To what extent is ethnic culture portrayed authentically in Hollywood films and the impact audiences can have

Introduction

This research is about the representation of ethnicity in the Hollywood film industry.

My aim is to analyse how authentic the representation of black ethnicity is in the film industry and the effect this has on its audiences. I will critically examine how ethnicity is represented through films and the arguable legitimacy of this, whilst also discussing this in relation to audiences and why this representation may be the way it is. I will be using texts such as Media messages by Sharpe and Gardner to help me develop a critical evaluation about the use of ethnicity in films. As there is an ever-increasing number of films featuring a very prominent theme of ethnicity such as 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther it is important to explore the identity that this is creating and how audiences are consuming it. My research will explore this through some discourse analysis whilst also conducting a survey in order to be able to evaluate the effects of these films.

Research on this topic is necessary because media has such a large impact on society as a source for information. Therefore, we need to be critical of the way the media includes a range of ethnicities because, if misrepresented, this can feed prejudice and tensions.  In order to claim our society as multicultural and equal we must not fabricate representations of ethnicities. The way ethnicity is presented is crucial as it effects how people of different ethnicities are perceived worldwide. I will evaluate the research and the ties to traditional culture incorporated into films, whilst also discussing if there is a correlation between this and the ethnic diversity of those involved in the making of these films. Finally, using my own research, I will then compare this to what I have already discussed before concluding the effect this has on audiences and if the audiences themselves may be the cause of this representation.

 Literature Review

This is an evaluation of some of the written texts which are relevant to the issue of authenticity when presenting ethnicity in film. An example of the industry aiming to create authenticity is in Disney’s 1995 film Pocahontas in which, having previously received criticism for their portrayal of race, Disney cast an activist from the American Indian Movement as the main protagonist’s father (Edgerton and Jackson, 1996). However, this casting was all that was done to attempt to create some form of authenticity, as “Disney’s goal was to offer positive and sympathetic Indian characters, it was never the companies intent to cover the history of the time” (Holtzman and Sharpe, 2014). This film participated in creating a myth about American Indians and supported the ideology that American Indians could be made to be “civilised” and “more white”. Further, Disney creates a situation where it can avoid discussing the authentic nature of this film by making the two protagonists lovers thereby  “ focusing on the individual and triumph of love, rather than more complex racial relations and themes of conquest” (Holtzman and Sharpe, 2014).This shows how authenticity is ignored and glossed  over in the film industry when presenting ethnicities and cultures and, because Pocahontas was a very successful film, raises the issue of whether  it matters that the representation of history and these cultures was obscured. Also, the design of the character itself was created by an all-white male team, illustrating how those creating these ideologies in films are often white and therefore may be part of the reasoning as to why historic authenticity and accurate representations of cultures are lacking. As suggested by Edgerton and Jackson the Pocahontas created by Disney was a “white man’s Indian” because the character does remain true to the image of a white supermodel that is seen as ideal in the Western world.  Furthermore, this character still closely mimics those Disney characters that came before her all following the same formula for an aesthetically pleasing female character. Although this example may seem somewhat dated this is still a very popular film even today, this clearly shows how we are still a society that allows the misrepresentation of race.

It has also been argued that “The message of black inferiority…onscreen and off, the history that western culture has made typically denies blacks and black skin of historical reference, except as former slaves or savages.” (James Snead, 2016) Hollywood does not give the opportunity for those who are ethnically diverse to be represented. They repeat what they know from their history although without an attempt to research any deeper into the cultures themselves. This shows an often misrepresentation and stereotyping when it comes to including ethnicity in film.

In more recent times a film such as Black Panther has been described as “a victory for representation in film” (Proma Khosla, 2018). This shows a very recent development compared to films that have come before it with Africa portrayed as an extremely independent and powerful country, no longer affected by colonialism and its people showing more than “black pain” with  wider goals and motivations for their actions. Further research for the film and the musical score were created by visiting Africa and observing its culture, a very different approach to the development and research done by those for Pocahontas.  Khosla said that “this success did not arrive in a vacuum,” suggesting that a recognition of the previous misrepresentations and new demand for accurate, authentic displays of different ethnicities was desired by the public.

