To begin this article, here’s a highly unlikely, hypothetical scenario. If an alien landed on earth and watched any random selection of movies and tv shows featuring the bare minimum amount of black characters, he’d be under the assumption that black people are exclusively either slaves, thugs, sassy nurses, or the designated, one-dimensional best friends of white main characters. (For proof of this please look no farther than Gone With the Wind, Four Brothers, Scrubs, and High School Musical 1-3).
But, if that same alien’s selection was narrowed down to films and shows from the past few years (along with the “Golden Age” of Black television, also known as the 90s), he might be a tiny bit less likely to make that assumption. He might assume that they can be advertisement executives or doctors (Black-ish starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross). He might realize that they can be law professors (Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder) or detectives (Luther starring Idris Elba). He might even think that black people can rise to the helm of being superheroes (Luke Cage, Black Lightning, and the upcoming Black Panther). More importantly, this terrestrial visitor might get the impression that black people can be multi-dimensional, with real thoughts and feelings that are valid and relatable.
That’s what diversity in film and tv amounts to. Because, although the chances of an alien coming to Earth is very slim, the amount of people who watch tv and movies is not. Two years ago, the #OscarsSoWhite movement took shape, born from the lack of diversity in Oscar nominees. For those of you who are thrown off by the hashtag, picture this: since the first awards ceremony in 1929, 3,000 people have taken home Oscars. Yet only 35 of those award winners have been African-Americans. But it seems that a slow, but steady, 180° seems to be taking place.
Take for example Jordan Peele. He’s the director, producer and writer of the hit Get Out, and has become the fifth black director ever nominated for an Oscar and the first to ever receive three nominations. Singer turned actress Mary J. Blige earned nominations for Best Supporting Actress and for Best Song for her role in Mudbound. This makes her the first person to ever be nominated for acting and songwriting in the same year. She also has become the first black woman to earn multiple Oscar nominations in a single year. Mudbound’s director Dee Ree has become the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay category and the second to ever earn a screenwriting nomination in either category. Octavia Spencer has earned her third ever Supporting Actress nomination for her role in The Shape of Water, tying with Viola Davis as the most nominated black actress in Oscar history.
Since last year the Oscars committee has invited new members into its fold, including Priyanka Chopra, Donald Glover, and Ruth Negga. This was done as a part of a focused initiative by the Academy to increase diversity. If this year’s nominations are any indication, it seems to be working.
This diversity hasn’t been limited to the big screen. As mentioned earlier, there are so many shows that feature realistic black characters. As a self-professed superhero groupie, I can’t deny that I was completely amazed by the fact that The CW would be adding Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams) to its roster of superhero shows by way of Black Lightning. Pierce is a black man who’s a principal at a troubled inner-city schoo. He’s a black man who, in the very first episode, is stopped by cops while driving, solely because of his race. He also occasionally suits up and shoots lightning from his hands.
And let’s not forget the more ordinary (but still extraordinary) characters that have been inducted onto the small screen. Like Randall Pearson on This Is Us, played by Sterling K. Brown. Pearson was adopted as a baby by a white family and grew up facing all the insecurities and uncertainties that comes with that. Cue grown-up Randall, outfitted with a career and family, but struggling at times with anxiety. He still radiates positivity but is also flawed like any real person. It’s important to note that Brown has won six awards for his role, including a Golden Globe and an Emmy.
Of course, better doesn’t necessarily mean good enough. Things have gotten marginally better, without question. However, there is always room for improvement. Whether on the big screen or the small, it’d be wonderful to see an increase in diversity, not just for African Americans, but for other races as well.