In 2015, the faces on screens big and small looked a little bit more like those in real life than they had in years past. Comic book characters who were people of color in print actually remained people of color through their transition from 2D to 3D. Falcon, for example, played by Anthony Mackie, appeared in 2 movies this year: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. And Falcon’s skin color remained the same on screen as on the page. Same goes for Luke Cage in Netflix’s deliciously gritty Jessica Jones series this fall. Sweet Christmas, actor Mike Colter’s performance was spot on as Jessica’s love interest and hero in his own right! In the Spring, Colter will reprise the role in a new Netflix series devoted to Luke Cage’s story.
This year also witnessed some traditionally white comic book characters portrayed by actors of color. For a while now in the Marvel universe, we’ve seen Nick Fury played by badass Samuel L. Jackson, despite the fact that he is white in the comic books. Likewise, gatekeeping god Heimdall has been portrayed by internet boyfriend Idris Elba in both of the Thor movies and in Avengers: Age of Ultron. New in 2015 was the portrayal Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four by African-American Michael B. Jordan, a casting decision that sparked a lot of controversy among comic-lovers and movie-goers alike. Similarly, John Boyega’s portrayal of a black Stormtrooper in the much-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens had certain vocal fans of the original trilogy borderline apoplectic. The casting really shouldn’t have been that notable, though, considering Jango Fett – the bounty hunter whose DNA was used to create the entire proto-Stormtrooper Clone Army – was played by Temuera Derek Morrison, an actor of Māori descent. How is one black (non-clone) Stormtrooper so dismaying?
It’s not like someone was casting a black Hermione. Oh, wait…
The casting of Olivier-award-winning actress Noma Dumezweni in the role of Hermione for the upcoming stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was also announced in 2015. Despite the fact that J.K. Rowling herself embraced the casting choice, a few Potter fans have taken issue. Loudly. Apparently a Muggle born with magic powers is easier to accept than a Hermione born in Swaziland. Stage theater has always been a bit more forward-thinking than its silver and small screen cousins, though change there has also been slow. This year, however, Broadway saw its first African American Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (the late Kyle Jean-Baptiste). It also welcomed its first black Phantom, in Phantom of the Opera (Norm Lewis) and its first ever African American Cinderella (veteran TV actor Keke Palmer, who starred in Nickelodeon’s True Jackson, VP).
Women also fared better than they often do in sci-fi and fantasy casting in both TV and film. There have been, in previous years, some exceptional female roles paving the way. Zoë Washburn, from Firefly and Serenity, is a memorable example. Joss Whedon can always be counted on to write powerful women like Zoë as leads, and actor Gina Torres brings a kickass browncoat swagger to everything she does – from Xena to Suits. In 2015 films, we saw the return of other road-pavers such as Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the final installment of Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, as well as Shailene Woodley’s reprise of Tris in Insurgent, the second installment of the Divergent Series franchise.
New characters like Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road riled some Men’s Rights groups by being at least as badass as Mel Gibson’s original dystopian hero and, of course, we have Rey. While the segment of the population that has a problem with a black Stormtrooper or a female road warrior may disagree, the newest Jedi on the block is fantastic. Daisy Ridley’s Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens has the spunk and drive of Leia; the pure, if reluctant, heart of Luke; and the reckless abandon of Han Solo. She is a worthy successor to the old school Star Wars protagonists. You might even say the force is strong with this one.
This year had a some standout female-fronted sci-fi and fantasy TV programming, as well. Melissa Benoist was well-received as Kara Danvers in Supergirl – not to be confused with the yet-to-be-cast character of Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, in the movie of the same name slated for a 2019 release. Krysten Ritter nailed the complex eponymous role of the already-mentioned Jessica Jones. In it, she captures the intricacies of this broken superhuman who continues doing what’s right despite PTSD and some serious emotional damage caused by her dashing and persuasive nemesis. Another excellent role and performance in Jessica Jones was that of Rachael Taylor as Patricia “Trish” Walker, who comic book fans will remember as Hellcat. Love for Walker has also spilled back onto the page, with Marvel releasing a new Hellcat series this year.
Another Netflix offering this year, Sense8, managed to hit an array of diversity high notes in what was an addictively engaging science fiction series. Sense8 was created, written and executive-produced by the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski – a film/TV/novel/comic book writer and producer so revered by the sci fi community he has an asteroid named after him. Sense8’s premise makes a cast of very disparate characters completely believable. The ensemble represents 8 different nationalities; 6 races; and several cultures, religions and socio-economic classes. It is roughly equal part male and female and its cast includes both hetero- and homo-sexual characters. Notably, the show features a transgender woman – a member of the final group that received some long-awaited screen time in 2015.
This year marked the first time that so many films and TV programs featuring transgender characters hit the mainstream. The Danish Girl, a biopic of Lili Elbe – the first person to receive gender-reassignment surgery – has made over $3.2 million at the box office since it finally went into wide release on Christmas day (after 4 weeks in select cites only). Stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander have already been nominated for 2016 Golden Globes and SAG Awards and are sure to be at the top of everyone’s Oscar’s nomination lists. The Amazon-produced TV show Transparent, about a family whose father has decided to transition into a woman, won 25 awards in 2015, including 5 Primetime Emmys, 2 SAG Awards and 2 Golden Globes. It’s been nominated for 3 more Golden Globes for 2016.
Orange is the New Black has been a favorite of critics and fans alike since the show began; one of the show’s compelling elements is the fact that its trans character, Sophia Burset, is actually played by a trans actor, Laverne Cox. In addition to Transparent and OITNB, a host of new programs – docu-series, reality shows and otherwise – have premiered or been announced this year. Caitlyn Jenner’s post-transition vehicle, I Am Cait, wrapped its first season in 2015 and has been renewed for a second one in 2016 by E!. TLC’s I Am Jazz is about 14-year-old trans activist Jazz Jennings, who was assigned male at birth, but identifies as female and is transitioning with the support of her family. I Am Jazz has also been picked up for a second season in 2016. Discovery Life’s 5-part series, New Girls on the Block, told the stories of a group of transgender women in different stages of life and transition, and ABC Family’s Becoming Us was a real-life version of Transparent.
With the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s 2015 research report review of films from 11 countries showing that only 31% of speaking roles in film are females and an even smaller 23% feature a female protagonist, it’s clear there’s still work to be done. If women remain this underrepresented, the other groups discussed here are even more so. And while this year brought advances toward greater representation of women, people of color, and people at different points along the spectra of gender and sexual orientation, there has been a small, but vocal, minority that opposes these changes. Some do so from a genuine devotion to the original work. Many of the most vocal opponents, however, reject change merely under the guise of being canon purists; others openly admit sexist or racist motivation. It is laudable that the relevant industries are refusing to pander to such bigotry.
We’re still a long way from having the world onscreen proportionally reflect the world we live in, but this year made it clear that we’re starting to move in that direction. The first step is making the roles available. As Viola Davis put it in her September 2015 acceptance speech upon becoming the first black woman to receive an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama (for How to Get Away with Murder), “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
From the perspective of how much work is left to be done before our art really reflects our reality, the progress made in 2015 may all seem like baby steps. Even so, they were steps in the right direction. Every time a producer, writer, or casting director creates more opportunity for the art and entertainment we consume to be delivered by casts rich in talent and diversity, we move farther down the path. And that path takes us to a place where all children can look at the storytellers onscreen or on stage and think, with a sense of legitimacy and belonging, “that person looks like me.”