Hollywood, we are ready for realistic portrayals of race


RGSOME / Big Australia, AP Photo

Top left: an extravagant party hosted by the fictional character Jay Gatsby. Bottom right: Protesters carry a sign reading “Justice for E.J.” after a recent police shooting in Alabama.

You step into the extravagant scene of one of Jay Gatsby’s famed parties, buzzing with New York opulence. You first notice him alone, in a sea of elegance and civility, standing on the marble steps. Somewhere along in the story, however, you begin to unravel the illusion. You realize the myth of Gatsby’s “self-made” image and wonder about what he is really hiding: his race, economic status, and dark past.

But without the enticing illusion and mythologized persona of Gatsby, the Great Gatsby would likely have been a flop. These familiar and entertaining stories work to disguise uncomfortable social commentaries and can trick us into facing hard issues, albeit not head on. This may be an apt metaphor for the recent trend in “social justice” movies that discuss issues of race and police brutality.

From the pre-civil war era in American history, there appear to be two diverging paths for social justice. On the one hand, there is the “moral arc”—exemplified in Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King—and there is the more radical, revolutionary approach—seen in the actions of Nat Turner and speeches of Malcolm X.

It is no surprise that Hollywood embraces the more hopeful and idealistic style for portraying race in recent years. On the surface, this does not seem to be a problem. In The Hate U Give, we see how Starr Carter marches against officers armed with riot gear, following a traffic stop that ends in the shooting of a childhood friend—and emerges as an activist with the promise to “light up the darkness.” While all Hollywood movies have the necessity to resolve the build-up of trauma and tensions, the optimism of the closing scenes—in which the hopeful community rebuilds after the riot—does not match up with the reality of persistent police brutality. Just last Thursday, a policeman in Alabama shot Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr., a 21-year-old black man, despite his license to carry a gun.

Box-office sales may depend on optimism, but this sentiment is the opposite message that movie-viewers should be left with.”

Rampant optimism in these movies may actually stifle activist sentiments—leading viewers to mistakenly associate the Hollywood portrayal of police brutality to reality. Discrimination ends in fear and humiliation for those affected much more than in activism and social progress. At the same time, movies that grapple with issues of race and police brutality are imperative in a so-called “polarized” narration. Yet, to make these issues acceptable to a larger (white) audience, race is often put into appealing “superhero” and “underdog” narratives. This dependence on familiar tropes is most distinctly apparent in Black Panther, set in the uncolonized, futuristic Wakanda. This setting is a powerful counter-mythology to previous white imaginings of “Africa” in “Tarzan” and other Hollywood hits, despite its place in the ever-expanding Marvel universe.

But is asking for real-life portrayals of race too much? It shouldn’t be. Despite, there is something magical in how these movies insert “quietly radical” ideas around race into the familiar white Hollywood narrative. But ultimately, Hollywood endings leave viewers too comfortable. Box-office sales may depend on optimism, but this sentiment is the opposite message that movie-viewers should be left with: instead, we need a clear wake-up call to see race without its surrounding Hollywood and Gatsby-esque illusions.