Would George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead be the cultural icon it is if Ben had been played by a white man?
In researching the history of horror films for another project, a clear answer appeared: no, it would not. The racial subtext of the group dynamics within the film that continues to be subject to significant critical attention, the infuriating continued relevance of the film’s (in)famous conclusion, in which Ben, the lone survivor, is shot and killed by the armed posse that should have been his salvation—all of this would disappear if the role of Ben had gone to a white actor instead of Duane Jones. Sure, all other factors being equal, it would likely still be a key horror film, but it wouldn’t be the behemoth it remains to this day.
There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity and representation in entertainment in recent years, both on-screen and behind the camera. Discussions of on-screen representation in particular usually focus on one of two things. The first is statistical reports and surveys regarding the status of representation in the entertainment industry, and reactions to these reports. The general takeaway is that things are embarrassingly bad. Occasionally the storm cloud has a silver lining in the form of trends moving in the right direction, albeit slowly, but the overall picture is still bleak. The second category involves emphasizing the importance of on-screen representation from a viewer’s perspective—the value of seeing characters, and particularly protagonists, who look like you, whose experiences and identity are significantly relatable. The value of feeling seen, acknowledged, important.
While both of these arguments are essential, they present an incomplete picture. Notably, they both stress an altruistic interpretation of the value of diversity on-screen. That is, that embracing diversity is morally right, and to deny people representation is unjust. Of course, both of these things are true. That said, rhetorically speaking, emphasizing altruism is a questionable strategy because human beings are not, on the whole, terribly altruistic. We try—at least, some of us do—but it’s rarely our default setting. Altruism is not a winning survival strategy. The Giving Tree concludes, “and the tree was happy, but not really,” because the tree was giving and the world is cruel. Being too generous is a one-way road to becoming an exploited stump. An incredibly effective reminder to appreciate your mother more, The Giving Tree also serves as a relevant commentary on the human condition through the character of the boy, because we are fundamentally a bunch of selfish bastards, as confirmed by the field of game theory.
So yes, embracing diversity is the right thing to do on several different levels and for a very long list of genuine reasons. But historically speaking, “it’s the right thing to do” has not tended to be a winning argument in the absence of other factors. Sure, there have been times when people have done the right thing, but usually, other incentives also played an important role. The “right thing” argument tends to hold a lot of weight in Hollywood movies, though, which is perhaps why we use it so much when talking about representation in film, even though the thing we want to change is a real-world issue where real-world selfishness applies.
But luckily, there are far more selfish reasons to support diversity and increased representation on screen, even though they have been relatively neglected thus far. The first one is, unsurprisingly, money—Black Panther is currently the second highest-grossing film of the year, only behind Avengers: Infinity War, and Crazy Rich Asians also raked in a mint. Both films have the sort of profit margins that send a very clear message that not only are people of color hungry to see themselves spotlighted by Hollywood fare and happy to shell out the cash to prove it, but also a critical mass of white moviegoers are happy to put the shoe on the other foot. Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are not the first films to have demonstrated this, but having two gigantic successes of this nature in the same year is the sort of double-underline-exclamation-point message often needed to actually drive home the point in a significant way.
The money angle has been discussed elsewhere, but there is another argument to be made in favor of more diverse representation for less altruistic reasons that have been largely ignored: diversity adds meaning. It doesn’t require racializing the narrative or anything of that nature, simply not defaulting to white male can add significance and texture to a film. As in the case of George Romero casting Duane Jones as Ben, a character not specifically written to be a Black man, simply casting someone who is not white in a significant role can have a significant impact on a film. In outcome, whether this decision was made serendipitously or with considered forethought, the outcome was the same: if Night of the Living Dead had defaulted white, as films generally continue to do to this day, it would have been a lesser film regarding both impact and legacy. And while Night of the Living Dead is one of the most significant examples of this trend, it is not alone.
To connect a recent release, consider Overlord, an entertaining genre mashup that adds Nazi zombies to WWII with the logic that Hitler recruited scientists to discover the secret of eternal life because a Thousand-Year Reich needs soldiers that will live 1000 years (one imagines that the entire film spawned from this plot bunny). It’s flashy, it’s fun, and it does that horror movie thing where a character’s intelligence varies hugely between scenes (at one point, for example, a character drops a flamethrower instead of taking it with them). It is, by no stretch of the imagination, food for thought.
And yet, in casting Jovan Adepo as the hero, Private Ed Boyce, who both discovers and leads the charge against the secret Nazi research laboratory, the film does have a subtle element of depth. While some reviewers have claimed that Overlord is “entirely apolitical,” through casting Adepo as the lead this is not, whether by accident or design, actually true. Secretive and unethical human experimentation did occur throughout the 20th century, and the vast majority of the people subjected to these horrific breaches of medical ethics were people of color. When Ed doesn’t tell his superiors about the Nazi research at the end of the film for concerns of what the US might do with the knowledge, the thought of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for example, gives the exchange chilling relevancy. Of course, plenty of viewers will watch the film and just enjoy the gory fun. But there are intriguing connections there to be made.
Diversifying on-screen representation is the right thing to do. But when appealing to the industry’s better angels, it’s worthwhile to recall the far more selfish arguments in favor of taking action. It’s not just morally demanded, but the smartest course of action.