Exploring minority representation in the biggest box-office winners ever
White heroes, who are also overwhelmingly male, have more narrative importance and screen time in the most popular films than racial minorities who are often portrayed as sidekicks, villains, and anonymous extras in a crowd—if they are present at all. The characterization of white characters and the ways in which they become heroic directly correlates to the representation of racial minorities as lesser. These stereotypical representations are often standardized, interwoven in plots in ways that make them invisible or unnoticed. Such racial stereotypes are often an integral part of the story arc of the white characters even if they may seem small or insignificant.
American movies since their inception have relied on racist stereotypes as an essential part of the medium. One way to combat racial stereotypes is to recognize them when they arise—which is just what we've done with the ensuing slideshow, which examines how 10 of the biggest box office winners of all time represent people of color. In doing so, we can learn more about the prominence of stereotypes and racist depictions.
The following 10 films are selected from the top 50 in Box Office Mojo's top domestic grossing films of all time as adjusted for inflation; note that the films in Stacker's list are not presented in any order. Though there are significant outliers, most of these films feature lead actors who are white. Significantly, when minorities are cast in major roles, racial dynamics change in positive ways. America's most popular films almost always miss the mark when it comes to positive, respectful characterizations of racial minorities. Those misses have significant repercussions, as do the progressive shifts in some films, so it's vital to understand what's going on with racial minorities in the biggest box office winners ever.
Read on to explore minority representation in the biggest box-office winners of all time.
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Gone With the Wind (1939)
Hattie McDaniel won the 1939 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy, a white woman's willing maid, during the Civil War-era South. She was the first African American to win an Oscar, and no other black woman would win this award until Whoopi Goldberg did for her 1990 role in “Ghost.”
“Gone With the Wind,” a movie that laments the end of slavery, is arguably the most popular American film of all time. Like “Birth of a Nation” (1915), "Gone With the Wind" romanticizes Ku Klux Klan activity, and offers sympathy to the white protagonist Ashley (Leslie Howard) after he's shot during a skirmish at “shanties” where impoverished black people dwell. Ashley and other white men retaliate for an attack on Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), even though her primary attacker was a white man. A former slave, Big Sam (Everett Brown), saves her—a moment that fortifies the value of white women as pure and desirable.
Black characters in "Gone With the Wind" are presented as simple and willingly servile. Mammy claims, in stereotypical black dialect, “I done diapered three generations of this family's girls, and it sure is a happy day.” Her character offers the fantasy that taking care of white people provides fulfillment—a repugnant notion that doesn't accurately represent the experience of black slaves or “free” servants.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epic is notable for its crudely stereotypical representation of racial minorities. In one scene, the people of Ethiopia—black extras in colorful “tribal” garb—are presented to the Pharaoh as exotic treasure. Further, white actors are cast in all the major roles, including Charlton Heston as the Egyptian Moses.
Yul Brynner, a Russian American, stars as the Pharaoh Ramses. Edward G. Robinson plays the Israeli Dathan, and, like many of the other actors, creates “ethnicity” with obviously darkened skin and blackened eyebrows. Such techniques akin to blackface make race a caricature and dehumanize nonwhite people by making their identities costumes.
Hollywood has a long tradition of whitewashing history by casting white actors to play the majority of prominent roles, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the character. Such casting is problematic because it creates the illusion of a world in which white people are the most prominent, heroic, and vital. In this case, since Heston also provides the voice of the “burning bush,” the casting suggests God is also a white male.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Musicals create the fantasy of social utopias. They present a world where characters erupt into spontaneous songs that offer perfect choreography and lock-stepped joy. Numerous musicals and family films comprise some of the biggest box-office hits of all time. In “Mary Poppins,” Julie Andrews stars as an English nanny who moves through all-white spaces of domestic bliss and animated revelry.
Euphoric dance numbers in films often only portray the happiness of white people. In this way, they represent the absence, or marginalization, of anyone who is not white from such spaces. The film is adapted from P. L. Travers' “Mary Poppins” novels, which contain racist language that compares darkened chimney sweeps to black people.
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner persuasively argues in the New York Times that the Disney film adaptation references the racism in the novels, and parodies the threat of “black menace” through soot-covered chimney sweeps. These references in the film are brief—the use of an archaic slur, and a reference to Hollywood's history of blackface (when Poppins uses soot to powder her face). However, these allusions, as Pollack-Pelzner contends, follow a long tradition of black minstrel references in Disney films and cartoons.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
This stylish revisionary Western casts two dashing leading men, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, as the titular, mythic, true-to-life outlaws who were wanted in the U.S before embarking on a turn-of-the-century crime spree in South America to avoid capture at home. Like many films that focus on white criminals, audiences sympathize with the lawbreakers, reveling in their actions and silently cheering when they get away with it.
Indeed, though the Bolivian army finally descends upon the two, the film ends with a freeze-frame before the unlikely protagonists meet their bullet-ridden demise. In that sense, the two escape the brutal, bloody deaths they've inflicted upon the locals—brown-skinned Bolivians, mostly bit players and extras—who come across as hapless dimwits. In one scene six Bolivian robbers are shot to death by the leading duo. Despite the odds, the Bolivians die in slo-mo, screaming and suffering, in sharp contrast to the white leads who endure injury with gritted teeth while looking handsome.
There's also an extended “comedic” sequence involving the heroes' frustration with any language beyond English. There are no subtitles when Bolivians speak, furthering their foreignness and status as “other,” and ensuring the audience cares less about their fate.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Representation of minorities in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” may be best exemplified by Indiana Jones's iconic fight with the exotic, saber-wielding Egyptian man in the Cairo market. Indy (Harrison Ford) pulls out his modern gun and shoots the primitive caricature.
