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Hollywood finally learns: Diversity leads to profit

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On February 24th, 2019, the 91st Academy Awards ceremony will be held in Los Angeles, California. It is a time when movies are celebrated and given a chance to win a coveted Oscar. Movies tend to be a microcosm of society as a whole. At times it’s as if the industry distills down the ideals, characteristics, and foundation of all the focal points of what permeates culture and displays them for all to see.

    When you look up at the screen, you’re seeing a snapshot of where society was at the time of the film’s creation and the beliefs and challenges that the filmmakers saw around them.

    The year of 2018 was filled with issues surrounding diversity, inclusion, and political strife throughout the country. The year also set a box office record in the US as revenue hit $11.9 billion, beating the previous set in 2016 by 4 percent, according to analysts at BoxOfficeMojo.com and their domestic earnings chart.  

    On top of these impressive box office earnings, four of the eight movies nominated for 2018’s Best Picture, as well as the frontrunner for Best Animated Film, had a non-white lead performance.

    The movie Blackkklansman tells the true story of an African-American police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. The movie Black Panther centers around a super-powered African king who must balance the responsibilities of maintaining his country while doing what’s right for the world. Roma is a film that depicts a family drama set in 1970s Mexico City in which the personal life of a Mexican housekeeper unravels, in parallel to the woman for whom she works. The movie Green Book delves into the life of African-American pianist Don Shirley and how he deals with racism in the 1960s during a concert tour in the south. The animated feature Into the Spiderverse brings to life Miles Morales, a half Hispanic, half African-American youth who learns the classic tale of responsibility and what it takes to be a hero.

    Like never before, historically underrepresented groups are being portrayed on the big screen; not just as supporting characters or comic relief, but as focal points. And the studios are being rewarded for it.

    All of these films either did very well at the box office, are in contention for major awards, or both. Hollywood took its time getting to this place but finally seems to be coming around to the evident truth that inclusion matters to large segments of filmgoers. Even diverse movies that weren’t up for Oscars such as Crazy Rich Asians, Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, touched on modern issues faced by individuals in different walks of life- and they were well-received.

    What conclusions can we draw from this upswing in diversity as portrayed by film? Film studios are a business.

    When this business creates products that are shown to produce substantial revenue and award recognition, it wants to see those returns again. This means that, going forward, all of us can expect to see more films built around diverse casts with racially diverse leads.

    At a time in society when we’re hearing people chant “All lives matter,” movies like these can be the exclamation point to that statement. Not only can people from different races and walks of life come together to share in the experience of the protagonist’s journey, but for the first time in cinema history, underrepresented demographics are getting to see themselves on screen like never before: As multifaceted, layered, nuanced characters with depth.

    An individual can go to these films and see that others understand their lives, their struggles, and are using the medium of film to make their voices heard. Kids around the world are shown that you don’t have to look a certain way to be a hero.     Through these modern films, people can see themselves, where they’ve come from, and who they aspire to be. And it turns out, when you make good movies that represent a third of the population, fortune and prestige aren’t far behind.  

    In a piece titled “Adulting,” on Bill Maher blog he says, “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” Implying that superhero movies are a waste of time.

    However, I asked a group of UAlbany students: “What does it mean to you that a movie like Black Panther is the highest grossing domestic film of the year as well as the first superhero movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture?” A young man in the crowd, Xavier, simply responds: “Wakanda Forever.”

    A movie may just be a movie, and the characters in them might be fictional creations, but what they inspire in people is as real as those who create them.

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