Coming-of-age films; which showcase the transition from adolescence into adulthood through legal, sexual, spiritual or emotional maturity; have been a part of every generation. The American people literally grew up with this genre of film. Hollywood gave us Rebel Without a Cause, starring heartthrob James Dean, in 1955. The ’80s and ’90s gave us many popular cult classics such as Pretty in Pink (1986), Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1984), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Clueless (1995) and Stand By Me (1986).
Fast forward into the twenty-first century — Hollywood made more modern, and female-centric coming-of-age films that received critical acclaim like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Academy Award-nominated Lady Bird (2017).
Are all these films completely different? Yes. But they all have one thing in common: a lack of POC representation.
According to a report written by researchers at UCLA, in 2017 (the same year Lady Bird was released), white people remained over-represented in top film roles, with a whopping 77%. Black people had 9% of the roles and native representation being at an unfortunate 0.4%. That year was also an all-time low for ethnic women, with only 29 black women leading the top films of that year and zero Native American women being represented. Despite making up about forty percent of the population in the United States, people of color made up less than 20% of film leads.
Contrary to what Hollywood might think about the adolescence and teenage experience, white children don’t have the same childhood experience as children of color. Filmmakers need to understand that nonwhite kids cannot entirely relate to white suburban teenagers, who defy their parents and wild out at parties. For them, everything seems to go their way at the end (which is arguably the plot of many white coming-of-age films).
This isn’t to say that youth of color can’t relate to or enjoy many white-centric coming-of-age movies. These movies just are not something they can connect with entirely.
Also, just because people of color are pushing for more POC representation, does not mean we want to watch poverty, racism and violence on our screens. Almost any black American in their thirties can probably tell you that the most notable black-led coming-of-age they can think of is Boyz n the Hood (1991), which featured many iconic black actors like Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut and Angela Bassett. It received a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is great, but the black community would like to see black representation outside of drug and gang violence in poor, dangerous neighborhoods.
Other black coming-of-age films include Academy Award-winner Moonlight (2016) and Dope (2015). But that’s just two movies compared to the dozens of movies catered to white youth.
Another group of people that should have equal representation is first-generation immigrants. Close to three million first-generation children live in America, yet, just like Americans of color, they are severely underrepresented on screen. Nonwhite immigrants have been portrayed as terrorists and criminals for decades (Arab bombers, Korean terrorists, etc.), which seems to be the only roles people of color can get. Recently, Academy Award winner Rami Malek refused to play a terrorist in the next James Bond film, unless the character was not an Arab-speaking religious fundamentalist. In other words, he didn’t want to play an Arab tied to harmful stereotypes.
Youth of color should be able to watch POC-led coming-of-age films that they can fully connect with. Young black teens should look forward to watching black-centric movies that don’t revolve around racism or police brutality. Young Asian kids should be able to watch a film that doesn’t just stereotype Asians but gives them depth and important roles in the story. Indigenous youth should see powerful, uplifted versions of themselves on screen. Not everything has to be centered around white audiences. Hollywood has taken (baby) steps in the right direction with expanding POC representation in film, but we still got a long way to go.
Featured Image via The Edge