Clearing the Air
As part of the incoming diversity plan funded by SIGN, Oxygen is one of a handful of companies that have ushered in new talent to tell their brave stories. So, I feel it only natural to begin my series of blogs by discussing the wonderful world of representation in the industry.
Growing up, it was a rare sight to see my Dominican side reflected in the world around me as I grew up in a densely white/south Asian populated town, but as I looked out to the media for visibility of República Dominicana, the culture there was just as silent.
Other than sparse stories of drug cartels and heists, Dominican isn’t home to many western world tales and much less, positive ones, so when I heard In the Heights was coming to cinemas, with such talent like Lin Manuel Miranda to back it, of course, I was ecstatic.
And then in trickled the reviews, which made me both cautious and guilty for maintaining my excitement to watch it with friends, because when I look at the lead, I can see myself up on the big screen.
As a mixed-race man I could connect with themes of being lost between cultures and organising documentation for my migrant father, but I admit I felt a disconnect between looking at the Latino’s who grace the screen and then thinking about mi familia back in the Dominican.
The two images just did not sit well together.
The cast for In the Heights is phenomenally talented but lacking the melanin that audiences were expecting from the big breakthrough of Latino culture.
This can perhaps be mirrored in the hit it took from the box office, jumping down 63% from week one to its second according to World of Reel. And whilst it’s up against big franchises such as The Conjuring and A Quiet Place within a pandemic, its numbers appear to be lacklustre.
I can’t help but feel empathy for the man who challenged expectations by casting black leads in his Broadway hit musical Hamilton only to be hit with controversies for doing the very opposite, but it begs the question...
Is melanin a money maker?
It seems that the figures at the top of the hierarchy don’t think so, as black actors took up less than 10% of casting in Hollywood films as of 2017 and this drops to just 5.2% for Latino actors according to the 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report.
We can see the world speeding up in recent years, however, with films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Get Out which reach out to tell stories of different cultures in the mainstream. And this is also true behind the camera as new roles, placements and schemes are calling minorities to the top.
Although I can’t help but wonder if what the industry is really calling for is a watered-down more palpable next generation of people who can be accepted by western audiences and teams.
Those who will tick the box of non-white whilst confirming to the standards already put into place. Both Jon M. Chu’s films Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights have been called out for casting choices but the problem seems to be on a much grander scale.
I was sad to see only a few people of colour on my university filmmaking course and stunned as I got onto a diversity scheme that had a lack of darker-skinned talent.
In the film, Abuela cares for her napkins whilst claiming they are,
“Beautiful… Little details that tell the world, we are not invisible.”
Sadly, I’m not sure if this is quite true yet, as the steps we’re taking are at a casual pace. It seems production companies are testing the waters to see which cultures will catch the trend to become the next big franchise.
In recent months I have been challenged with the word tokenism as it has been thrown around during various projects. A word that draws fear from many and causes others to draw a blank.
This is something reflected within all industries as I spoke with a police officer who became frustrated that new Caucasian officers were being pushed to the side to hire non-white employees for the sake of filling a diversity quota.
I would ask, however, what other skills this new recruitee can offer to the team. Diversity isn’t all about how much melanin is in the office, but how many different perspectives and opinions can be brought on board so we can come up with the best solution.
Whilst it seems we have become a trend right now; it would be wrong for me to complain at opportunities as someone who can quite simply pass as white whilst taking advantage of the diversity quota.
What I will question though, is why shouldn’t you support a project that’s looking to better represent minority groups in the media?
Yes, In the Heights has missed the mark with its casting, but it should hopefully open a door to many more, so long as its box office numbers don’t slam them shut because producers aren’t making a pretty penny in profit.
I believe Oxygen has a lot to learn from controversies such as these, like every production company across the world right now. Whilst we are telling important stories of sexuality, there’s room to usher in tales of race and faith as we continue to develop following seasons of A Series of Light and other projects.
In the Heights proves that making audiences feel visible boils down to asking simple questions like why shouldn’t we cast the actor with the cocoa complexion?
I’m sure many are waiting restlessly for the response.