These are two very different sides to representation in film. However, both are popular films that many people have seen. I am interested in how improvements such as Black Panther have come about and if this is due to a relationship to audiences. I want to understand if it is audience action and opinion which have played a part in it  taking  so long to produce  a film like this and why  there are not more being  created.

I will use this research in creating my survey and discuss how audiences not recognising and acknowledging the lack of authentic representation in the past could have been the reason misrepresentation was so common. Therefore, I intend to explore if the participants in my research are prepared to voice their opinions when it comes to ethnicity in film.  I also want to look at how this would affect audiences as if they were only collecting all their information about these cultures from film, as it seems many people nowadays do collect most of their knowledge from forms of media and this, this could be having an impact on our multicultural society.

 Methodology and Data Collection

For my primary research, I have decided to conduct my research in the form of a survey. I have decided that this is the best method of research as I intended to collect quantitative data in order to be able to obtain clear statistics and figures to either support or contradict the findings from my literature review. In order to do this, I created a survey with a series of closed questions, ensuring there were no leading questions which could create bias in the answers. I limited myself to only 8 questions in case more would mean those participating lost interest and put less consideration into their answers. I started the survey with a question about the participant’s ethnicity, which will allow me to create a deeper evaluation of perspectives as I am able to compare and contrast the answers based upon their own ethnicity. I used Google Drive to create a survey, which was beneficial as it allowed me to distribute my survey through Facebook, Twitter and email. This also allows for complete anonymity for those completing the survey and therefore protects the ethical interests of those participating.

Online surveys are effective as “more segments of society are using the Internet for communication and information” (Fox et al, 2001). This means that I am able to contact more members of society, and have a wider reach, than if I did a physical or postal survey. Also, an online survey allows me to share it through social media and have an extremely wide reach to in the variety of who I am asking to complete it. My response rate will also hopefully be higher as this does not require people to post their response or take too much time out of their day as they can complete it quickly online on their mobile devices. The internet has been described as “an especially rich domain for conducting survey research” (Kevin Wright, 2006) because there is such a large audience able to communicate and participate in discussions about any topic. This allows me to find an audience willing to engage in this discussion and survey which will provide me with a larger sample size. This larger sample size will allow me to create a bigger range in who I am asking and avoid misleading statistics by only asking a small select group of people. I believe I achieved this as I was able to collect responses from around 50 people.

I will use my findings to evaluate If audiences are aware that they are consuming inaccurate representations; if they believe it is important for representations to be accurate; and lastly if their own lack of action is possibly what has led to it taking so long to produce more authentic representation of ethnicities in film.

 Analysis and Findings

I conducted a survey in this research paper and it is clear that, from the people I sampled, that audiences do believe it is important and of value to do research before incorporating elements of a culture into a film. This consequently suggests that audiences would also feel it is important that ethnicity is then portrayed in an authentic manner in the film. However, this was not seen in responses to the question about whether it is important for representations in film to be authentic and realistic with only 44% believing that it was very important with 11% stating that it is not important at all. These may appear contradictory as whilst 100% believed that researching correctly was important they did not attach the same importance to what is then actually included in the film. This supports a theory that audience opinion may have played a significant part in allowing lack of authenticity to have continued for so long. Audiences do seem to care about authenticity but generally will not complain about the actual content that is being created.

A significant majority of 83.3% of those asked said that the ethnicity of a cast would not affect their choice to watch a film, suggesting that the popularity of a film would not be negatively impacted by the needs or desire of an audience for an authentic cast or more ethnically diverse films. As half of the research group said that the ethnicity of a cast does not affect the quality of a film, this suggests that authenticity when creating a film does not affect an audience’s perception of whether or not it is a good quality film.

