Every year—for the past several years, without fail—a slew of articles come out boldly claiming that Hollywood has a straight white male problem. While I am grateful for the close monitoring of statistics on minority representation in Hollywood, everyone who is a minority is already very aware of this issue. I even think, by now, most of the straight white males are aware of it too. We need to start talking more about the solutions and not just the statistics. Now, we all know the obvious things that need to be done, mainly putting more minorities in positions of power in the industry, but we also need to look at how people with privilege can give representation to those without privilege. Many of us have privilege in one of our identities, whether it be in our race, gender, or sexuality. Besides, I don’t think straight white males are going to be banned in Hollywood anytime soon, no matter how many marginalized creators get their big break, so we need to talk about how they direct and write diverse characters too. One classic example of a person with privilege creating fantastic representation for a person of color is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 horror film written, directed, and edited by George A. Romero. It shows the struggles of seven people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse while trapped in an abandoned farmhouse. There are several main characters in Night of the Living Dead, but an African-American man named Ben is the one whom many consider to be the main hero of the film. He is the level-headed leader, the one who takes action, the one who calls the shots. It is Ben who comes up with the plans the audience sees put into action on screen, such as boarding up the windows and refueling the truck. While Ben struggles for control of the house against another character, Harry, the audience roots for Ben’s rightful place as leader because he is portrayed as a smart man speaking from a rational point of view as the others allow themselves to fall apart in fear. At the time Night of the Living Dead was released, it wasn’t unheard of to have films with black main characters, but to give Ben the same strength and power as the cool, tough, “do what you gotta do” white leads of the time was more rare.
While doing research for this article I found a quote from Romero about the making of Night of the Living Dead that perfectly sums up what I found so important about the film. The Wrap’s 2010 article “How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’” included the following quote from Romero:
“Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben. If there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme, like The Defiant Ones. Consciously I resisted writing new dialogue ‘cause he happens to be black. We just shot the script. Perhaps Night of the Living Dead is the first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race.”
The role of Ben was originally written for a white actor, but when Duane Jones auditioned they knew they had the right man for the part. What strikes me about the film when I watch it is that, although there is intense conflict and struggle for control between Ben and Harry, this conflict never includes racial epithets or relies on a character’s belief in white supremacy. Their struggles for control are never because Ben is black and Harry is white. I think that is so important.
People of colour can’t have the same narratives as white people. Women can’t have the same narratives as men. Queer people can’t have the same narratives as cisgender, straight people. None of this is true, but we often write movies as if it is. To constantly write parts for minorities based only on their minority status is to consistently Other them in our society. This mindset also limits the parts minority actors are given access to. If visibly marginalized actors can only play characters that are written to be marginalized, then they have to wait for that type of film to be written and funded instead of having access to every film. To never have movies that put diverse characters in situations that are divorced from their oppression is to enforce the idea that white straight males are the default human. Having all the struggles minority characters face in a film derive from their marginalized status keeps the idea that minority characters are somehow different from the norm in the audience’s mind. Yes, Ben would have faced a racist society, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t also be in a situation where he fought to be a leader amongst people who weren’t focused on his race. Ben being a black man certainly still has an effect on how the audience views the events of the film, but Romero, the white writer and director, did not force the character into a minority-only narrative.
I read through the University of California at Berkeley’s index of black representation in film for the year 1968, when Night of the Living Dead was released, and almost all the films centered around the black characters facing extreme prejudice and racism—movies about lynching, plantation owners, and hiding their black heritage to name a few. I am not saying these movies aren’t very important or that racism in our society should be erased on the big screen, because that is never a good solution, but I do believe that the people who choose when, how, and how many of these narratives are shown should be black creators, not white ones.
However, there is a caveat to my previous paragraphs. Although I believe directors and writers should start placing marginalized characters in narratives that have been typically reserved for non-marginalized identities, that doesn’t mean creators can go as far as ignoring that oppression exists in the real world. Stereotypes can hurt some more than others. Ben was originally written as an uneducated trucker with a dialect to match. While there is a whole discussion that could be done on how blue collar workers are portrayed in film, there is no denying that making a black character sound uneducated has different social implications than making a white character sound uneducated. Jones was a very educated man and wanted Ben to sound the same. Romero allowed Jones the flexibility to change the way Ben’s lines were said. Creators who wish to include characters they have privilege over in their films should give the actor who plays that character the flexibility to add their experience and voice to the film. Instead of boxing a character into a stereotype of what you think is the most “woke” representation of diversity, try writing a narrative that doesn’t focus on their identity and work collaboratively with the actor playing the character to ensure the character is a good representation of their identity. That is what George A. Romero did and that is why Duane Jones’s portrayal of Ben will continue to be a timeless example of good representation from a straight, white, male creator.