4) Blockbusters are more diverse than ever. (Race edition)
Okay, so I know this is a tricky issue, so I need to clarify some things before I get the ball rolling. No, I do not think representation of women and minorities in blockbuster movies right now is perfect. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement. Yes, I understand that the percentage of both female and black directors is minuscule compared to the number of mainstream directors in Hollywood who are white men. And honestly, in response to that I say that movies, like any artform, get better when more voices and perspectives are added to it. If white men have a monopoly on blockbuster film, that restrains the creativity of the film-making industry and prevents showing the true diversity of our society. I'm all in favor of more diversity in Hollywood, because beyond just skin color, creed, sexuality, etc., diversity means difference in opinion, difference in seeing the world, and the movie-going public as a whole benefits from seeing things from other people's perspectives.
So, let's talk about race in film. Unfortunately, just like American history, Hollywood has a tainted history with race relations. Early silent films like The Birth of a Nation were essentially just racist propaganda. And when Hollywood did incorporate black actors into bigger films throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, like Gone With The Wind and Walt Disney's infamous Song of the South, it was usually in a role as a servant, slave, or stereotype. But as the country changed, so did Hollywood. The civil rights movement brought new opportunities and advancement for people of color in the movies. In 1967, the highest grossing star of the year was Sidney Poitier. In addition, black filmmakers were increasingly going outside mainstream Hollywood to produce smaller movies in specific genres, the most notable of which is the "blacksploitation" genre. The rise of black filmmaking more-or-less correlated with the rise of the blockbuster, so filmmakers not only incorporated a lot of issues and themes of those movies (the Dirty Harry sequels in particular showcased a type of vigilantism mostly seen in blackploitation films before then), but actors as well. Many of the major blockbusters of the 80s incorporated minority actors, examples being Billy Dee Williams in the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters, and most noteworthy, Eddie Murphy's blockbuster streak that included Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Coming to America.
This poster states "Eddie Murphy is the Chosen One," and in the 80s, it was pretty hard to argue with that...
So, let's talk about a major issue. The last movie to be the number 1 at the box office for any given year and was focused solely on a black protagonist was Beverly Hills Cop, which starred Eddie Murphy and came out in 1984, 30 years ago. And one could maybe make the argument that 1996's Independence Day, also the highest grossing movie of the year when it came out, features a black protagonist in the character of Capt. Stephen Hiller, played by Will Smith. But I would argue that Independence Day is more of an ensemble piece, and it's probably more accurate to say Will Smith is a co-lead along with Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. The movie is focused on all three men, not specifically Smith's character the way Beverly Hills Cop was solely focused on Eddie Murphy's character of Axel Foley.
The truth of the matter is that startling statistic shows how far we have yet to go in terms of racial equality in mainstream American film. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 began discussion of how America was entering a "post-racial" society, and looking at our blockbusters, that doesn't necessarily seem the case. While black actors like Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Denzel Washington have seen their star-power increase in recent years, other black actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Idris Elba, and Don Cheadle usually take on more supporting roles to white lead actors and actresses.
Sidenote: Idris Elba should be cast in everything. EVERY. THING!
However, there is still progress that is noteworthy and worth talking about. I started this blog by talking about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's a good recent example of how black characters in blockbuster movies aren't being defined by their race, but by character traits and their individual arcs in the movie. As much as Ghostbusters is one of my favorite movies, the role of Winston Zeddemore, played by Ernie Hudson, did rather ring a little bit of tokenism. Winston simply does not have a whole lot to do in the movie. By the time he shows up to take the job as the fourth Ghostbuster, the three lead white characters played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and the late Harold Ramis have already established themselves and their business. They are undeniably the stars of the movie by this point. Winston is there to be a reason for the other Ghostbusters to have to explain the tools of the trade, and to show that their business is doing so well that they need a new person. But no background is given for why Winston is even qualified. Winston isn't even featured on the poster for the movie! And while he does get several good moments (in addition to the great lines "I've seen SHIT that will turn you WHITE!" and "If there is a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say," I love the moment where he talks about the biblical Judgment Day with Dan Aykroyd's character Ray Stantz), the character just isn't developed well enough. While Winston does get a little more of an expanded arc in the sequel Ghostbusters II, they still fail to give Winston an identity beyond his role at the Ghostbusters. In the sequel, he even isn't there when the three guys reunite to take down ghosts in a courthouse, and his sole source of income before the Ghostbusters reunite is reliving his past glory as a Ghostbuster at children's birthday parties, unlike Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz who runs an occult bookstore, Bill Murray's Peter Venkman who is a talkshow host, and Harold Ramis' Egon Spengler who is a scientist.
