How racial representation in movies developed over time, and how it needs to progress further

Berkeley

By looking at the Oscar Best Picture winners over time, a clear trend towards white actors emerges. Viewers needn’t look further than the DVD (or VHS) cover of a film to see that non-white actors are poorly represented at the prestigious award show. There is a pretty glaring exception to this trend, however: 2019’s Parasite won the Oscar Best Picture award at the 2020 Oscar’s, making it the first non-English-language film to win the award. The exception is not the rule, though, as over the past 10 years, 74 Oscar nominations were given to people of color, compared to 605 given to white people. This disparity is finally showing signs of slowing down, but is it too little too late? The Academy is making strides towards proper representation, but there is still a long way to go.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

The Byre Theatre

Having won Best Picture at the 62nd Academy Awards in 1989, Driving Miss Daisy is quite a heartwarming film despite its use of outdated stereotypes. It follows the life of 72-year-old Daisy Werthan, played by Jessica Tandy, in the year 1948. She is rich, Jewish, a widow, and a retired school teacher that has some help from a black housekeeper named Idella in her home. The main focus of the film is the growing friendship between Miss Daisy and Hoke Colburn, a chauffeur hired to drive her around after she crashes while driving herself. The film also touches on other subjects regarding prejudice such as racism against black people and anti-Semitism in the South. While the film does show us a beautiful message of love and patience, it has its drawbacks.

Hoke Colburn, played by Morgan Freeman, is a 60-year-old black man who is introduced in the film by appearing to fix a broken elevator at Boolie’s, Miss Daisy’s son, business before being hired to be Miss Daisy’s chauffeur. Hoke is a compassionate, kind, and forgiving man that deals with the dismissive way that Miss Daisy initially treats him in a dignified manner. You could compare him to the “Tom” stereotype which is typically an older, black man who is faithful, a servant of some kind (in this case a chauffeur), and generous to those around him. There’s actually another trope that extends from this initial stereotype called the “Magical Negro”, a term popularized by film director Spike Lee in 2001. Author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu also has a list of qualities found in this trope:

  1. He or she is a person of colour, typically Black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly White characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the White protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the White protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

If we take a look at Hoke Colburn, he certainly does fit the bill with most of these things, except for the third one. He is a black man that aids the white, Miss Daisy and was certainly a stranger at first. He initially cannot read until Daisy teaches him later. On a positive note, she doesn’t look down on him for this but rather is angered for him as he is a respectable, smart man that wasn’t given the same educational opportunities as her. Speaking of his intelligence, he certainly is wise, patient with Daisy’s rebuttals, and follows the Christian faith. Thankfully, Hoke doesn’t disappear, die, or sacrifice anything at the end of the film. He’s still alive and relatively healthy at the age of 85. But little did we know, this wouldn’t be the last time Morgan Freeman would be playing this trope, but we’ll touch on that later.

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Hoke’s character isn’t the only stereotype presented, remember Idella who I briefly mentioned earlier? She fits right in with the “Mammy” stereotype which is quite similar to the “Tom” stereotype. Idella is a hired maid who cooks and cleans the house for Miss Daisy. She’s an older, large woman that seems generally fine with her work and seen asexually. Miss Daisy is also a lot nicer to Idella compared to how other white people treat their maids, and it may be the reason why Idella has a sassy disposition. This additional trait is given to offset the thought of black people being oppressed under white folk with this role. Despite the amicable relationship between them, they never cross the boundaries of home owner and hired help. However after Idella suddenly suffers from a heart attack and dies while working in the kitchen, Daisy is despaired at her death. She doesn’t hire another maid after Idella’s death, instead she and Hoke split the responsibilities of the house. In my view, I would like to see this somewhat positively as Daisy respecting Idella’s time in her life thus not wanting to replace her. I will say that the actors in this film performed amazingly that touched the audiences’ hearts. But if we scrutinize, we see a black character helping a white character who is more privileged than their self and make them understand life more meaningfully. It may seem rather harsh to look at it like this despite the long friendship we can learn from Driving Miss Daisy, but we also can learn from analyzing such tropes.

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Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Roger Ebert

As mentioned before, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) was not Morgan Freeman’s only role of playing into the “Magical Negro” trope, but it was the first of many in his career as an actor. In fact, he seems to play a similar role in every film he has been in, being typecast for playing this wise old man. Million Dollar Baby (2004) is another film that won Best Picture at the 77th Academy Awards, and Freeman is toeing this trope. His character in this film, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, holds less qualities relating to the trope. He’s not exactly as fun, kind, and compassionate as Freeman’s role as Hoke, but there’s still a sense of it especially with the end of the film itself. Eddie is an older, black man who does use his wisdom to help another character who is white, and has a handicap with his loss of vision in one eye from his final fight as a boxer. Though the one that he helps isn’t a stranger to him, it’s his friend who has known him for some time and his employer, Frankie Dunn.

