I don’t know all of you in this room personally, but I think it’s probably fair for me to say that when you walk into an action movie, you probably don’t go in expecting to start crying at the first fight sequence. Right? But when Patty Jenkins’ film Wonder Woman opened in cinemas across the world, a substantial portion of the women who watched it shared online that they could not stop crying at the fight sequences. Maybe that sounds bizarre, but consider this. For many women, this was one of the first instances in which a major blockbuster displayed so many powerful, fierce, independent female characters on screen and treated their abilities seriously, without any strings attached. This was a film that invented a universe in which women felt strong enough, were recognised to be strong enough, and respected for that. And the universe Patty Jenkins invented resonated with audiences, to the point where it brought us one step closer to a future that mirrors her world.
In his film Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler offers us two hours to experience a world in which black culture is celebrated, in which African American actors are not cast only as villains or thugs, and the protagonist is recognised for aspects of his character outside of just his race. The universe he invented resonated with us. Black Panther earned $1.3 billion worldwide. At a screening in Nigeria, people went to see the movie wearing traditional Nigerian robes and gowns. As an African American flight attendant from New York said of the film, “for the first time someone black could win an Oscar for being a hero and not a crooked cop, a slave. They would win for being articulate, smart, successful, and loving.”
Something about Black Panther clicked with audiences. It clarified the type of future we wanted to see in reality. Films like Wonder Woman, Moonlight, Moana, Coco, and Love, Simon all help solidify our vague visions of what exactly we want our future to look like. As we grapple with overcoming social injustices, we struggle to predict what a future even looks like when those injustices don’t exist. It is often difficult to express or envision a future that feels so different and far-off from our world now. And so filmmakers step in. They present us with depictions of the particular futures we have in mind. They invent distinctive universes within their movies that echo the ones we are trying to imagine, and then, much like walking us to a changing room, they tell us, “try this one on for size.” For a moment, we have a crystal clear, fullcolour, so-close-you-could-touch-it picture of the futures we are chasing but struggling to articulate. When an invented universe resonates so deeply with us, then we know. That is what we want our future to look like. There’s something we want to work towards.
But these kinds of films are still a rarity, an outlier. They briefly make us forget that the majority of blockbuster films still accommodate old ideas of what heroes and good guys look like. They bombard us with implicit stereotypes conveyed by what we see on screen. That’s why Wonder Woman was such a cathartic experience for female audiences – because even though as women we know rationally we are strong and worthy of respect, there are still seeds of doubt placed within us by the movies that continue to show us time after time that men are the heroes and women are sidekicks. Wonder Woman released girls and women from so many of those invisible constraints. It told them, “you are not wrong to believe you are equally important.” That is why they cried.
And that is why we as uniquely powerful audiences must demand better representation in film. It isn’t really so complicated. One of the most important things a film can do is simply show us an Asian character who isn’t just a nerd, a gay character who isn’t just the butt of fashion jokes, a character with mental illness who is not a deranged murderer. Fictional universes that offer us better representation of these kinds of characters inspire empathy and tolerance in the audiences that see it, and offer us yet another distinctive glimpse into how we might like our world to be. Surely, it can only be a good thing to have a more diverse range of films. That just means our array of possible worlds that we might choose to work towards has grown bigger. Our options suddenly become a little more specific, a little more precise. They sharpen and clarify. We are one step closer to finding the universe that most closely encapsulates how we hope our societies will operate. And when the visions of audiences and creators are able to converge in this way, then that is when films hold the most power to invent our future, even long after the credits have finished rolling.
This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.