At least Ernie Hudson got on the poster for the second movie, so... progress...?
Or remember Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard? Again, there simply wasn't a whole lot for him to do besides talk to John McClane. And sure, he might have gotten the last quality kill of the movie, but can you think of any defining characteristic for his character besides the fact that he was a cop and loved Twinkies...?
The filling in Twinkies is NOT made out of character development, you guys.
In contrast, the character of Sam Wilson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, played by Anthony Mackie, is much more developed. He's shown as a war veteran who befriends Steve Rogers/Captain America while jogging around Washington, DC one day. When Captain America finds him again, he leads a support group for veterans with PTSD, and he talks about how hard it is to adjust to life after the war. But in addition to basic character development, there are definitely things for Wilson to do. *SPOILER ALERT* He shelters both Captain America and Black Widow when they have no where else to run. His alter-ego as the Falcon allows him to do things Captain America and Black Widow can't, and the actual gear he uses is undeniably cool. He helps dismantle the Helicarriers when Captain America is busy fighting the Winter Soldier, and takes down the secondary villain of the movie, Brock Rumlow, all by himself (though a crashing Helicarrier definitely helped a little). Even little quirks the character has, like his love of the music of Marvin Gaye, come full-circle during the course of the movie.
His character ark is even more interesting if you think of Captain America 2 as a sequel to Anthony Mackie's role in The Hurt Locker.
If one looks beyond just the highest grossing movie of individuals years to the top 15, my own estimates show that over a third of the 15 highest grossing movies per year since the year 2000 feature African-American actors and actresses in lead or major supporting role. (If you're wondering about my methodology, I went to BoxOfficeMojo, and went down the top 15 movies and saw if a black actor and actress was the lead or had a major supporting role either based on a quick rundown on IMDb or my own personal knowledge. I did end up counting appearances in animated films such as Eddie Murphy in the Shrek films and Jada Pickett Smith in the Madagascar films.) The best year in recent memory was 2012, where over half the films in the top 15 films at the box office had an African American lead or major supporting role. (This included Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury in The Avengers, Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox in The Dark Knight Rises, Amandla Stenberg's Rue in The Hunger Games, Will Smith as the lead in Men in Black 3 and Jamie Foxx as the lead, among supporting turns from actors like Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, in Django Unchained.) While there is certainly progress to be made (by my estimates, even as recently as 2008, only 3 out of the 15 highest grossing movies featured black actors in a lead or supporting role), African-American actors are more visible in major blockbusters, and increasingly show a depth that perhaps was not as prominent in the blockbuster films of the 70s and 80s that goes beyond mere "tokenism."
In addition, latino actors and actresses are becoming more and more visible in blockbuster projects. The Fast and Furious franchise in particular has received attention for the number of non-white actors and actresses in the series, despite being headlined by a white actor, the late Paul Walker. In addition to the series other lead, Vin Diesel, being biracial, Latin actors and actresses like Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster and John Ortiz make the Fast and Furious movies look increasingly like the changing demographic landscape of America, despite what Fox News would have you believe.
Which is why Lou Dobbs will be the villain in the next Fast and Furious movie...
So let's return to the idea that blockbusters are no longer exclusively American, and have a broad appeal around the world. The fact of the matter is that thanks to the efforts of civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the United States, on both the governmental and societal level, began to accommodate minorities thanks to efforts like affirmative action, the diminishing effects government discrimination against voting and civil rights, and broader societal acceptance of minorities. While racial issues still happen in America and show how far we have yet to go (the Trayvon Martin case and the racist remarks of Donald Sterling stand out as recent examples), America has progressed far better than most other Western countries in terms of acceptance of racial minorities. In Europe in particular, where leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have denounced "multiculturalism" has something that has "failed" in the countries they lead, as well as tightening restrictions on immigration from countries outside the European Union, one can get the impression that European countries are not as open and accommodating about race as their American counterparts are.
So, and I'll ask this question again when it comes to gender representation, what do the popularity of these films mean to countries outside the United States? What does it mean to countries that struggle with how best to accommodate their racial minorities to see black and Latino actors in the most easily accessible and most popular of American films, our blockbusters? The fact is a lot of countries outside the United States struggle with accommodating minorities in both government and society, and perhaps to see prominent lead roles or major supporting turns from actors who just happen to be minorities shakes their previous conceptions about integration and acceptance. The fact is, a lot of blockbusters incorporate what I would argue is one of the major American values: teamwork. People from different backgrounds, different looks, different creeds, all coming together to tackle an obstacle. Whether it's the Avengers, the Jedis, the X-Men, or a bunch of freed zoo animals, I would argue that the message we're sending out to a world that is seeing our blockbusters in increasing levels in countries both free and not free is that America is diverse, America accommodates those from different backgrounds, and Americans work together for the greater good despite their differences.
