I think we reached a tipping point a few years ago. For most of Hollywood history, the movies that attracted first rate talent, the very best that was available, had white people, almost always men, for heroes. There were exceptions -- there were always exceptions -- but as a pretty good marker, look at the AFI Top 100 movies of all time, which was put together in 1998:
1. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
2. CASABLANCA (1942)
3. THE GODFATHER (1972)
4. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
5. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
6. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
7. THE GRADUATE (1967)
8. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
9. SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993)
10. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952)
Eight movies about with unambiguous white male leads, two about white women. Only two, even had black characters in any noticeable role, unless my memory fails me: Hattie McDaniel and Dooley Wilson. Hattie McDaniel, of course, won an Academy Award -- first African American to win one, first black person to attend the Academy Awards except as a servant. Dooley didn’t win any awards -- Casablanca was a B movie, in conception, and while it was immensely popular, and won Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, only Bogie and Claude Raines were nominated, and neither won. But black people really liked Dooley’s character; like Uhura, twenty-five years later, any representation was better than none.
But what passed for representation then, before and during WWII, was a little embarrassing to a lot of black people years later. (Uhura, too -- I’ve seen black Trek fans say quietly that they wished she hadn’t been in Star Trek at all, rather than being portrayed as she was. Contrast that with MLK’s plea to Uhura to stay on Star Trek ... because any representation was better than none. (“Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?”)
So things change. Progress is sometimes embarrassing. As great as Black Panther was -- and it’s the best of the movies I’m going to list in a bit -- feminists had some legitimate complaints about it. Captain Marvel, this weekend, annoyed or angered a number of male POC in my feed, because Nick Fury was treated as comic relief. (“Minstrel,” one fellow sneered.)
Supergirl bombed. You probably don’t even remember Red Sonja, and anyway Schwarzenegger got top billing. Catwoman bombed. Elektra bombed. Those movies were so bad and performed so badly that Hollywood, quite sensibly, didn’t make any more of them for decades ...
What? You object to that read? Why, just because over the same time period the list of amazingly bad male-led superhero movies was (at least) five times as long?
Hollywood is risk averse. The rare occasions someone brave comes along, and actually advances the state of the art -- I’ll limit myself to geek movies here -- you get Star Wars, Superman, X-Men, the Matrix -- all of them at least somewhat surprised the studios making them. (Someone should have noticed Blade’s performance -- but they didn’t.) Probably the first big cape movie that the studios were wholly behind, that they were confident in, was the 2002 Spider-Man. And since then the floodgates have been opened ... for male heroes of a particular skin tone.
So the last few years have been instructive, no? This is a list of movies the Usual Suspects predicted, and surely wanted, to do badly, in the last 3-1/2 years:
The Force Awakens 12/18/2015
Rogue One 12/16/2016
Wonder Woman 6/2/2017
The Last Jedi 12/15/2017
Black Panther 2/6/2018
Crazy Rich Asians 8/15/2018
Captain Marvel 3/8/2019
These made, respectively:
$2.06 billion (FA)
$1.06 billion (R1)
$821 million (WW)
$1.3 billion (LJ)
$1.35 billion (BP)
$238 million (CRA)
$490 million (CM)
Captain Marvel was the 7th best opening of all time -- not of just superhero movies: of all movies. It’s going to break a billion dollars without a doubt. Crazy Rich Asians is notably the only real “breakout” hit in this crowd. Everything else was damn well expected to make money, and was budgeted like it. But they spent only $30 million on CRA.
But they point is Hollywood did spend money on these movies. Did acquire the absolute top flight talent to produce them. And the audiences were there for it. Hungry for it. Collectively they made over seven billion dollars.
I won’t talk about the MRAs much. They are what they are. They’re choking today: good. Moving on.
But there were POC men who didn’t like Captain Marvel, and feminists who didn’t like Black Panther. And outraged feminists who were pissed at the POC men, and outraged POC men who were pissed at the feminists. And the truth is, none of that’s going away any time soon; everyone has their own perspectives and their own interests in how to tell a particular story. And you can’t have representation in a single movie; the problem with Black Widow’s “can’t have children” storyline wasn’t that it focused on her as a woman in ways that some women didn’t like: the problem was that there were so few roles for female superheroes that the weight of any one of them -- remember Uhura -- exceeded what a given individual role was normally capable of carrying.
But here’s what is going away. The people who make these movies are smart, in the aggregate, and over time, they do adjust to the marketplace. Somewhere out there people in a quiet room ran the numbers for Black Panther, and said, “We could have done better with feminists.” And those people did the same for Captain Marvel, and said, “Well, we pissed off black men.” (And I guarantee you they understand how they screwed up with black people on Infinity War.) Thirty years from now, it’s going to be popularly understood that Black Panther and Captain Marvel, though very well made movies, are “problematic” upon certain axes. That they were the best we could do, at the time, well, those old folks didn’t understand things the way we do today. By then there’ll have been individual movies with women, Asians, black people, white people, Hispanics, LGTBQ people, disabled people, all tied to urgent, driving narratives, without preachiness, just there, in the flow of the work. And people will look back at Black Panther, at Captain Marvel, and wish that they didn’t have quite so many obvious flaws.
And movies like Casablanca, and Gone With the Wind, and shows like the first Star Trek, will be looked upon as the primitive artifacts of a people nearly as uncivilized as the ancient Romans, and their games in the Coliseum. We’re getting better, and it’s not always fun to remember how it happened. But how we got better is important to remember, or women like Nichelle Nichols, who sacrificed an opportunity to go to Broadway to remain on Star Trek, get forgotten. And nobody wants to forget Nichelle.