The “Face” of Politics

As I type this, Chris Evans is being “cancelled” on Twitter. I did a little research on this since I always thought Chris Evans was well-received. It turns out the backlash is because of a white savior movie he made called Red Sea Diving Resort. According to Wikipedia, this film “is a 2019 spy thriller film written and directed by Gideon Raff. The film stars Chris Evans as an Israeli Mossad agent who runs a covert operation that helps Ethiopian-Jewish refugees escape to safe haven in Israel.” The description goes on to say the film is based on historical events, and politically divisive.

The controversial cast photo from Red Sea Diving Resort — Photo credit: Twitter @CEvansNews

This is important, but not new. Because of the current state of the world, politics are unavoidable more than ever, and movies are no exception. Movies that are set in real historical or political scenes are scrutinized to be historically accurate, or at the very least, not rewritten to make sure the good guys are White and…guys. I became curious about what information is being presented to audiences about about politics and politicians. I am distinguishing between political movies and movies about politics. One might argue that all movies have some political agenda, but I wanted to research the movies about political figures. While, as of the latest elections, there were steps made toward a more diverse group of civic leaders, but that is not always represented on the big screen. It might be hard for voters to support any possible politician that is not White and/or male because of the representation of politicians in their media consumption.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus (2009)

What options are given to the viewers?

I looked at a few lists to see what movies about politics and politicians were well-known or well-received. I narrowed down the lists from Ranker to 38 films, after eliminating those made before 1990. After coding for the directors’ races and genders, and the top 15 billed cast members’ races and genders, along with some other information about the setting of the films, here is what I found:

  • This sample had 21 of the 38 films set in the United States.
  • Those films which took place in the late 1960s or later where all made by White directors and almost all male.
  • In fact, only three directors were Black in the entire sample.
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
  • I used the first 15 cast members listed in IMDB, and only 5 casts were more than 50% non-White. I use “non-White” because White people were the clear and large majority. Of the remaining 33 films, the average cast was 81% White.
Percentages of White Casts Members
  • Also, only 8 casts were less than 50% male. Of the remaining 30 casts, the average was 76% male.
Percentages of Male Cast Members

Looking at the numbers, it is clear that casts and filmmakers are usually White and male dominated. These are films that supposedly represent pivotal or at least interesting histories of politics. The entire list is not so grim — the film Lumumba had a Black director, Raoul Peck, 93% Black cast, but was 93% male. Ava Duvernay’s Selma has a Black female director, 47% male and 67% White cast. Most casts doing well with gender equality, fail miserably in racial equality, like Suffragette, which has a White female director, Sarah Gavrona, with a 73% female cast, but all of the cast members are White.

What about the stories?

Well, this might not come as a shock, but only 4 films had non-White protagonists and only 8 had a female protagonist of the 38 films considered. None of the films had a majority of women and People of Color in their casts. The films with Black male protagonists are most often made by Black directors, with the exception being Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick.

Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in W. (2008)

What does that tell the audiences?

Politicians and those involved in politics are White men. Pop culture has a way of informing people in a way that, perhaps subconsciously, directs our decision making with our votes. This is why representation matters in media, and film particularly. Films can humanize and demonize well-known political figures. They have power. And so far, the power has been given to White males. Chris Evans may or may not be “cancelled” by Twitter this week, but hopefully the outrage makes everyone consider why representation matters, why representation in film is crucial, and perhaps each story told should not, and cannot, have a White hero. Surely, in all of the history of politics, there are some stories that do not involve White males.

Films Researched (again, this is not an exhaustive list, just a sample):

JFK (1991); Malcolm X (1992); Nixon (1995); Evita (1996); George Wallace (1997); Elizabeth (1998); Primary Colors (1998); The Insider (1999); Lumumba (2000); Thirteen Days (2000); Downfall (2004); Good Night, and Good Luck (2005); Munich (2005; Syriana (2005); Marie Antoinette (2006); Bobby (2006); The Last King of Scotland (2006); The Queen (2006); Goodbye Bafana (2007); Charlie Wilson’s War (2007); Frost/Nixon (2008); Milk (2008); W. (2008); Invictus (2009); The King’s Speech (2010); The Iron Lady (2011); Farewell, My Queen (2012); Lincoln (2012); Hyde Park on Hudson (2012); Game Change (2012); Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013); Selma (2014); Suffragette (2015); Trumbo (2015); Snowden (2016); Vice (2018); Bad Education (2019); Sergio (2020)


Written by Sarah Erskine



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