Are things perfect? No. Do we have a long way to go? Of course. But racial diversity in our mainstream blockbusters is becoming more and more prominent, showing not only the changing demographics of America, but showing to the world just what a good thing racial integration, acceptance, and relative harmony can be.
5) Blockbusters are more diverse than ever. (Gender edition)
I previously said that no film featuring a singular black protagonist had been at the top of the box office for any given year since 1984's Beverly Hills Cop. Well, for 40 years, the last film to feature a female protagonist that was the number one at the box office for a given year was 1973's The Exorcist. However, that streak came to an end when, just last year, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire became the first movie in forty years featuring a female protagonist to become the highest grossing movie of the year. Big event movies, like Alfonso Cuaron's astronaut epic Gravity and Kathryn Bigelow's tale of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, display strong women overcoming and working in perilous situations, both to massive critical acclaim and box office revenue.
Arnold Schwarzenegger WISHES he was as badass as Jessica Chastain was in that movie...
In recent years, much attention has been given to the Bechdel test, a formula developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that asks if a film has two female characters who talk during the course of the film about something that isn't a man. As underground as Bechdel's original work was, that formula has become mainstream with entire websites devoted to analyzing which films do and do not meet the standards. This speaks to the need of providing complex female characters in mainstream films.
Since the year 2000, female characters have taken increasingly larger roles in blockbusters. A good example of this would be Keira Knightley's character Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. While the first installment had her pretty much as a damsel in distress (though she did manage to get a badass scene or two), the latter two show her sneaking on to a pirate ship, becoming a full fledged pirate captain, and eventually swordfighting several pirates and creepy-crawly Davey Jones crewmembers in order to save her shipmates.
Remember all those jokes about her bodice in the first movie? Looks like Keira is getting some revenge...
But Will!, you say. Even Princess Leia in Star Wars became increasingly badass as the trilogy went on! What makes this period of blockbuster so different than what came before?
A few things, actually. The first one is character development. The highest grossing film series of the 2000s was the Harry Potter series. One of the three child leads was Hermione Granger, played by Emma Watson, who is undeniably smarter than the two other leads, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. She, rather than her male counterparts, is the one who constantly figures out how to defeat whatever obstacle is in their way. Hell, the entire third act of the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is orchestrated because Hermione activates her Time-Turner, not because of anything Harry or Ron does in service to the plot. As the movies progressed and the characters got older, the characters changed as well, leading to some sweet, intimate moments. While Star Wars had to resort to the infamous Princess Leia metal slave girl bikini in its last installment, Harry Potter had a simple dance between characters in the seventh installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1, that summed up everything they were feeling. It never had to resort to making her a sexy character. It never had to resort to weakening her character to appeal to male audiences. Hermione, throughout all eight films, is a strong character that aids and adds infinitely to the story. And yes, I know a lot of the strength of the character comes from her development in the original books by J.K. Rowling. (Book purists will point to how Hermione's passion for charity to house-elves is not featured in the movies, perhaps subtracting a bit of useful character development.) But to the cynics who wish to dismiss blockbusters, it's easy to see why this:
is better example of a complex female character than this:
In addition, the Marvel Cinematic Universe features Black Widow, who gets more and more developed with each installment she's featured in. The James Bond series, once famous for its Bond girls and their characters' names like Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead, now have characters like Naomi Harris' Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall, who can work side-by-side with the world's greatest spy. While Michelle Pfeiffer had to sex up her performance as Catwoman in Batman Returns...
Complete with a latex catsuit so tight it almost suffocated her. Seriously!
Anne Hathaway fought along side the Caped Crusader in The Dark Knight Rises, and didn't require a psychotic breakdown to transform her the way Michelle Pfeiffer's interpretation of the character did.
While in the past, strong female protagonists in action or sci-fi genre blockbusters were exclusive to only a few franchises, most notably Aliens' Ellen Ripley and Terminator 2's transformed Sarah Connor, and even those two examples were considered pretty revolutionary, they have becoming increasingly present, so much so that we don't really take notice of movies featuring that trope anymore. The Underworld and Resident Evil series both feature strong female protagonists. Even acclaimed actresses like Angelina Jolie have thrived on the action female heroine characters in movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Salt, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Even the rom-com, once perceived to be the only genre women gravitated towards, has been through a revolution of its own thanks to the success of rom-coms that promote women and feature work by female screenwriters, such as The Heat, Juno, Mean Girls, and most prominent of all, Bridesmaids, which in addition to earning an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay for star Kristen Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo, tore down a lot of preconceived notions of women in comedy and how successful a female-led comedy could be.
