Monday, September 29, 2014

The Maze Runner: Continuing the Successful Trend of Diversity in Entertainment?

A weekend ago, The Maze Runner managed to avoid the non-Hunger Games YA movie franchise curse of sucking. It was released to decent reviews and opened at #1 in the box office not only in the U.S. but also in over 50 other countries. Unlike, say, His Dark Materials, this series won't be a stillborn franchise as it has been given the green light to expand into further sequels. All in all, not bad for a movie without a recognizable star and whose source material wasn't a household name.

Also this past Thursday, Shonda Rhimes' new TV show, How To Get Away With Murder, drew in 14 million viewers for its series premiere. A couple of weeks ago, the Idris Elba movie No Good Deed opened atop the box office despite some terrible reviews. And this weekend, the Denzel Washington vehicle The Equalizer has won the box office.

What do all these very successful movies and TV shows have in common? A very diverse cast. 

Shonda Rhimes is my hero, especially for representing Philly in "How To Get Away With Murder"

There were severable reasons that I wanted to see The Maze Runner. First, the concept of a killer mystery maze was damn cool, and as one of my primal fears is death by crushing, many of the action sequences in the trailer inherently gripped me. Seriously, death by crushing: worst death ever. 

Second, Kaya Scodelario was in it. Effy! I watched the entire first season of Skins just for you! And you only showed up in the beginning and at the end! And you barely spoke! 


Cool action sequences. Pretty girl. All standard and understandable reasons to go see a movie, right?

But I also went to see The Maze Runner for a guy: the character of Minho, to be more specific. Having never read the books, I didn't know that he even existed. So when I first saw the trailer, I was shocked to see an Asian male character featured prominently in the cast. Upon further research, I found out that he was actually an important character who got to do really cool things. 

There doesn't seem to be any data out right now that verifies that one of the key reasons that this movie succeeded was that a lot of movie goers felt as I did, but if we look at the bigger picture of recent trends (e.g. Kevin Hart is just raking it in!) as well as academic studies that show that diversity is good business, it seems to be a no-brainer that having solid non-White characters in a good movie will only help its prospects. 

Rufio! Rufio! Roooo! Feeeeee! Ohhhhhhhh!
And yeah, The Maze Runner is an entertaining movie that effectively mashes up Lord of the Flies, Peter Pan, and Lost. The audience is just thrown into the confusing and nightmarish world of the maze, which helps us identify with the bewildered protagonist, Thomas (played by Dylan O'Brien). You keep watching the movie because you want to know who built this monstrosity and for what reason. 

Ki Hong Lee as Minho
Minho turns out to be an awesome character as well (as verified by the two female friends with whom I went to see the movie). The other characters are engaging and complex enough, including the leader Alby and his right-hand man, Newt (aka the little lovesick boy from Love Actually who still looks exactly the same except he's twice as tall now). Even the resident bully, Gally, makes a lot of sense if you really think about what he says.

The moral argument for diversity was always the easy argument to make. From an artistic angle, a creative work still has some obligation to be rooted in reality. That's why we rightly snort in derision at Mary Sue stories in which a thinly-veiled author avatar smites all his enemies with ease, always has the pithy one-liner comeback in every single situation, and has conventionally beautiful girls fall in love with him for no discernible reason. So if your story takes place in multicultural location like Los Angeles or New York City, or in a non-Western setting like Ancient China, it's probably best not to always shoehorn in a White male hero into the middle of the story. There's also the socio-political angle that recognizes that having one's story told is a right and that by denying some groups the opportunity to share their narratives, we are effectively treating them as second-class citizens.

Middle Easterners are such a diverse people. This is what Persians look like when they're heroes.

And this is what Persians look like when they're villains.
More often than not, however, the defenders of the status quo use the economic argument to stifle debate. The rather bizarre and offensive rationale is that Americans (mainly White Americans) just aren't willing to identify and empathize with any character outside of their own racial group. Even though native Beijingers could cry at the hardships of a turn-of-the-century Philadelphian debutante in Titanic and Ghanians could root for a British schoolwizard in the Harry Potter movies, Americans just don't want to see Black or Asian or Latino characters. This is an attitude that I've harshly criticized before.

Well, what if that argument no longer stands? What if it's not just morally beneficial to be inclusive in storytelling, but also economically as well? Will we finally see more changes? I definitely think so, and I think these changes are happening now. But I would also be interested in hearing what the new excuses against diversity will be and whether they will have any influence.

Some may ask: What does it matter? Some may even accuse people like me of being the racist ones for being so concerned about race. Shouldn't we all just be "color-blind" and appreciate a character for her character, and a story for its story?

That sounds all well and good, until you realize that we still live in a world where someone like Mae Jemison never believed that she could be an astronaut until she saw Uhuru in Star Trek. Or where a young Barack Obama, as someone who didn't exactly look like George Washington, never realized the potential for a prominent career in public service until he saw Sen. Daniel Inouye in the Watergate hearings.

Representation matters. And in a society where people are still superficially classified and pre-judged by their race and gender, it really matters.

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