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Eddie is also the narrator of the film, and it’s not just because of the trope with its all seeing nature, but it’s revealed that his narration is a letter to Frankie’s estranged daughter in hopes that she’ll know how her father truly feels. He’s even alive at the end of the film, and this seems like a better interpretation of this magical trope. Eddie has sides to him that aren’t placed in this strict confinement. We could argue that Eddie and “Big” Willie Little, who is another black character in the film, are being portrayed as the “Buck” stereotype with the case of them being “violent and threatening” due to their previous and current careers as boxers. But it’s a rather weak case as then it’s labeling all boxers as that.

Birdman (2014)

Amazon Prime

On the 2014 film Birdman‘s IMDB page, 2 of the 6 actors (in credits order) are not white, which at a glance seems low, but in comparing it to best picture winners across the history of the award, it is par for the course. Of course, in the opening few minutes of the movie, a Korean man selling food is yelled at to shut up by one of the white characters (pictured above), and that character then exclaims how much the shop smells like kimchi, and this is played for laughs, before the character states that she hates her job, most likely referring to having to go buy food from someone who speaks a different language than her. It could be argued that the point of that moment was to make the character unlikeable to the audience, but there are a million other ways of doing this that don’t rely on harmful racial stereotypes and the dehumanizing of a Korean man, especially because race does not seem to play a major role in this movie, so there isn’t a real story reason for this character to treat the vendor like this. It is a common trope in filmmaking to make a character unlikable by having them just be racist or sexist without any real reason to it, and in order to progress representation, this trope needs to be erased.

Parasite (2019)

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One of the most positive things to come from the nominations and winners during the 92nd Academy Awards was Parasite, also known as 기생충, winning four awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. It is the first ever non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it is amazing to see that language and racial barriers could be broken through with this film. Parasite, with its all Korean main cast, we get to appreciate something that has never happened before. It was a monumental moment to see such a change from the typical, white majority nominations and winners. These characters weren’t written in a way to box them inside of a typical stereotype like the “Dragon Lady” or “Lotus Blossom” based on their race, but we’re given complicated characters who have a thrilling story to tell us. There has always been interest in having more racially diverse film casts. Hopefully this pattern continues in the future, and if the 93rd Academy Awards are of any indication, it looks like there’s some hope and expectations to hold for diversity.

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Near the end of 2020, the Academy released a statement detailing their new diversity requirements. These standards will come into full effect in 2024, and put criteria in place to dictate whether or not a film is eligible for the award of Best Picture. There are many standards broken up into four main groups: The first is on-screen representation, themes, and narratives, the second is creative leadership and project team, number three is industry access and opportunities, and the fourth category is audience development. Inside each of these categories are 1-3 criteria a film must meet to consider that category met, and the film must meet two of the four categories in order to be considered for the Best Picture award. The actual criteria inside of these categories are not incredibly progressive, and describe a bare minimum for representation. For example, to meet the requirements for the first category of on-screen representation, a film must have one lead actor be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, 30% of all actors in secondary roles are from at least two of the following groups: women, racial or ethnic group, LGBTQ+, or people with cognitive or physical disabilities, OR the main storyline is focused on an underrepresented group. As long as a film does one of these things, it meets the requirements for that category, and only has to meet the requirements for one more category to be considered for Best Picture. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it asks for the bare minimum of representation, and this move is still controversial to the general public. 

The Daily Wire commissioned a poll of 1000 United States residents, asking how they felt about these new standards. 35.1% favored these standards while 49% opposed them. Even if an overwhelming majority of United States residents agreed with these standards being put into place, this most likely still wouldn’t fix the problem with Hollywood. Rachel P. King argues in her journal titled “Why More Oscar Diversity Won’t Solve Hollywood’s Whiteness Problem,” that issues of common people aren’t being explored in mainstream movies because the rich executives in charge of pushing out films have no reason to make a movie about any of these issues. Movies are being made to cater to the executives, who are mostly white males. King is hopeful that the cost of movie making will go down and allow for those who aren’t rich white males to make movies that reach the general public. This would be an undeniably excellent thing, but it would also help to get more underrepresented groups into the executive positions.

Works Cited

King, R. (2016). Why more oscar diversity won’t solve hollywood’s whiteness problem. Contexts, 15(3), 64-66. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26370413

Jesse King, Sohuyn Lee Ribeiro, Clark Callahan & Tom Robinson (2021) Representing race: the race spectrum subjectivity of diversity in film, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44:2, 334-351, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2020.1740290

Caty Borum Chattoo (2018) Oscars So White: Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Diversity and Social Issues in U.S. Documentary Films (2008–2017), Mass Communication and Society, 21:3, 368-394, DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2017.1409356

Hollywood Racism: The Magical Negro Trope

SEE THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE OSCARS DIVERSITY PROBLEM IN ONE CHART

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