For decades, Hollywood’s conventional wisdom held that to appeal to “mainstream” (read: white) audiences, a film needed “relatable” (again, read: white) protagonists. Even movies that believed they were presenting progressive racial messages typically told their stories from the perspective of white main characters. In 1989’s Glory, a white colonel served as the protagonist in a story of black soldiers fighting in the American Civil War. More recently, 2011’s The Help adopted the perspective of a white journalist to chronicle the lives of black domestic workers during the Civil Rights Era. These films’ producers might have insisted that their hands were tied, that they were only doing what they had to do to get butts in the seats.
Over the past year, two critically-lauded blockbusters proved how false that rationale is. The superhero film Black Panther, starring a predominantly black cast, brought in more than $1.3 billion worldwide and earned three Academy Awards. Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood film to feature a majority Asian cast in 25 years, grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and won near universal acclaim from critics. And race and ethnicity weren’t incidental to these films. They were integral to them, from Black Panther’s afrofuturist aesthetics and Crazy Rich Asians’ deft use of cultural touchstones like that climactic mahjong game.
Well-meaning activists—especially those from majority white countries—can sometimes fall prey to the thinking of old-school film producers. When crafting the messaging for our campaigns, we might sometimes be tempted to choose stories that we think will appeal to a “broad” audience. These stories will usually foreground the white, the straight, and the middle-class, even if those adjectives don’t describe the frontline communities we work with.
This strategy is ethically fraught for many reasons. It reinforces toxic worldviews by selecting only certain groups as worthy of representation. It robs communities of the chance to speak in their own voice about issues that affect them. It distorts reality. When we don’t connect our specific campaigns with systemic issues like racism, classism, and patriarchy, we make them that much more difficult to solve.
Even if we know these things, we may tell ourselves that we’re making necessary tradeoffs to reach the widest (whitest?) possible audience. But movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians prove how faulty that thinking is. The appeal of these films was strengthened by their specific cultural perspectives, not hobbled by them. Viewers from all different backgrounds flocked to buy tickets. What’s true for Hollywood filmmakers is also true for activist storytellers. Trust your audience. If you tell your stories honestly and compellingly, you’ll be able to get your message across.