Sunday, December 9

Reel Representation: Fantasy films often don’t include people of color within their worlds


(Juliette Le Saint/Illustrations director)

(Juliette Le Saint/Illustrations director)


Fantasy films are vehicles to gorgeous, vibrant magical worlds. But those worlds aren’t all that beautiful when they’re built to exclude you.

 

Growing up, I fell in love with “The Lord of the Rings.” But as a young biracial girl, I knew that I didn’t belong in Middle-earth’s mystical provinces and kingdoms – there was no one onscreen that looked like me. There were only three prominent female characters in the entire trilogy, and the only people of color were those who portrayed the monstrous Uruk-hai.

But things changed when I saw the trailer for “A Wrinkle in Time” for the first time. I felt chills run down my spine and tears brim in my eyes as I watched a young biracial girl embark on a quest to try to save the universe.

Too often, fantasy films are able to envision worlds that bend the laws of physics and reality, but aren’t able to imagine a world populated with people of color. The context of whiteness as the default in the fantasy genre makes films like “A Wrinkle in Time” all the more powerful. Not only will audiences get to see diversity onscreen, but we will also get to see women of color as witches, warriors and heroes, a welcome departure from the typical cinematic constraints for actors of color.

The diversity of “A Wrinkle in Time” is a testament to director Ava DuVernay’s commitment to creating films that reflect the real world. The original book on which the film is based describes the protagonist Meg as a white girl with “mouse-brown hair.” DuVernay, however, opted to cast Storm Reid, a young African-American actress. DuVernay also cast Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Michael Peña as some of the mystical beings in the film’s universe.

When asked about her casting decisions, DuVernay responded with a question of her own: “The question is, why hasn’t this been done before? There’s nothing outstanding and outlandish about this cast. It’s outstanding and outlandish that there’s been casts without true reflections and inclusiveness of our daily lives.”

DuVernay makes an excellent point – in a film with centaur-like beings, a disembodied brain as a villain and characters that travel through dimensions, racial diversity is hardly the most fantastic notion. And yet we continue to see hyperwhite fantasy. “Game of Thrones,” which draws some inspiration from real-life history but takes place in a completely fictional world, is still dominated by white characters. The few people of color in the show are portrayed as slaves or former slaves. It’s incredibly problematic that in a world filled with dragons and witches, people of color are still confined by the racism of our real world.

The limited range of roles for people of color in fantasy isn’t predicated in logic, but seems to be an unspoken rule that restricts so many films within the genre. What completes the genre subversion of “A Wrinkle in Time” is the roles that people of color take on in the film. Winfrey and Kaling aren’t background characters, they’re all-powerful cosmic beings dressed in ornate, whimsical gowns.

People of color on screen in fantasy films are often limited to drab costumes. Within “Game of Thrones,” none of the characters of color wear any costumes that live up to the regal grandeur of Cersei Lannister’s or Daenerys Targaryen’s attire, since people of color in the genre are typically confined to roles that would never don such intricate outfits. For that reason, the costumes in “A Wrinkle in Time” feel like a revolutionary visual representation of the power the women of the film carry.

Then there’s Meg, the protagonist and hero of the story. Although impossibly smart, her awkwardness makes her into a relatable character. She seems like an average teenager who’s been thrust into a breathtaking adventure.

And she’s also biracial. Without having seen the movie, it’s hard to say whether or not Meg’s identity will factor into her character, be a dimension of her experience or simply a detail that has no bearing on the story.

Regardless of the way in which it’s treated by the film, Meg’s biracial identity is special to me. Meg may not share a common heritage and physical appearance with me, but knowing that biracial girls could be heroes too would have meant the world to me when I was younger, and still means the world to me today.

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