Yet, what white men in Hollywood and their critics alike have too often overlooked, is that forgetting the existence of most of the world isn’t just harmful, but also an artistic oversight—a limitation. Meaning, whether a director like Christopher Nolan is intentionally or unintentionally leaving out women of color in the expansive environments he has imagined, his career is lacking in a particular, essential kind of cinematic vision: empathy.
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It would be disingenuous to imply that people of color can’t or don’t enjoy these Hollywood films about white people. In fact, according to the MPAA, 46 percent of all ticket buyers in 2013 were people of color. And most of the films they went to see starred white people.
Yet that’s part of the beauty of cinema. Audiences can see themselves on screen, whether it’s in the face of someone familiar, or in the face of someone entirely different.
A result of growing up watching films where the audience’s allegiances are almost always with white men, is that most viewers are fundamentally better trained to empathize with them. People of color enter films expecting to do the work of imagining themselves as white, just as women enter assuming they will be in the shoes of men. This is done both consciously, in the sense that they typically know who is starring in a given film ahead of time, but also subconsciously, in the way that they become accustomed to the white straight male gaze behind the camera. This is the status quo in the industry.
But this kind of empathy is only one side of the equation, or one possibility. Not just for those who are left off screen, but also the white men and boys who continue to see only themselves centered.
Researchers have postulated that there are multiple kinds of empathy that films can elicit, but that “empathic concern”—the kind we feel when identifying with those who are different—is the most likely to lead to frequent “helping behaviors.”
In other words, when films force us to see things from another’s perspective, they’re more likely to cause us to do something nice for others. So while transgender women of color may be especially unlikely to experience self-confidence, empowerment, and love through a film, white straight able-bodied men in Hollywood are also suffocating their own ability to feel “empathic concern” for non-white others. They are not fully experiencing love.
Everyone has been limited, but it’s again girls of color, growing up with such little representation, who suffer most.
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In Amma Assante’s Belle, released earlier this year, the protagonist, Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is the black niece of the wealthy white Lord Chief Justice of England in the late 1700s (her father was Captain John Lindsey, and her mother was a slave named Maria Belle). The film basically begins and ends with Dido staring at two very different paintings in her uncle’s house, where she is raised. The first is one in which there are two black children relegated to the sides, in clearly subservient positions. The latter is one in which she literally sees herself—painted alongside her white cousin—in a position of power and beauty.