Around half of those in the study said it was important to take action if they believe a culture is being misrepresented in a film, which means that half of audiences are accepting of misrepresentation of ethnicity. Furthermore, 27% of those said they had previously voiced their opinion about lack of authenticity and misrepresentation in a film. This statistic shows that only half of people who believe we should stand up against lack of authenticity have previously been prepared to do so. In the absence of comment or dissent from audiences film companies are likely to have assumed that audiences do not really care that much. The bottom line for film companies is more likely to be a financial one rather than an ethical or moral one. If audiences are still prepared to pay to see films which are poorly researched in terms of ethnic culture and have unrepresentative representations of ethnicity then film companies are likely to continue to make films in this way., This shows an audience’s inaction could be what has led to this lack of authenticity and why it has been happening for so long. 

I attempted to create a representative study by sending out my survey through social media but also using emails to target certain people in an attempt to create a representative study of real society, I attempted to ask the same amount of men and women and target it to a range of ages. However, a disadvantage of using surveys is that you are unable to control who you are receiving responses from.

As 77% of those asked were of white origin, this therefore may create a bias in my research as most mainstream Hollywood films seen in the UK are created by white filmmakers depicting western countries. Consequently these audiences would not necessarily have faced a lack of authenticity when seeing the representation of their culture previously. This would mean that they have less informed opinions when it comes to authenticity in film. However, I am able to view the responses of those who chose non-white as their ethnic background which produces a different perspective. Those of a non- white background who answered the survey gave answers which varied from the overall results as they appear to value that representation is realistic and authentic by all stating that they thought this was very important when filmmaking.

Finally, this research and analysis of films is important because only 5% said that their knowledge of other ethnicities was not from the film industry and 17% said that a lot of their knowledge of other ethnicities did come from films. This supports the view that is it crucial that ethnic representation, and the authenticity of this, must be accurate in film as so many people use it as a viable source for information.  

Conclusion

 Half of the research group stated that the diversity of a film does not affect the quality of a film. This opposes  what was attempted in Pocahontas as they included a representative for Native Indians in the film, however does this survey show that it is the background research and small elements of a culture that are included into a film that are more valuable.  My research suggests that audiences want the pre-production research to reflect ethnicity accurately, however they do not need this multiculturalism to be directly placed in front of them in the centre of the film. This can be seen in Black Panther, as this film was a huge success across various elements such as the costumes as “there were at least 10 different tribes that we gathered costume inspiration from.” (Ruth. E. Carter, 2018). This shows that the success of this film may be due to the thought put into the authenticity of the film  through research rather than token and inaccurate  attempts to show a range of ethnicity.

Half of those surveyed said that they would feel the need to voice their opinion if they believed a culture was being inaccurately represented. This is the effect of audiences on the film industry as there is a tolerance  by the other  50% that means films inaccurately representing a culture can still be popular. If people still attend the films then filmmakers will see no need to change.

My results do correlate with my literature review as it suggests that there is incorrect representation of ethnicity, nevertheless these films are still being made today and are still popular. This reflects my research as although small percentages of people believe we should speak out about accuracy of representation, a large number  still allow it to continue. In the film industry many films still misrepresent ethnicities but if an increasing number of  people start speaking out  this will  lead to more films such as Black Panther being created.

In conclusion, it can be said that ethnic culture is starting to become more authentic compared with how it used to be and that there is potential for films to be created portraying authentic representations of ethnicity. However, Black Panther is only one film and it would be wrong to assume it signals a complete change in the industry. Nevertheless its success is encouraging and crucially this has been worldwide reaching huge audiences beyond the markets of the US and Europe. It may suggest to the film companies that making the extra effort to ensure authenticity is what has generated a bigger audience. As I commented earlier film companies tend to respond to audience actions, whether they turn up in huge numbers or stay away. It is therefore that  audiences who are  aware of misrepresentations of culture should be  willing to speak out about it, and if necessary vote with their feet by staying away from such films. There is still a long way to go for the rest of the film industry to ensure ethnicity is consistently represented fairly and accurately.

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