By Sarah Rawle
International is the fourth film in the Men in Black universe, featuring Tessa Thompson as the franchise’s first female lead. Stepping onto the red carpet for the premiere in 2019, Thompson reported spotting a young girl dressed in a black suit and sunglasses, just like her own character in the film. Echoing Gal Gadot’s recognition as Wonder Woman amongst young girls, this evidently shows the importance for girls to be able to see strong women at the forefront of their screens.
However, the release of International received a backlash as a result of its black female lead. The reality is that there has always been an inaccurate representation of ethnic groups in television and the media. According to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report, whites were over-represented among all top film roles in 2017, claiming 77% of the roles. All other ethnicities remained under-represented, with the African American share decreasing from 12.5% in 2016 to a meagre 9% in 2017. Of that 9%, black women accounted for just 19% of speaking roles. This is problematic because the lack of diversity results in ignorance towards those who don’t look like us or act like us. If you cannot see something in front of you, it is easier to ignore or deny its existence altogether. This ignorance breeds misunderstanding and leads to hate.
Despite these statistics, critics continue to argue that representation of minorities (predominantly queer and non-white) are beginning to consume our TV screens and corrupt younger viewers. Films like International are therefore so important because they teach that representation is not dangerous. Rather, an opinion based on prejudice and discrimination is dangerous as this mindset encourages an intolerance for those who are different to ourselves in any way.
In contest with such criticism, International more accurately reflects the diversity of the world around us. Diverse casts and crews teach audiences to be more open-minded, more accepting and more empathetic because they are able to see a spectrum of people in front of them. Thompson argues that this is the power International holds. Not only does she hope for young black girls to be able to see her as a role model, but she also desires to inspire “young boys, folks that are gender-queer, [and] non-binary” people. Ultimately, International isn’t solely about the recognition of one minority, but the increasing representation of minorities in general. It is about allowing more demographics to experience the thrill of relating to the heroes of these stories.
Two further re-hauls of classic franchises, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016) and Ocean’s 8 (2018) also received similar backlash to that of International. Ghostbusters empowered young girls to finally see themselves as the ones saving the world, even dressing up as their new heroes for Halloween, while Ocean’s 8 presented female characters with an impressive mix of intelligence, wit, and dexterity. Regardless, both films received backlash for replacing Hollywood icons such as Bill Murray and George Clooney with an all-female cast.
The backlash these remakes are receiving on account of their diversity simply shows that we still have a long way to go. Criticism for a black or female lead suggests that the idea of a woman in power in particular remains problematic in today’s society. As a dedicated activist for representation and inclusivity in Hollywood, Thompson hopes that we will ultimately be able to “get to a space in Hollywood where it’s not noteworthy that a woman should be topping a studio film.” Essentially, actors should be judged on their talent and ability as an actor alone; not according to their gender, sexuality, or the colour of their skin. Moreover, while roles like Agent M in Men in Black are not reserved for one specific gender or ethnicity, it is also important for writers to have the freedom to produce stories with main characters that are specifically female, or black, or queer, or otherwise in the minority. This gives more power to these characters and actors than just re-modelling a role originally prescribed to another demographic – predominantly, white males.