Hollywood casting: The impact of diversity

Raul Fernandez moderates a discussion with panelists Monica Castillo, Teja Arboleda and Phillip Martin following the showing of "The Black Panther" at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on February 20, 2019. Photo by Esther Kwon/BU News Service.

By Esther Kwon
BU News Service

BROOKLINE – Marking the first anniversary of an all-black-cast film “The Black Panther,” the Coolidge Corner Theatre hosted a screening and talk Feb. 20 to explore the impact and importance of diversity in Hollywood casting and beyond.

Phillip Martin, senior investigative reporter for WGBH, noted how the film was successful beyond filling a diversity quota, and instead, created an empowering narrative for the black community. In the film, black actors played the roles of heroes and royalty living in a fictional world called Wakanda, which was technologically advanced.

Martin said it was important how the film showed people of color in powerful positions making righteous decisions.

“I can’t think of another movie where a black person was king or queen, though it’s common in Nigerian movies,” he said later during a discussion with the audience.

In addition to diverse racial casting, Monica Castillo, a film critic and panelist, pointed to how “The Black Panther” gave dynamic roles to women.

“I’m a woman that hasn’t seen a lot of good roles for women, but in the movie, everyone’s so well written,” she said. “It was exciting and energetic.”

Castillo said some directors have used financial constraints as an excuse for a lack of diverse casting.

“There’s an assumption that people of color don’t sell abroad,” she said. “But after Black Panther, that is no longer an excuse you can give.

“People are looking for these stories.”

Raul Fernandez, associate dean for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity at Boston University, moderated the event and brought up the potential repercussions of misrepresentations and “periods of erasure,” where certain groups of people are absent from a narrative because they are difficult to characterize.

“Who’s telling whose story?” he wondered.

Castillo pointed to how people of color have been overlooked in Medieval European art. Martin talked about the issue of black soldiers in United States history.

“Black soldiers were excluded from celebration, the U.S. war photos, which can determine supposition of who fought the war, which seeps into our subconscious,” Martin said.

The panelists talked about Hollywood’s history of casting primarily white people.

“Casting is the only part of our economic superpower where we can legally cast by someone’s skin tone,” said Teja Arboleda, another panelist who is creative director of Entertaining Diversity, Inc., a Dedham based group that develops programs to address inequality. “Racism is institutionalized — it’s legal.”

Castillo gave examples of successful cultural representations in media like the film “Coco,” where she said the creators did their homework and asked culturally significant questions, leading to the critically acclaimed response it received.

All three panelists agreed on the importance of exposure to international art and culture.

“It’s an American perspective when there’s thousands of movies made around the world that we don’t get to see,” Arboleda said. “It’s important to read and listen to work by people that are not here.”

In this country, Castillo said, statistics suggest if movies have subtitles, sales typically drop.

One of the audience members among the many working professionals and older citizens appreciated the overall conversation by the panelists.

Alison Armstrong, who works at Harvard and attended the showing and discussion, said she appreciated how “they brought the conversation to an international context.”

“Go see films with subtitles,” she said. “It’s not that hard.”

This article was previously posted on the Brookline Tab.

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