Can you paint with all the colors in your mind?

Disclaimer: This blog post is not primarily about Pocahontas, but also, kind of all about Pocahontas. Allow me to explain.
About a year ago today, I was putting the finishing touches on my first play. It takes place in the future, and at its heart, is a long allegory for Alzhemiers’ disease. I remember swinging by the office of an old professor of mine (just by timing. The man is in better shape than me.) and telling him all about my play. We discussed themes, length and that one joke I put in there about buzzfeed. But the thing that sticks out the most was when we talked about the characters’ themselves.
Specifically, their colors.
It kind of went like this.
Professor Man: …Are your characters any particular ethnicity?
Me: With the exception of Cheng, I wasn’t really specific. I thought they could be played by anyone.
Professor Man: Interesting…do you normally create characters like that, or are they usually the same race as you? (Black/Puerto Rican)
That was the big question that got me to think: what color do I create in? When considering characters for stories, what do they look and sound like? I went back and look at the last seven or eight ideas I created. In all of those stories/plays/dark musicals, there was at least one black or Hispanic character. And if they weren’t the lead, then the lead character had no defined race, and in some cases, not even a defined gender. But even if it wasn’t explicit on paper, when I imagined those faceless leads: they looked a lot like me or my sisters.
The reasoning for this is pretty obvious. I want to picture myself as the intelligent badass who has unlimited resources and allies in my fight against evil, or the ridiculously strong, yet sensitive leader of the group. But then that got me thinking: If my mind works like that, does the same go for all other creators? Is our own color our default setting for a story? More often than not, I think that’s the case.
Black directors are expected to direct movies about black characters. The script should also be adapted by a black writer. This is not to say it’s a bad thing whatsoever. Or to say that this is always the case. Taylor Hackford gave us a fantastic movie about Ray Charles, and he was a white director. But nine times out of 10, there seems to be a societal expectation that a black director would be by the camera. Which is again, not nearly close to being a bad thing: except that minorities are just that in Hollywood.
In every area of entertainment be it directing, acting, screenwriting, or anything else, you will tend to find more Caucasians than people of any color. If my theory from earlier is correct, and artists create using their “color” more often than not and apply to Hollywood, that would lead to one conclusion: We will continue to see more films with white male leads. Now, I know I’m not blowing off the lid of any big conspiracy theory here. You could have guessed all of this from just looking at the Academy Award selections this year. I bring this up because maybe the reason we don’t see different cultures represented more often is not because of bigotry, but because of difficulty.
Let’s go to Pocahontas again. Although Disney skimped on some of the details, they had to do more than just make up a story from scratch. They had to research culture. They had to take create complex animation to accurately capture bodies and shapes in the correct way. They even met with an Algonquin nation in Virginia to get a better idea of accuracy. Yes, they took liberties with the material, but you cannot deny that they put in the effort to understand Native American culture before they were able to make the story they did…and it paid off.
So why don’t more artists do this? Controversy. Although I wish I could remember the exact book, I remember that a man of Asian descent wrote a book about the experience of being a black maid in the south through the 1800’s. Some people were upset because they felt that there was no way that an Asian man was qualified to tell that story. But did the people who criticized him read the book? Or see what his primary resources were? I don’t have those answers. But I do know if Michael Bay offered to tell the story of Malcolm X, we’d hear similar rebuttal. (and see lots of explosions)
Again, I know I’m not breaking new ground here. It is clear that minorities are still just that in American media. And that stories about them should be treated with honesty, dignity and by people who truly understand their experience. Realistically, it’s going to take many, many, many years before Hollywood can say there’s a completely equal number of artists creating in a rainbow color coalition of people that covers every gender, sexuality and race. But maybe the path that leads there is proving that we want to see our entertainment in every color. Go see Milk. Take your friends to Selma. Flip a coin on Tyler Perry. If Hollywood sees a demand, they will respond with a supply of different movies, which in turn will lead to wider minority representation, which in turn, leads to that beautiful rainbow I talked about earlier.
Artists often create in their own image. I’m no exception. If we want to see more colors out there, we need to take the artist by the hand, lead them to new culture, point and say,
“You can paint with these colors too.”


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