14.12.2020

“Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians”: Representation on-screen and how it can help real-life activism

Activism and representation are connected

Anna Steinmeier is an #FESFellow 2020 who is interested in political communication and digital culture. She hosts the podcast "Politainment for Change". A series of blog posts based on her podcast will appear here on the FES DC blog.

This is the fourth blog, based on the fourth episode of the podcast. 

When Kamala Harris stepped in front of the nation and the world, she made history in many ways. Not only being the first vice president of Asian descent and the first black person to hold this office, but Kamala Harris is also the first female Vice President-elect – at least in the real world.  One of the first people who congratulated her online was actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who tweeted “Madam Vice President' is no longer a fictional character”. People familiar with Louis-Dreyfus can appreciate the reference, since she played (the fictional) Vice President Selina Meyer in the TV series Veep until 2019. While this is not the first case of life imitating art, it raises the question how much representation in popular culture can influence real life politics. Two ground-breaking movies in regard to representation in the last years were Black Panther (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018). 

For those who are not familiar with the story of the movie Black Panther or need to refresh their memories, the storyline goes like this – in case you haven’t seen it, there will be spoilers.

The movie takes place in the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, also called the MCU, which is a cinematic world featuring different superhero stories woven through several films. Between the first MCU movie in 2008 and the release of Black Panther 10 years later, 17 feature films about Marvel superheroes had been released – and all 17 films were headlined by white actors, until the late Chadwick Boseman played Black Panther. 

The movie Black Panther takes place in a fictional, yet technologically advanced African kingdom named Wakanda which is hidden from the rest of world and ruled by king T'Challa. T'Challa is the political leader of Wakanda and the protector of the country in his guise as the superhero named “Black Panther”. At the beginning of the movie T'Challa has just recently become King after his farther was murdered. Even though the crown and kingdom are passed down to him, he is challenged to defend both his title and his country several times. T’Challa’s most significant challenger is his cousin, who has given himself the name “Killmonger”. Killmonger – in contrast to the African born and raised T’Challa – was raised in the United States. The former King of Wakanda – and T’Challa’s farther – murdered Killmonger’s farther. Killmonger’s farther planned to make the technological advantages of Wakanda accessible to black people around the world. Killmonger – like his father – wants to use the riches of Wakanda to free Black people around the globe from their oppressors after growing up in poverty himself. After all their fighting, before his death Killmonger creates a change of heart in T’Challa and T’Challa decides to open up the country to the outside world. 

Another movie that has been hailed for its representation is the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians. It is pretty much a classic romantic comedy, a ‘boy meets girl, meets boy’s extremely rich family' story, but way cooler. The film had an all Asian cast as well as an Asian director, Jon M.Chu

 

CONSTRUCTED IDENTITES ON SCREEN

When talking about the political influence of movies is important to understand how representation on screen and politics are connected and movies are influenced by real-life politics. In order to understand the importance of representation of minorities as multilevel protagonists, it needs to be linked back to the politically charged history of on-screen characters. For the longest time, on-screen identities were mostly constructed by white screenwriters and directors and stories have been told mostly from the angle of the white male protagonist. Culture and cultural industries were marked by political and legal limits to minority communities. Those familiar with American legal history surely know the group of laws that targeted minorities, especially Black Americans in the segregation regime known as the Jim Crow laws. Hollywood and the movie industry was limited for decades by the Hays Code – a list of do’s and don’ts for filmmakers – which was established in 1930. While it claimed to help filmmakers to avoid government censorship, in reality, it was deeply racist.Power structures in entertainment have historically been created by white people and many remain to this day, as can be seen by the structure of the Academy Award jury and the movement #OscarsSoWhite.

 

Media has a great impact on how we see the world

Think back to the first time you watched a documentary about a city you have never been to. It shapes your view on how this city looks and feels until you visit for the first time. For children, movies and TV shows aim to teach them in important thing in life like the power of friendship or why it is important to share. It helps create a mental map of the world. 

Early movies and media produced a negative images and narratives of minorities. But still today when minorities are visible on screen, their actions in movies seem limited. Prominent dialogue is often limited to one-liners.  A study found out that black people in the performing arts are mostly limited to background and supporting roles. While this study was conducted in 1983 by Stam and Spence, a study by USC Annenberg found in 2019 that in 1200 films between 2007 and 2018 almost 64 percent of characters were white – which was already an improvement on casting from the years before. The #RepresentationMatters Report from the National Research Group further underlines this: According to the report, 2 in 3 Black Americans say they don’t see themselves or their culture reflected in movies and TV shows; 86 percent say they want to be better represented.

 

REPRESENTATION AND CHANGE

The diverse representation of minorities on screen matters, but why are the stories of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians also important when it comes to political activism like with the #BlackLivesMatter movement?  The #RepresentationMatters Report also found that 91 percent of Americans believe that media has an impact on society and can influence a society for the better. Looking closer at the study also shows that 3 in 4 people believe that the real-world perception of Black Americans is influenced by how they are portrayed in culture and media, and that the right representation can even break stereotypes. 

Roles in movies are generally not a reflection of actual people, but a carefully envisioned and crafted identity for a specific story, and the world created in movies is not necessary reality or truth, but a planned and calculated version of reality that fits the narrative of a story. The same can be said about the characters in Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther. But the struggle these characters face and feel are real to those represented. Even though a character is part of a functional and altered reality, it represents real emotions and feels “real” to the viewer. This is especially visible in the way people grieved the death of Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in 2020. 

 

THE MOVEMENTS

To understand the potential of how politically influential the new on-screen representation can be, it is worth noting how psychological empowerment and identity shape political movements. According to a research conducted in 2017 by Livingston et al, a high degree of self-awareness of identity and surroundings can foster peoples’ ability to become activists on a small scale like in church or their community. Taking the lead in their community can provide them with an even greater awareness of action and train their skills, even when their actions do not immediately result in an improvement of their community's circumstances. Another factor in the study was activism relevance to age, as young people are more likely to be active in social change. Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians both have PG-13 ratings, which allows people aged 13 and older to watch it in theaters, and younger children can watch under parental guidance. With providing a revisited identity, catering to the right age group, and allowing minorities to envision a different state of being, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians provide all the factors that Livingston et al. predict lead to activism. This is especially the case for Black Panther.

Political movements in the past have focused on changing current and projected living conditions. Even though a lot of citizenship and civil liberty advances have been made since the American Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, Black Americans still live in a constant state of resistance against the state. This can be seen with the #BlackLivesMatter movement which was created in 2013 after the death of the unarmed black teenager who was shot by a white man. Through 2014 and 2015 the movement managed to gain name recognition through offline presence in the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown. #BlackLivesMatter also amplified the online discourse surrounding the death of Brown as well as Eric Garner and Freddie Grey with the hashtags #blacklivesmatter, #handsupdontshoot and #icantbreathe as well as documenting and sharing police violence on social media and organizing protests through online tools. In addition to Black Lives Matter several other movements have been started since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States in November, 2016. In summer 2020, after George Floyd was killed by police, #BlackLivesMatter protests reached an all-time high and erupted all over the country. Furthermore, on the 2nd June 2020 music professional joined together for #BlackoutTuesday to raise awareness for BlackLivesMatter. The movement was joined by almost 15 Million people online from all over the globe.

Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians set out to change the way minorities are represented in Hollywood movies. They showed that complex and deep stories about minorities can be box-office successes and that representation in movies matters beyond entertainment. With creating new on-screen identities and enabling representation, the movies have created Hollywood blockbuster hype and pop-culture momentum contributing to visibility and impact in the broad and seriously political fight for racial justice. Activism and representation are connected.  

 

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