man and the Wasp: while pretty much every single Marvel Studios movie was promised a sequel before the original even came out, Ant-Man wasn’t. The reason for this was simple; the box-office predictions for Ant-Man were not good enough to directly give the “go” for a sequel, as the property was deemed too risky, and instead of directly warranting a sequel the movie’s main character was first plugged into Captain America: Civil War to further establish Scott Lang’s mainstream popularity. A few months after its release, the movie opened in China, made the extra cash Marvel Studios was hoping to receive, and a sequel was announced.

Sexism and Racism in Hollywood
(Credit: Ant-Man)

Business models are the same everywhere in the world: every business, big or small, needs to make a profit in order to continue its existence. Profits come from sales; sales are influenced by the popularity of the products that are offered. The products themselves are in turn made with the financial backing of the company and its partners, and neither one of those parties would be willing to risk pumping millions of dollars into a product that might not prove to be profitable. As such, the responsible party – in this case, the production company – will do everything to prevent this from happening. Very few companies ever take financial risks without first being able to properly assess and minimize those risks; and very few of the companies that do survive. To keep financial risks low it is important to a) grow interested in a product and b) to make sure consumers continue to view the company’s products – as well as the company itself – in a positive light.

That’s were marketing comes in.

Back home in the Netherlands, where I grew up, most people are very liberal. Whether someone is gay, straight, black, or English really doesn’t matter all that much. Even in Thailand, where I live now, being part of a minority hardly even comes up as a point of discussion. Marvel Studios’ however, is not just dealing with the Netherlands or Thailand. It’s dealing with the citizens of the United States of America, worldwide audiences, and all those pesky-yet-lucrative fans connected to them through the Internet… and within that world, race and sex (sadly) still matter. When operating in a world where film studios can’t announce a superhero movie focussing on a character labeled as a minority without sparking a worldwide debate, marketing becomes a core business in itself, and making such a movie is a path that has to be treaded carefully: it’s hard to please everyone and it’s easy to make mistakes.

Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. were wise not to ignore the presence of films such as Blade, Elektra, and Catwoman when shaping their plans for Black Panther, Cyborg, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman. Though there had been a public outcry for more diversity in superhero movies for quite some time, it’s not the fans who have to risk their money to make these movies; they just show up at the box office. Jet-starting their proposed plans first, Marvel Studios put its marketing machine to work to test the waters for making a female-centered movie, as well as a movie surrounding an African-American superhero.

The groundwork for both Black Panther and Captain Marvel can be found everywhere in the MCU. First and foremost, there was Black Widow, who, unlike her male Avenger colleagues, was not given a solo movie before heading for New York in The Avengers. She simply appeared as a side character in Iron Man 2, with the promise of a spin-off movie. Then there was Captain America: The First Avenger‘s Peggy Carter, who, after proving herself in the financially low-risk One-Shot: Agent Carter, upstaged Black Widow by becoming the first female lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – although be it in the financially less risky sector of television. Both characters proved popular and, more importantly, profitable, which led to the announcement of Marvel Studios’ first female-centered superhero movie: Captain Marvel. The movie went into pre-production with the studio fully knowing that before its release date they would have a few years’ time to build up the idea of a female-led superhero adventure with Jessica Jones, a new season of Agent Carter, and other similar properties.

Sexism and Racism in Hollywood
(Credit: Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

The planned Black Panther movie has a similar origin: it started with teasing the introduction of War Machine in Iron Man, followed up on that tease in Iron Man 2, and continued with a very low-key race-swap for Heimdall in Thor. Marvel slowly paved the way to “warm” audiences to more diverse superheroes; because while the media can shout out for diversity all they want, that doesn’t automatically mean that the general movie-going audiences will follow. Subsequent appearances of the Falcon as a side-character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man, creating a television series around Luke Cage and even introducing Black Panther himself in Captain America: Civil War before giving him his own movie, Marvel Studios carefully lowered the financial risks of their upcoming “minority” properties by easing in their audience and familiarizing them with their plans and ideas. The studio’s products and their content don’t just reflect fan service, they are well-defined business strategies. Recent rumors surrounding Wonder Woman already indicate that Warner Bros. has its own strategies for making their new female-centered movie work: by first introducing Wonder Woman in an ensemble movie, and then, when push comes to shove, “just adding Batman”.

Sexism and Racism in Hollywood
(Credit: Marvel Comics)

So why is the whole world discussing the inherent qualities of minorities in order to justify whether they are capable of directing a movie or not? Well, simply because as long as Black Panther is still called a “black superhero” rather than a “superhero” in his own right, these debates still matter. We don’t call Tony Stark a “white superhero”, after all, now do we? Mackie stated, “they didn’t get a horse to direct Seabiscuit“, but was there anyone out there complaining about this? Were there decades of discussions on how one famous horse would be better than another famous horse to direct Seabiscuit? No. Had Seabiscuit‘s Spyglass Entertainment been criticized for decades for not giving enough job opportunities to horses, ducks, or crocodiles, or for portraying them in sexist ways? No. Marvel Studios and DC Comics are, in a way, both victims and leaders of the world they occupy. Opting to finally take the risk to tackle movies concerning black or female superheroes – which after all, did not fare well in the past – is a great step forward, but it also places an unnatural focus on these issues. Is being part of a minority – or being female – really something that needs to be said, screamed off the rooftop, and published around the world just so we can pretend we are good people by stating “they are just as capable of carrying a movie as white people”? There’s nothing more racist or sexist as doing just that.

Marvel Studios and DC Comics are now navigating within a territory filled with traps and pitfalls. Is it a bad thing they would hire their directors (or make-up artists, or writers, or anyone else for that matter) based on sex and race? Yes, absolutely. That would be crossing the very thin line between right and wrong within this discussion. But, at the same time, openly considering the option of hiring a black and/or female director is not a bad thing at all. Having a great African-American female director create an epic, successful blockbuster movie is the way to open new doors for minorities in Hollywood. Showing a willingness to make that happen creates an image of support and consideration, as long as these directors are equally considered for other projects, regardless of their race and sex and that of the actors they would direct. In the end, it’s simply about the acknowledgment of talent across the board, regardless of what social category someone’s been shoved into. However, as long as we live in a world where Chadwick Boseman is described as an “African-American actor, and the world is set on fire by the thought of seeing a “black Human Torch”, stories like these will continue to be written for years to come, and film studios will continually have to balance the needs of the many with the screams of the few.

Sexism and Racism in Hollywood
(Credit: Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

You can also read this article on Flickering Myth.

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