Plus, it introduced a lot of us to Melissa McCarthy, who I think it is safe to say is a national treasure.
Disney was once famous for the problematic issues it had with Disney princesses. (Like Ariel risking everything for a man in The Little Mermaid, Belle's supposed Stockholm syndrome in Beauty in the Beast, and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all falling in love and wondering towards marriage with love's first kiss without so much as knowing their gentlemen suitors.) Now, Disney princesses have a strength not seen in past decades. From Brave's Merida fighting for herself against the wishes of her parents, to the bonds of sisterhood, not erotic love, being that which thaws Anna and Elsa in Frozen, even Disney is adapting with the times.
Let's take time to remember that this ACTUALLY HAPPENED in a Disney movie...
For every Bella Swan in Twilight that displays unhealthy tendencies and problematic issues in regards to her obsession with men and sexuality, there's a character like Katniss Everdeen.
Oh, yes. You didn't think I wouldn't talk about this did you? The Hunger Games was a gamechanger because of its success, but also that it didn't fall into familiar pitfalls. And while even Hunger Games has to have not one, but two romantic interests for Katniss, it's progressive in other ways. She's the breadwinner for her family. She had to hone in her skills to survive. She has wits and intelligence that makes her better than her advisories in the arena. Much attention was given in the second movie, Catching Fire, to how she is a symbol of hope for a repressed people. It could even be argued (and some have already have) that the male character Peeta embodies much more of a damsel-in-distress than Katniss ever does.
Katniss survived because she was a skilled hunter. Peeta survived because he could... smear mud on his face...? [insert "smear mud on your ass" joke from Wet Hot American Summer here]
The success of The Hunger Games has led to other adaptations of YA novels featuring young female protagonists, including Beautiful Creatures, Divergent, Mortal Instruments, and The Host. While those films have had a varying degree of success, the fact is, Hollywood has stopped thinking of typical Hollywood genre movies as primarily for a male audience. The fact that film adaptations, spinoffs and reboots of female characters such as Black Widow, Lara Croft, Mystique, and potentially the biggest of them all, Wonder Woman (who, it's hard to believe, will be making her big screen appearance for the first time ever in 2016's Batman vs. Superman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot), are gaining traction in Hollywood shows just how much things have shifted in the past few years.
Sidenote: Lyndsy Fonseca would've been an AMAZING Wonder Woman, but I still got my fingers crossed that Gia Gadot will knock it out of the park.
The 21st century is shaping up to be an era defined by women. Thanks to the advancements of the feminist movements throughout the 20th century, women have better status than ever. In addition to leading major companies, taking a bigger role in the arts, and roles of global leadership, including the very real possibility that the United States will elect its first female president in 2016, women are changing the types of conversations we're having through female empowerment. Just as in the case of diversity, one cannot look to American blockbusters as exclusively American. Countries outside of the Western world are just now discussing issues of women's health, reproductive rights and access to birth control. Women's voices will be crucial to solving the major debates of the next century, including issues of political and civil rights, overpopulation, health, and innovation. With all this in mind, if a young girl in a country that perhaps doesn't respect the rights of women as much as the United States does sees a character like a Hermione Granger or a Katniss Everdeen, what happens? Will she be inspired? Will she see the inherit hypocrisies of her home nation treating one gender as superior? Will she want to be like those female heroes she sees on the big screen? Remember, films are cultural products, and Hollywood has made a lot of progress in recent years in showing equal, strong, complex female characters. That trend may have ramifications beyond critical acclaim, but in influence and inspiration for a new generation of young women who may not have heard the message of female empowerment in their own native lands.
Much in the same way like highlighting racial diversity in blockbuster film, there's plenty of progress left to make not just in terms of female representation in blockbusters, but behind the camera as well. Few female directors have been able to push through the cinematic glass ceiling and achieve the success and respect that their male counterparts have, for example. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream Hollywood still has the dichotomy of being a "boy's club", but as the great Cate Blanchett highlighted in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, there is a need for more female driven projects, and maybe that will motivate Hollywood to find female talent behind the camera. Regardless, in front of the camera, and to the eyes and ears of moviegoers around the world, our preconceived notions about gender norms are being challenged, actresses are taking on roles that would have been impossible just a few decades ago, and gaining mainstream acceptance around the world.
So, I know I've been hinting at it, and next time you'll see why I think this era for blockbusters might actually be the best in recent memory! Stay tuned!