Why On Screen “Diversity” is a Misguided Attempt at Social Justice


Racial diversity on the big screen has little to do with combatting racial injustices in our society. (CAROLINE JOHN VIA FLICKR)


One of the central tensions of Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do The Right Thing” is the lack of black individuals on the Wall of Fame in Sal’s Pizzeria. Instead, said wall is largely filled with white individuals, much to the dismay of Buggin’ Out, who is the primary character fueling this tension. Since Sal serves a predominantly black neighborhood, Buggin’ Out believes that the wall should more accurately reflect the racial makeup of 1980s Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, and therefore demands that Sal “puts some brothers on the wall.”

In order to not spoil the film for those who have not yet seen it, I will not discuss how this narrative tension is resolved. Let us assume, however, that Sal accepts Buggin’ Out’s request, and decides to put black individuals on the wall.

In doing so, did Sal help solve the economic plight of the citizens of 1980s Bed-Stuy? Did he help erect an impediment to the tide of gentrification that was to come 20 years later? More significantly, would “putting brothers on the wall” prevent the police from killing Radio Raheem? Although the film suggests this latter argument, this is inaccurate. Yes, if Sal had just some black individuals on the wall, the chaos that ensues in the film’s final third would not have occurred. However, this does not necessarily mean that Radio Raheem could not have been killed by police officers in the future. This therefore raises the question as to why Buggin’ Out fought so vehemently to see black individuals on the wall.

What is quite striking about this plot point is how it reflects our current cultural climate. For example, in a review of the film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” New York Times critic Manohla Dargis writes that director J.J. Abrams’ “most far-reaching accomplishment here is casting [Oscar] Isaac, [John] Boyega and [Daisy] Ridley—a Latino, a black man and a white woman.” The weight that Dargis assigns to the film’s so-called “diversity” matches the same weight that Buggin’ Out assigns to seeing “brothers on the wall.” In both instances, these two individuals see representation as a social justice victory. Yet, what further binds these two positions is the pervasive question as to what is achieved as a consequence.

Put another way, did casting Boyega help stop the tide of police killings plaguing this country? Did Ridley’s presence on screen assist in equalizing pay for men and women? I would argue no to these and other related inquiries. Such analysis thus reveals an important point: cultural politics is one of, if not the most, limited forms of politics.

Some may argue that positive and varied representations of racial identities can inspire younger individuals who also identify with the same race. This premise could hold weight if we first accept its implicit racism, and second, ignore the fact that, as scholar Adolph Reed writes, “the production and consumption of mass culture is thoroughly embedded in capitalist material and ideological imperatives.”

Consider the ease by which diversity is achieved. In regards to “Do The Right Thing,” the losses Sal would experience as a result of putting black individuals on the wall are inconsequential. In fact, such losses may be non-existent, as the film suggests that Sal could increase his profits should he put “brothers on the wall.” “The Force Awakens” shares this characteristic as well. In fact, one could argue that “diversity” assisted the film in producing enormous box-office returns. These two examples therefore highlight one crucial fact: cultural politics fits comfortably within the capitalist system, and does not solely contradict nor challenge this same system.

This is not to downplay the significance of the lack of blacks, Latinos, Asians and women in Hollywood and/or on television. These groups still do not hold the same footing as their white male counterparts in the media landscape. However, the issue here is priority. If getting racial representation on screen takes precedence over creating a broad-based coalition that can work to revise the policies that continually reproduce inequality, then we have already lost the battle and accepted defeat.