Steven Spielberg's epic hit features locations from across the world, but the folks who populate these locales—South American tribesmen, Nepalese henchmen, and turbaned Egyptians—are shown as luckless and simple, especially when compared to the hero. The film opens with the leading man stealing an artifact, an act the audience sympathizes with, while his brown-skinned sidekick (Alfred Molina) behaves with childlike cowardice and greed, thus meeting a gruesome death in a booby trap.
These stereotypes create a backdrop for what's presented as the more compelling drama between Jones, his French nemesis, and various evil Nazis. In the sequence when the villains steal the ark and re-kidnap Indy's love interest from a ship, the crew of brown-skinned and black minorities, minor characters, cheer on the white hero, happy to help and eager to applaud his superhuman derring-do.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Eddie Murphy catapulted to stardom in the 1980s, making him one of a few leading black actors who were also top box-office draws, like Sidney Poitier and Richard Pryor before him. Murphy's wisecracking comedic genius made “Beverly Hills Cop,” an otherwise rote action caper, the highest-grossing film of 1984—rare for a movie with an R rating.
Murphy plays Axel Foley, a detective from gritty Detroit, who's plunked into ritzy Beverly Hills to investigate a murder. The opening credits feature footage of black people in urban squalor that later contrasts with the posh and mostly white locales of Southern California. The class conflict becomes part of the comic milieu, dependent on Foley's outsider status when it comes to wealth. Foley exhibits exceptional wit and bravery in shoot-'em-up scenes, while his mostly all-white cop colleagues bungle like buffoons and crash their cars in pile-ups.
Foley's superiority doesn't come across as threatening, however, since he's maintaining the status quo of wealthy, white culture, and the white bad guy is vaguely foreign. Further, he's a leading man without a love interest. In fact, in an extended, homophobic bit, Foley poses as a gay man. While audiences considered this uproarious, the sequence makes Murphy's masculinity less threatening. Several scenes display Foley's unlawful arrests and obvious racial profiling at the hands of cops, providing moments that allow white audiences to recognize this unfair treatment and understand the risks to black men even when they have power.
Forrest Gump (1994)
“Forrest Gump” is a seminal 1990s film that's recognized by film scholars for displaying conservative values. It used CGI, what would subsequently become known as Photoshopping, to insert Tom Hanks as Gump into documentary-like footage of a series of vital historical events across the 1960s. In that case, the mentally disabled Gump alters history and effects major cultural and political events—without being educated or particularly notable.
The film presents whiteness, when combined with a lack of smarts, as both innocent and also highly effective. Gump becomes powerful and exceptional, living a hero's life through times in which racial minorities were oppressed and fighting for rights in a major movement. “Forrest Gump” erases the far less tidy American history of the 1960s in favor of the “history” of Gump himself.
The film bypasses the civil rights movement and has Gump play savior to his black soldier friend Bubba, played by Mykelti Williamson. The actor wore a prosthetic to make his lip protrude, one that references a deeply racist caricature of black facial features.
While the Na'vi tribe of the sci-fi epic “Avatar” are peaceful and wise, they're also primitive. Though these characters are rendered via CGI, most Na'vi are portrayed by nonwhite actors. They're characterized by stereotypes based on unspecified tropes that seem African, Native American, or hailing from multiple indigenous groups without specificity.
They're also a human-animal hybrid with tails and highly tuned natural instincts. These characteristics combine to reference offensive stereotypes since racial minorities, especially Native Americans, are throughout history stereotyped as “savages.” Further, so many racial stereotypes play on dangerous ideas around the “animal” nature of minorities who are then treated as such. “Avatar” uses so many stereotypical tropes that indicate nonspecified racial minorities (hair braids, tribal garb, primitive weaponry, and mystical powers) that the positive aspects of the Na'vi people cannot override the negative.
Though the film depicts the violent colonial takeover of an “unsullied” natural landscape, it is ultimately the story of a white man's introduction to this world. Sam Worthington stars as a disabled marine, and though he prefers the natives of Pandora, he becomes their white savior, another stereotypical trope.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
When the first entry of the “Star Wars” franchise premiered in 1977 it presented a galaxy far, far away that was mostly populated with white people. Throughout the franchise, most nonwhite representation focuses on creatures and aliens who populate the background as “other.”
Though the major African American star James Earl Jones voiced Darth Vader, physically the character was represented by a dark caped costume and evil mystery. The franchise made tepid strides in later installments by casting Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, but it was also criticized for crude black stereotypes in the character of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best).
When the 2015 redux cast a black actor in a major role, John Boyega as Finn, the franchise finally featured, and focused on, a character of color. Finn is a rich and heroic protagonist, but as Lonnae O'Neal argues in the Washington Post, he is not the hero of the story; rather, he but must share that status with a white woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is arguably more courageous and important.
Black Panther (2018)
The ultra-popular comic book blockbuster “Black Panther” features black actors in all major roles, and as importantly, these roles represent black people in positive ways with strong, proud identities removed from dominant white culture. The movie represents black culture with power and richness that has been rare in popular film.
Further, though the flourishing nation of Wakanda is monarchical, black women feature in prominent parts and play key roles in saving the day. Though the greedy villain Klaw is white, his plot is tangential to the much more crucial conflict between T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
Arguably, this rivalry is rich beyond conventional superhero clashes because though the hero T'Challa takes center stage, Killmonger makes some notable points: He's not a stereotypical angry black man, but one whose rage feels justified. Yes, he wants power, but he's also sympathetic because he's motivated by resistance to American oppression toward people of color: a stance rarely represented in popular film, but front and center in “Black Panther.”