Written By: Victoria Baldwin and Elgin Watts II, Contributions By: Camille Hagins and Paola Ojeda-Villegas, Graphic By: Marissa Rivers
Film and television has an unquestionable effect on American culture and society, whether it is good or bad. This is especially true in the perception of self among minorities in America. In a white majority country, most of the entertainment we consume is geared toward white people, giving little thought to the role it plays in shaping BIPOC youth.
We sat down with a group of non-white students at The Agency at UF to hold a candid discussion on their experiences growing up and their relationship with the film and television industry. We wanted to get a raw, authentic perspective on this issue. Here are some of the key takeaways:
Monolithic ideas are portrayed on TV when we are in fact far from monoliths.
This comes in the form of recycled stereotypes and tropes in the industry that do not accurately represent minorities. In America, being BIPOC can translate to many different experiences and expressions. With different ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, interests and perspectives, BIPOC communities are far from being monoliths, but film and television has not portrayed them as such. We have the “token minority” in well-known productions often used for comedic relief and as a lackluster attempt to be inclusive and diverse. More often than not, these attempts fall short in acknowledging the cultural differences that exist within minority groups.
As a Hispanic-American herself, Media Coordinator Luisianna “Luisi” Cardoza found representation in the Disney Channel Original Movie “Gotta Kick It Up,” but criticized its use of Hispanic actors that didn’t fit the character’s nationality. She recognized a Colombian character speaking in a distinctly Mexican dialect of Spanish. Even the recent Netflix hit “To All the Boys I Loved Before” received controversy for not casting Korean actors for the roles of Lara Jean and her sisters, as their half-Korean heritage was largely based on author Jenny Han’s experiences. Ethnic groups don’t all look and sound the same — there’s vast differences in everything from language to physical appearance. Quality storytelling requires identifying these cultural differences and portraying them as such.
Entertainment can really shape how others see you and how you see yourself.
This is especially true for minorities who grew up with limited representation in film and television. When speaking to our peers at The Agency, many only found parts of themselves in characters on screen. Growing up, it’s easy to feel out of place in society, especially in one that does not hold space for you in culture-shaping entertainment.
Paola Ojeda-Villegas, Creative Department Co-Manager, has never fully seen herself represented on screen, but rather in pieces. She commented on “The Cheetah Girls” being the first instance of representation she saw in film. Paola gravitated towards “The Cheetah Girls” franchise, which features a biracial (half white and half Black) character, a Black character and a Puerto Rican character. This mix was the first instance of diversity she saw on film that really resonated with her and how she identifies as an Afro-Puerto Rican.
Rayna van Beuzekom, Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, remarks that there isn’t much half-Asian representation that she can relate to on screen. Stars like Keanu Reeves and Vanessa Hudgens are half-Asian, but this dichotomy of identity is not usually a large part of their narratives, let alone the characters they portray on screen.
Off-screen representation is just as important as on-screen.
Representation behind the camera is just as important as representation in front of it. Camille Hagins, Co-Lead Copywriter, noted that when we get to tell our own stories the impact is greater because depictions of ourselves don’t feel forced. “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, was successful in part because of its unprecedented representation both on screen and off. It’s commercial success is also due to Black audiences’ excitement for authentic representation. Whereas other Black films capitalize on Black pain and white saviors, Camille felt that “Black Panther” celebrated Black excellence.
When we don’t tell our own stories, we get films like “The Help,” racist characters like I.Y. Yunioshi from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and little to no BIPOC speaking roles on popular shows like “Friends.” If we were in the room, things would’ve been different.
Not only do we tell genuine stories, we tell stories that matter to us. Brandon Kol, graduating Photographer, spoke about how the indie film “Gook” highlighted the not-often-depicted race relations between the Asian and Black communities during the 1992 Los Angeles Race Riots, and how meaningful it was. The authenticity of the film was only possible because it was written and directed by Justin Chon, a Korean-American creative.
Normalize multidimensional minority characters.
We cannot deny the effect film has on perception and culture. As we recognize these effects and continue to criticize movies that miss the mark, we can’t help but to be hopeful and yearn for a better future in the industry. We want to see films employ characters who are “casually BIPOC” — where being a minority isn’t the whole plot.
Yes, we are people of color in the United States, but we have so much more to offer. We are more than our oppression and trauma. We are more than our history. When we are able to tell our stories, they become that much more meaningful. As BIPOC creators gain more visibility in the film industry, BIPOC audiences will have more opportunities to connect to the stories we see.