In a recent speaking engagement with the Upright Citizens Brigade, writer/director Jordan Peele, while addressing a group of students, was quoted as saying, “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes, but I’ve seen that movie.”
Naturally, a vocal portion of the white internet blew up, proclaiming the statement was racist and that the director of US and Get Out, himself, was obviously a racist for his remarks.
It’s hard to believe that in 2019, we have to have this discussion. You’d think, by now, that diversity would be the rule instead of the exception. Instead, every time a director, writer, author, actor, politician, fill-in-the-blank, speaks about diversifying the landscape, people get angry, loud, and mean while simultaneously contradicting statements they’ve previously made themselves.
What do I mean?
As a gay man, I have spent a great deal of time writing about the need for more diverse characters and portrayals in genre filmmaking. Not only does this give us new stories, but it also serves the wider audience, allowing fans to see themselves more clearly included in their favorite genre.
Seemingly every time I do this, however, I’m met with the pushback of straight, white, cis, (predominantly) male voices commenting that the very idea is anything from “gross” to “unnecessary” to “a political agenda.” These are the same people, by the way, who whine about nothing new or original ever being made.
The other point they make is “If you want to see it, go make your own movies.”
This is, in essence, what Jordan Peele is doing. As he said, he has “seen that movie” and so he is making something different.
But let’s look at some statistics. According to a diversity report by UCLA in 2018, it was estimated that white leads were cast three times more often than any other ethnicity in film and the same number holds true for white directors over directors of other ethnic groups.
Last Sunday, I posted a review of the new iteration of The Twilight Zone, which Peele is hosting, and the comments immediately began to fill about Peele being a racist. They defended their point of view by saying, “If a white man had said he was only casting white leads, he would be called a racist.”
The point is, looking back at the numbers above, white men don’t have to say it. They don’t have to say it because they’ve been actively doing it since cinema began.
Peele spoke to this and the privileged place he has found himself in since the release of Get Out after his statement about casting black leads in his films.
“The way I look at it, I get to cast black people in my films,” he said. “I feel fortunate to be in this position where I can say to Universal, ‘I want to make a $20 million horror movie with a black family’ and they say yes.”
It’s a position in which few black filmmakers in the studio system have found themselves, but most people didn’t read this portion of the statement because they never got past the “not hiring white dudes” quote which was included in almost every single headline from media covering the event that night.
Do I think if the headline read “Jordan Peele Discusses Diversity at Event” would have appeased those who are determined to be angry about it? No, but I do think most of them would have rolled their eyes and kept scrolling instead of jumping to the conclusion that the man was a racist.
I’ve spoken to numerous screenwriters and directors over the years who have bemoaned the fact that they’ve been told that they can’t get a film make with non-white leads in Hollywood because studios tell them they can’t sell and “urban” film overseas.
“Urban” is one of those fun little catchwords used to denote that the lead isn’t white, if you’re wondering.
Take, for instance, Lucy Cruell.
The award-winning screenwriter has a fantastic award-winning script for a film called 7 Magpies which she has been shopping for years. Despite the accolades the script has received, she simply cannot get the funding to move ahead in production, and predominantly because she’s been told that the studios just don’t know how to sell it.
It’s a horror anthology script based on stories by black authors, written by a black screenwriter, to be directed by black female directors, starring a predominantly black cast.
That, white folks, is racism. It is systemic. It is a part of the DNA of what goes on in Hollywood, and while things are changing, they are hardly equal.
Movies with big screen releases are still predominantly white and about straight white characters. Jordan Peele making films with black leads isn’t going to take away from that dominance, but it does add color to the landscape. It adds diversity to the conversation.
But most importantly, the appearance of more films featuring people of color, queer people, etc. is not going to slow down the production of predominantly white led films.
As a wise man said, this isn’t pie, so what are you really worried about?