03/21/2016 11:24 EDT | Updated 03/22/2017 05:12 EDT

Diversity Begets Diversity In Film And Television

VALERY HACHE via Getty Images
British actress Hannah John Kamen poses during a photocall for the TV show 'Killjoys' at the MIPCOM audiovisual trade fair in Cannes, southeastern France, on October 6, 2015. Held each year on the French Riviera, the audiovisual trade fair brings together the movers and shakers of the global entertainment business to network, talk shop and buy, sell and finance new content. AFP PHOTO / VALERY HACHE (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

The issue of diversity and representation in movies and TV has come to the fore in recent years. Including the controversy a few weeks ago surrounding the American Oscars in which all the acting nominees were white. It's a complex, multi-faceted discussion. Should one be pointing fingers at the Oscars -- or at the movies themselves?

Just how fractious the issue is can be seen in African-American Oscar host Chris Rock satirically berating the Academy for the lack of black roles and then obtusely making jokes that were seen as racist toward Asians.

Of course there are those who say there is no issue and non-white people should go off and make their own movies if they don't like it (pretty much making the point critics have, which is that way too many people see the entertainment business as a "white" industry and non-white people are only allowed to visit).

So if you're one of those, feel free to stop reading now. 'Cause the adults want to have a conversation.

All this kind of got me thinking about a comment I read a while back from Michelle Lovretta, the creator of the Canadian sci-fi action series, Killjoys.

Killjoys focuses on a trio of bounty hunters in a distant solar system. The lead character is Dutch, played by Hannah John-Kamen, joining a long list of sci-fi/fantasy heroines on Canadian TV. It's an intriguing trend I haven't seen too many people write about. Despite the fact that it's fairly atypical when compared to American sci-fi/fantasy series which are mostly driven by male-heroes. But I've lamented before there remains a dearth of serious analysis of Canadian TV and film in magazines and webzines.

Just as an example of this gender aspect: there were three sci-fi series with a Canadian connection that premiered within the last year: Killjoys, Dark Matter (both Canadian-Canadian) and The Expanse (more an American-driven series with a Canadian contingent). Dark Matter it could be argued features a female lead. It's an ensemble, but Melissa O'Neil's "Two" certainly seems front and centre. While The Expanse -- though also an ensemble -- seems more squarely to have white men (Thomas Jane, Steven Strait) as the nominal leads.

The origin of this female-centric theme in Canadian sci-fi/fantasy was, I suspect, Sanctuary -- which was one of the first all-Canadian conceived fantasy/sci-fi series to develop a "cult" fandom (previously Canadian sci-fi/fantasy series were mostly based on American properties or driven by American creators).

Storytelling, you see, is imitative. Both from a mercenary point of view (if something sells, the suits immediately want to replicate it) but also from a creative point of view. Writers (and filmmakers) are inspired by what came before. Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin read Tolkien in his youth, while Tolkien was inspired by old legends and sagas. Or consider how many spy characters are defined by James Bond -- George Smiley is described as the "anti-Bond", Modesty Blaise is the "female-Bond", Ethan Hunt is the "American-Bond," and so on.

Stories that come before influence the stories of today.

Which brings us back to that comment from Michelle Lovretta. Killjoys' star Hannah John-Kamen is a black British actress which I had assumed was just a happenstance of casting. Right wing reactionaries would, on the other hand, no doubt throw themselves to the floor and sob hysterically that it's Political Correctness Run Amok!

Turns out it wasn't either of those things.

Turns out Lovretta was leaning toward a black heroine -- possibly with a British accent -- because of black heroines she'd seen in previous sci-fi thrillers, citing Angela Bassett, Zoe Saldana, and most especially British actress Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later. Because Lovretta had seen black actresses in such roles, it opened her mind to the idea of casting a black actress when it came time to create her own sci-fi action heroine. (As no doubt the sub-textual bisexuality of Xena: Warrior Princess paved the way for the bisexual heroine in Lovretta's previous series, Lost Girl).

Now if you're a fan of Killjoys (which I kind of am) then you're glad Lovretta was so inspired and kept the casting door open until John-Kamen came along.

The point is: when people resist more open casting, in a lot of cases they don't really think they have any particular prejudice. They are acting upon a vague feeling. It feels "right" to them to have a white man as the hero because those are the heroes they grew up with, that inspired them to then create their own stories. It feels "normal." Until someone comes along, challenges that norm -- and they realize, 'Hey, this works, too!' Perhaps a few years down the line some later creator will cite Killjoys as an inspiration in the shaping of their characters.

This doesn't just relate to race or gender. If you've read some of my previous pieces, you'll know a recurring theme with me is Canadiana -- and the way too many Canadian movies and TV shows pretend they aren't Canadian. Or else they present Canada in a soft, almost Bowdlerized sort of way (as if Canadian references are dirty and unsavoury) carefully excising any Canadian colloquialism or reference from the dialogue in favour of "Anytown, North America" or "Generica." Their argument is that setting their story in Canada would be strange, preventing the story from being "universal" -- the same argument used when filmmakers explain why their hero has to be a white man.

But the reality is simply that they didn't grow up with anything different. And because storytelling is imitative -- they have trouble imagining it.

That's kind of the thing when people complain about lack of diversity in movies and TV shows (and in awards shows). It's less about the current crop of productions then the fact that it will continue to influence the next crop and the crop after that.

Things only change when people push outside the conventional boxes -- which then might lead to the next generation of storytellers opening up their imaginations to the possibilities.

Which, come to think of it, is precisely what the people who argue against diversity are probably most afraid of.

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