Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
Diversity is the hot word of the day when it comes to future movies being made in Hollywood. Black Panther, which featured a predominately Black cast became an international hit among Blacks and other races and countries as well (you can call that the Obama affect). Wonder Woman was also successful with its focus on a female, lead character that was not a supporting character and operated by her own rules rather than the patriarchy of the time. Established studios have been under increasing pressure to hire non-white and female directors, and many actors are now doing the what is called the Inclusive Rider clause to actively promote a more diverse cast and crew.
However one of the stumbling blocks that progressive actors and studios have been running into is convincing the audiences that their movies are still worth seeing, even with its progressive themes. There are those that have worked, but there are also those that have not, or at least invited great controversy that overshadowed their success. Many say that the Starwars franchise is falling into this trap. Ever since The Last Jedi came out, one of the division faults among fans has been the supposed, over-bearing, preaching of progressive values and a supposed focus on making the female leads look good at the expense of their male counterparts: even the legendary Luke Skywalker. The recent 2016 Ghostbusters film is another case where many fans felt bashed over the head with women leads (though its failure is more attributed to a bad story), with the exception of Kate McKinnon.
It seems to be a hit-or-miss affair that the industry has not mastered yet: how to be inclusive and equal while telling a compelling story at the same time. So I would like to point to a 1980’s classic as an example of how to do both. The irony of this selection being that this was before much of the activism and diversity. That movie is 1987’s Predator.
"In fact, with the exception of the woman they captured, he fails in that effort and only succeeds in defeating the predator after several, failed traps and shootouts that nearly kill him in the process."
Subversive Muscles and Bullets
In terms of original, Sc-fi/horror, story-telling, the movie already stands out as one of the best of the genres. The story involves a group of special forces soldiers led by Dutch, tracking down a previous squad and the hostages they were supposed to rescue, who vanished in the jungles of Central America. In the course of their search, they find the soldiers dead and mutilated and the hostages being killed by the local rebels. After killing all but one of the guerrilla fighters, a female soldier, they try to make their way out of the jungle, only to find themselves now being hunted by an unseen, alien creature that picks them off one by one until only two of them are of the left.
From a story telling point of view, this is unique because it revolves around the idea of the hunters becoming the hunted: the guerrillas hunting the hostages and their rescuers, followed by the second squad hunting the guerrillas, then the predator hunting them, and finally, Dutch and the alien hunting each other. The constant reversal of roles kept viewers on their toes.
However, its the use of its diverse cast that I’m focusing on. They consist of two Blacks, one Native American, two Latinos (one being a female, captured guerrilla), and three Caucasians. Now to be fair, there were still a number of stereotypes in play: the Native American character, Billy, being ‘spiritually’ in-tuned to the predator’s presence and the trope of all the Black characters dying off, leaving the White hero to save the day. for example.
Yet all of that is offset by story-telling and portrayal. Billy is an effective tracker and speaks as any of the other soldiers do rather than some classic, broken English dialect. The two, Black operatives are effective at intelligence and planning. And though having many hero moments, Dutch has more moments of relying on his team than saving them. In fact, with the exception of the woman they captured, he fails in that effort and only succeeds in defeating the predator after several, failed traps and shootouts that nearly kill him in the process. And he never even hooks up with the girl afterwards. In fact, there is zero sexual tension in here at all.
Despite its reputation for being a ‘muscles and bullets’ action film, Predator in fact subverts several tropes, while including different types of characters with their own motivations and the hero surviving but at the same time, failing. Remarkable for an action filmed done during that time. To compare, other films that portray different characters often feel token, forced, and predictable. The one that most comes to my mind is 1986’s Top Gun.
Hero-Worship at its Best/Worst
Now I love that movie mostly because I’m a military brat. The dog-fighting scenes are still some of the best ever done and are actually real planes rather than models or in today’s world, CGI. The establishment, deconstruction, and reconstruction of it’s hero, Maverick are excellent. At the same time, I noticed that the speaking lines of the one, non-White character, Sundown, all feel like it was done as an afterthought rather than contributing to the story. Also, all the female characters, who initially have their own stories and agencies all eventually come to revolve around Maverick, supporting him. More so the character of Carole Bradshaw, the wife of Maverick’s co-pilot, Goose. When he is killed, she is obliviously distraught and should be. It’s her damn husband after all! Yet, by her last scene she is comforting Maverick instead of the other way around or at least a reciprocal moment because of their mutual loss.
I’m not saying that these are the attempts of a racist/sexist conspiracy by the filmmakers and Hollywood. I don’t think most of the actors in that film are actually prejudiced, they're just doing their jobs. I do think it was just the background structure of the society at that time and how the writers and directors chose to write the story. And because it was 1985 and not 2018, chances are few would have picked up on it.
Getting Priorities Straight
Predator’s first and foremost goal was to tell a strong story, not reaffirm any social values or offer any direct commentary in the state of social affairs. Its isolated setting added to this by separating the characters from society. All the characters worked with each other, depended on, and supported each other, rather than one person having all the answers. Their racial/gender backgrounds were just backdrops and did not take anything away from the narrative. And the story is original. It goes in a direction that many movies don’t take, while including familiar elements that the audience is familiar with.
When people see the famous (or infamous) jungle blasting scene where the squad fires randomly into empty jungle trying to kill the predator, no one goes, ‘oh look there’s an Indian doing that too!’ or ‘Look at those Black guys’. Because the scene itself is telling a story and is part of a larger story. Everything else is just background.
"Though a natural, biological reaction, fear has also almost never been a good basis to make good decisions off of."
Of course all of this needs to be taken within context of 2018. The world of Hollywood is heightened right now to the past inequalities and injustices of its past. One that I personally feel that they shouldn’t tout their horn too much about because word is from everyone who lives there is that they knew what was going but didn’t do anything. Regardless, they are trying to correct these inconsistencies now and give all people a fair chance rather than a privileged few, even if those few were not a part of the injustices themselves. That is a noble and just cause, but because it is in its infancy, it is still operating in extremes. The metronome is still swinging from one end to the other and hasn't balanced itself out.
Part of this is because people are afraid. Those who were raised in the earlier environment and profited from it are afraid of losing their money, status, and the identity they had constructed for themselves. Those beating on their doors now have power and are afraid of either nothing changing or falling back into the old ways by means of stagnation and inaction in spite of their newfound power.
Though a natural, biological reaction, fear has also almost never been a good basis to make good decisions off of. It blinds its user to other factors that are going on, seeing other options that are not an all or nothing scenario, unable or unwilling to address the other side’s concerns, and ultimately compromises their position of wanting equality to becoming just another exchange of power. The last point usually leads to the whole cycle starting all over again.
As tribal as Americans are, the one thing they all universally hate is being preached to. Predator could include other, diverse cast members because spot-lighting diversity wasn't the point. So when they were included, the audience could accept them while at the same time seeing more faces on screen that weren't Caucasian and male. It slowly introduced them to the concept and overtime it grew to where it is now.
Similarly, Black Panther’s success comes from the story involving the Black experience in Africa and America while not making it the center piece. It was about the development of the characters and the social, geopolitical background was a part of their experience, not the other way around. Even revolutions take time to take hold and those that didn't ultimately failed. Get a solid story, and everything else will usually fall into place. So that’s how I think a good movie can be done that is fair to everyone.
© 2018 Jamal Smith
Ryan Jarvis Cornelius from Hollywood, FL on December 31, 2018: