The Importance of Diversity On- and Off-Screen

After seeing A Wrinkle in Time this past weekend, I thought about the power director Ava DuVernay wielded in determining the manner in which Madeleine L’Engele’s classic, best-selling children’s novel would come to life on-screen. As the first person of color in charge of a nine-figure budget for a Disney movie, DuVernay decided to make many distinct and “fiercely feminizing” choices, such as making her film the first sci-fi fantasy to have a young woman of color as the lead.  In response to DuVernay’s casting decisions, actress Reese Witherspoon stated, “It’s just a different perspective, and you don’t get that until we start to have powerful filmmakers of different colors, different genders.”

Since my post last week regarding the implications of “who gets to speak for Basquiat?”, I have continued to contemplate the critical role filmmakers play in shaping our perception of culture and society.  For a class assignment, the young women in the Brogden Middle School group are making documentaries about different social justice topics, such as the gendered differences in school dress codes and the politics of school funding.  During the meeting this week, Director of the Literacy Through Photography Project, Dr. Katherine Hyde, led a discussion regarding the art of documentary work. She explained that expanding the accessibility of filmmaking resources and education to young people, who often do not have the opportunity to “tell their own story”, is one of the primary factors motivating her work.  Noting that the vast majority of documentaries, while certainly educational and enjoyable to watch, were historically produced by white men, Hyde challenged the girls to think about how factors related to a filmmaker’s identity, such as race, age, socio-economic status, and gender, may affect the production process. I wondered how a documentary about school dress codes made by a young woman of color may differ from one made by an older, white man.

As we spend an increasingly large amount of time in front of the screen, I thought about the influence the creators of the content we absorb exert on our world-view. Indeed, the diverse cast of A Wrinkle in Time may challenge us to think about who Disney, Hollywood, and the media industry as a whole tend to feature. Oprah Winfrey explained, “When you don’t see yourself, there is a subconscious psychological manifestation. It’s diminishing.”  Leading actress of A Wrinkle in Time, Storm Reid, stated, “Before I got this role, I wanted there to be more little girls that look like me on TV and in lead roles.” I wondered if the movie would have featured a multiracial cast if DuVernay had not been in the director’s chair.