From Breakfast at Tiffanys to To Kill A Mockingbird, the best and worst examples of diversity in film – Evening Standard

Posted: June 13, 2020 at 2:52 pm

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The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on systemic racism, taken a stand against police brutality, and called for justice following the death of George Floyd.

It has also changed narratives online and hopefully in real life forever, affecting the way many people consider the problematic aspects of popular culture.

Shows and films have been pulled from online platforms in acknowledgement of offensive traits and portrayals of BAME characters, including the likes of 1939 film Gone With the Wind, which was removed from HBO over its racist depictions of slavery and black people, and Little Britain, removed from Netflix, NOW TV, Britbox and BBC iPlayer over its use of blackface.

These releases havent only just started being offensive, of course the former long deplored for its racist narrative, and while Little Britain and its follow-up Come Fly With went out as peak time comedies with blackface characters, they still were criticised at the time for their offensive portrayal of black characters. Still, they were hits; now that seems inconceivable.

With popular culture being revisited and re-examined, and more efforts being made than ever to call out problematic traits, these are some of the worst examples of diversity in film, as well as some of the more positive and progressive movies that filmmakers and film lovers can learn from.

Based on Truman Capotes 1958 novel of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffanys has long been hailed as one of Hollywoods finest movies with the picture winning an Oscar for its score, and screenwriter George Axelrod bagging an accolade at the 1962 Writers Guild of America Awards. But beyond its glamorous costumes and sterling performances from both Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, the film also includes a shockingly distasteful depiction of a Japanese man.

Played by white actor and comedian Mickey Rooney, the character of Mr Yunioshi is drenched in racial stereotypes and is problematic to say the least. Rooney not only wore yellowface and false buck teeth for the role, but he depicted Holly Golightlys irate neighbour as clumsy and often stupid, as more of a punchline than a noteworthy character in the story which, no doubt, is tied up with anti-Japanese sentiments post-World War II.

The film itself was a total stinker and an unnecessary reboot of the hugely influential 1995 Japanese anime film, but it was the central issue of casting that overshadowed this 2017 action film and made it one of the most controversial movies of recent years, with Scarlett Johansson as protagonist Motoko Kusanagi. The initial announcement was met with outrage, with prominent Asian stars in the industry like Agents of SHIELD Ming-Na Wen hitting out at the decision. Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I'm a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role, she wrote.

It was made worse when reports emerged that suggested filmmakers had attempted to correct the issue by using CGI to shift ethnicity and make actors appear more Asian, which meant they were accused of "digital yellowface". Its perhaps the most overt case of its kind, with film fans also critical of the casting of Emma Stone as a half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian woman in Aloha.

While F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is not consciously anti-Semitic, there are many references and symbols used in the film especially the representation of Nosferatu's character as a Jew that, according to Patrick Hogan of the University of Connecticut, show a sacrificial structure that ultimately fit Nazi ideas quite well.

Although it should be noted that the film was created in Germany during the Weimar Republic, it was a time of great socio-economic turmoil and hyperinflation prompted widespread unemployment. Anti-Jewish sentiments were already brewing before Hitlers Nazi Party took power, and there are clear racial stereotypes to be found in Marnaus film from the vampires hooked nose to his rat-like teeth. A letter sent by Nosferatu in the film also appears to contain Hebrew characters, not to mention the fact that the vampire motif itself is parasitic and Stokers original tale is all about playing into contemporary fears of The Other.

Mike Myers comedy played on lazy stereotypes, with the actor as a Hindu guru called Pitka and jokes that centre around the misinterpretation of religious terms (namely swapping 'Namaste' for 'Mariska Hargitay' an actress known for her work on Law & Order.) The actor avoided the use of brownface, but his accent, prosthetic nose and fake beard sparked complaints of racism. Paramount were unsure about the release of the film following complaints from Hindu groups in North America, who called for cinemas to pull the film. Kanayalal Raina, executive director of the Canada Hindu Heritage Centre in Mississauga, told the Times of India at the time: "It should not be released in Canada without editing. After being released, it was widely slated by critics.

Celebrating the role black women scientists played in sending people to space for the first time, Hidden Figures proved a much-needed re-addressing of history. Taking place in 1961 Virginia inside the NASA research centre, the film shines a light on the key work of genius mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), as well as NASA engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Mone). All three were vital to US success in the Space Race, and before then, for all the space movies that went before it, their story hadnt been told.

The movie film presents a strong, critical view on the discriminatory segregation laws of the time and the ingrained white supremacy of the age. Crucially, the film highlights how the stories of these black women were written out of the narrative of space travel in the decades that followed, too.

The New Yorkers Richard Brody, like a number of high profile critics, praised the 2016 film as a subtle and powerful work that finally told these black womens incredible stories, providing a subtle and powerful work of counter-history, or, rather, of a finally and long-deferred accurate history.

Released just a year after Breakfast at Tiffany's but in stark contrast to it, the film adaptation of Harper Lees bestselling novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect example of how issues of systemic racism and racial prejudices should be portrayed on-screen. Lee, coincidentally, was very good friends with Capote.

Beyond Gregory Pecks outstanding performance as lawyer Atticus Finch, the film highlights social injustices connected to race and racism, with a poignant message about how damaging and dangerous racial profiling is not just to those who are the victim of it, but to society as a whole. Featuring black actor Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, the film is about a wrongfully condemned man who, despite there being no evidence and Atticus water-tight case, gets sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. While there is no happy ending per se, there are lots of powerful statements made in the film which should be celebrated, and are still relevant today illustrating what a forward-thinking novel and movie Mockingbird is.

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From Breakfast at Tiffanys to To Kill A Mockingbird, the best and worst examples of diversity in film - Evening Standard

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