It has been six months since I started The Other Movie Project. On New Year’s Day, 2015, I vowed that I would watch every movie released near me that did not revolve around a white guy. Most movies we see here in Australia are about a white male character; I was interested in the stories about everyone else – the other movies. At first, it was an easy gig; January was quiet. There was only one movie that really qualified for the project: Reese Witherspoon’s Wild. Slim pickings for women and people of colour who wanted to see stories about them (and this one movie was about a white woman, so, really not great for people of colour). But Wild was so vibrant, so different to the storytelling I was used to seeing at the cinema, that I couldn’t wait for the rest of the year.
I’m interested in representation. For two years, I spent every Sunday co-hosting a feminist radio show on community radio. I’ve been writing intermittently about women in film for some time. But I wanted to challenge myself to see more films, gather more intel on what is available to movie-goers. And then I read this article on Colorlines: ‘Study Finds White People Don’t Watch Black Movies. Who’s To Blame?’
(Hint: it’s white people.)
The article notes that people of color are underrepresented across all aspects of the film industry. It’s notoriously hard for non-white actors to find roles, let alone good roles, let alone the kind of starring roles that kickstart a successful career. Studio executives get nervous that casting non-white people in important roles will put audiences off – because, y’know, the white experience is universal and everything else is niche. Right? Well, it turns out this bias may not be (just) a top-down cultural conspiracy, but the market responding to consumers. The study featured in the Colorlines article found that “‘minority cast members’ do in fact lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films.”
Like, holy shit. That’s pretty damning. The industry exec’s are shovelling whitewash down our throats because we are kind of asking for it. And when I say “we” I do mean white people.
I realised that I was guilty of this bias, too. How often did I seek out movies about characters who were Black, Asian, Middle-Eastern? Yet how often could you find me searching “Anne Hathaway movie” on YouTube late at night, yelling “take my moneyyy”? I am a white person, comfortable in an entertainment culture that is insanely whitewashed. (I don’t even want to talk about The Last Airbender.) OK, so maybe I’m not that comfortable with it anymore. Some things can’t be unseen. I dearly hope that means I’m growing.
Geena Davis, whose Institute on Gender and Media is collecting critical data on the disappearance of women on screen and behind the camera, has said:
[M]edia images exert a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating our unconscious biases. However, media images can also have a very positive impact on our perceptions.
Before this project, I’ve self-imposed filters on the stuff I watch before, to great positive effect. There was the year I cut out all romance narratives from my life. Movies, books – if they were in any way classified as ‘romance’, I was out. It drove one friend of mine crazy (sorry Tiff), as she tried to introduce me to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. But LBD is a Pride & Prejudice adaptation, which is kind of romance, so I refused. (As soon as the year was up I binge-watched that puppy, all 100 episodes, and hooo it is good. I was pleasantly surprised to find it is mostly about the relationships between Lizzie Bennet and the women in her life, and has a bunch of non-white actors who are just there, no big deal, just acting, just not being white.) Cutting out romance was just what I needed to purge some toxic gender-role bullshit about relationships from my mind and soul. After 12 months without any exposure to Matthew McConaughey shushing women, I felt better able to engage with romantic narratives without letting their sinister voices get inside my head.
At the end of last year, I realised – with the help of people smarter than me explaining it to me on the internet – that I would need to actively seek out movies with better gender and race representation. Movies like Jurassic World and Ted 2 (good god) would be thrown in front of my eyes on buses and billboards all the time, but I’d need to work a little harder to filter out the white-dude bias.
Which brings me to The Other Movie Project. I wanted to have a regular film writing project, while challenging some internalised bias and hopefully making my feminism more intersectional. So I thought I’d try filtering out the white guys for a while. Of course you can’t get rid of them completely, because they’re everywhere (again, The Last Airbender), but I decided to avoid narratives where the point-of-view character was a white man. I’ll talk about the practical difficulties in doing this in a moment. The Other Movie Project was designed to road-test industry statistics about film, in my little pocket of suburban Brisbane, Australia. Would the line-up at my local cinema be a vanilla sausagefest?
It’s the beginning of July and results are mixed. January saw just one movie that was actually about a woman, 14 movies about white men, and zero about people of colour. February, the ratio was about even (that is, “white men” to “everyone else in the world”). In March, things got bad again, with only five films qualifying for the project, and 19 films about white dudes going unwatched by me.
Since then, though, the number of films about (white) (usually blonde) women has been skyrocketing. I have not been able to keep up with my viewing quotas. And unfortunately, foreign-language films and movies about anyone who isn’t a white man or woman don’t seem to get many sessions at the cinemas, so if I miss a couple of days, I miss the film. A lot of what I watched during busy months ended up depending on what was showing on the days I did feel well enough to go to the cinema. (I live with a chronic medical condition, more on that over here if you’re interested.) Since movies like Pitch Perfect 2 were given plenty of sessions, I was more likely to see them. Movies like Salut D’Amour, however – a South Korean romance-dramedy about two older people re-learning how to date – seemed like they flitted through the cinema on a breeze and were gone.
The worst, the very worst thing about doing The Other Movie Project – that has been researching people’s ethnicities to find out if they are “white”. Or, “how white they are”. Oh, it is awful and I regret this parameter. On one hand, people have been helpful in alerting me to actors whose non-white ethnicity is often erased in pop media (case-in-point, Vin Diesel, who identifies as a person of colour, which I did not know until Twitter told me). This has given me a better understanding of how racial identity is constructed (and, tangentially, a better appreciation for the Fast franchise, which I plan to watch asap). On the other hand, nothing makes you feel like a gross person so much as typing “What is Carl Barron’s ethnicity?” into Google. (The only results were from white power forums.) All I can say is that my reading for this project (along with the zillion think-pieces I’ve read on Rachel Dolezal, because internet) have helped my thinking become much less … no I’m not going to say “black and white”. But, that.
When I set the terms for this movie filter six months ago, I knew that I might not be able to meet all of them. And I haven’t. April is completely missing from the project as I was directing/co-producing a play and everything else kind of fell by the wayside. June is gone too, as I spent half of that month being too ill and the other half staying somewhere with no cinema. And there have been movies I thought qualified that, upon watching them, turned out to be about white guys, as well as movies that probably qualified but promoted their white male lead like it was going out of fashion (it is, heh).
Thank you for (still!) reading this. We’re at the halfway mark now, so I will regroup, gather my cinema coupons (one wonderful Twitter friend sent me cinema coupons! How great are people), and hit the cinemas for July. Wish me luck. I’ll see you for next month’s blog post, when we will be back to our regularly scheduled program of non-white-guy movie reviews.