I am going to be honest, I failed my reading goal I set for myself in 2020 in a big way. I made it my goal to read fifty books, the highest I’ve set since before I started grad school, and I didn’t even accomplish half of this. I probably read ten books by the end of February, easily on track to surpass my goal, and then I think I read two or three books over the next six months. I’ve found myself in another reading lull over the last month or two as well, and going over the fairly short list of books I read in 2020 has made me wonder, what was I doing with my time instead of reading the books I know I would enjoy?
Turns out, I was stress eating snack food on the couch and watching movies instead. I think there was a month or more where I was watching one or two movies a day, every day. This was kind of fun since I got to catch up on films I had been wanting to see, but it was also very interesting because it got me to thinking about how books and movies relate to each other. In some ways they are directly related: there are tons and tons of movies that are adapted from books, and plenty of books that are based on films, and they are all trying to entertain, or educate, or tell a story. In other ways they differ greatly: an intricately plotted book that takes ten or more hours to read might only be a two-hour movie, and books will have much more narration and inner thoughts of the characters, while movies might have more background subtext and dialogue to further the story.
This got me thinking also about how movies and books relate in terms of diverse representation. I immediately was reminded of the “white default” in literature, and how films don’t have this same problem. The white default is a concept that argues most people see characters in literature as white, unless they are told otherwise. Similarly, authors generally do not describe the race of their characters if their characters are white, and instead only identify the race of characters that are not white. But this problem cannot happen in films: characters are on screen, so with the exception of those in costumes or completely covered by stage makeup, nonwhite actors are often apparent to the audience from the start. You’d think that would mean more diverse representation automatically, but films have their own problems instead. Casting often shuts out people of color, particularly in lead roles, and people of color in supporting roles are regularly typecast: stuck being a comedic friend, or a gang member, or a villain perhaps. Furthermore, even films with a huge box office success that are loved by viewers can be kept on the sidelines for awards like the Oscars or the Golden Globes (this is also true with excellent own voices books being underrepresented in a variety of book awards).
Despite the often underrecognized nature of their work, many films with people of color working on or off screen are similar to books in that they can have incredible stories, build understanding and empathy, showcase mythology and cultural customs, show both the marginalization and the happiness and success and creativity of people of color, and much more. Queen & Slim, a 2019 romantic drama, follows a couple on a first date that run across country together after killing a cop in self-defense. Roma, a 2018 drama, features a pregnant domestic worker in Mexico City amid family and political uprisings. Parasite, a 2019 thriller, follows a destitute family who pose as strangers to all gain employment in a nearby wealthy household. And Black Panther, a 2018 action film, debuts the Marvel superhero from the fictional African country of Wakanda as he must both assert his right as leader at home and save the world from those who would use Wakanda’s resources for destruction. All of these movies showcased nonwhite actors in creative, non-typecast, lead character roles, and each one was just as engaging and impactful on me as a good own voices novel.
While I will probably always prefer cozying up on the couch with a good book, sometimes it’s nice to celebrate movies and all of the diverse stories they can tell. If you’d like to join me in watching tons of incredible movies starring people of color, check out this long list of titles here.