Image via Movie Pilot
Catherine Young is the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow in Pop Culture Criticism.
The recent announcement of the genderbent cast of the Ocean’s Eleven reboot of Ocean’s Eight has renewed interest in the conversation around the proliferation of Hollywood sequels, prequels, and revisionings. With millennial nostalgia in full swing, everything from Baywatch to Jumanji to Splash is lined up for the reboot treatment. But while the sequel fatigue is understandable (another Spiderman movie?) it’s worth considering that rebooted franchises offer the chance to make familiar and beloved stories more accessible to diverse audiences.
Industry gatekeepers are increasingly gun-shy about investing in new properties at a time when box office profits are steadily declining. Rebooting legacy franchises allows filmmakers to rely on the built-in audiences of the films’ predecessors and hopefully mitigate financial risk. Additionally, media-criticism campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite have forced Hollywood to recognize that issues of media representation have reached a critical mass: Viewing audiences are no longer willing to be silent in the face of long-standing bias against stories by, about, and for people of color. The imperfect result? More and more recasting of beloved movie properties with race- and gender-flipped roles. It’s an inelegant solution, but it gives not only audiences but actors, screenwriters, and directors an entry point into narratives that were symbolically and institutionally inaccessible to them the first time around.
Historically, the practice of racebending (or, more commonly, whitewashing) was used to erase people of color from stories about themselves. It systematically denied work to actors of color and perpetuated racist ideas about people seen as “other” by casting nonwhite characters with white actors. You only have to look as far as this year’s controversies surrounding Ghost In The Shell and Doctor Strange to see that the practice is still in action today.
But racebending can also be used to reframe filmic stories in ways that are both meaningful and unobtrusive. Culturally, we have very specific ideas about who gets to be the hero, who is seen as a villain, and who gets to save the world. Racebending films that already exist allow us to easily cheat the boundaries of diversity, but also to add new dimensions to clichéd stories. They make inroads into our perception of who gets to be loved and valued and who gets to be protected. Racebending allows us to slowly widen the margins of who is allowed to have their stories told.
This is especially important in genre films. What does it say about our imaginations that people of color rarely exist in fictional depictions of not just the past, but both the present and the future? Acknowledging the presence of difference is vital to helping shape our understanding of people who aren’t like us. According to Michelle Obama in a recent interview with Variety:
“For so many people, TV and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them. It becomes important for the world to see different images of each other, so that we can develop empathy and understanding.”
Racebending rebooted franchises allows us to add diverse perspectives to the existing canon of culturally significant narratives, present minority characters in a way that better reflects our varied experiences, and escape the material dangers that a single story can present.
Despite evidence to the contrary, and actual research indicating that people of color make up large swaths of the moviegoing audience who want to see themselves represented onscreen, Hollywood insiders continue to insist that audiences simply do not respond to films with diverse casts. This blind stubbornness means that we may never have a steady stream of mainstream original films starring people of color. Racebent casting can provide a quick fix to an institutional problem.
Racebent casting is an imperfect solution to an unwieldy problem, but it’s also highly effective in the short term. The new Star Wars film was initially faced with racist backlash when it was revealed that John Boyega, a Black Brit, was cast in a starring role. It went on to make $2 billion dollars at the box office. That’s “billion” with a “b.”
Reboots might be lazy cash-grabs instigated by an unwillingness to invest in new talent, but with both a Black Iris West and Mary Jane Watson on the horizon, I’m never going to be against them. Although the general story beats may be familiar, the specific dimensions of the narrative change each time we consider the experience of someone new. Even Hermione Granger’s history of activism takes on a new meaning when we imagine her as Black or biracial. New perspectives mean new ideas, new experiences, and new ways to talk about the world. With racebent reboots, more people get versions that speak to them directly. As Ava DuVernay says, “Film is a mirror. Everyone should see themselves.”