Coming-of-Age Films Still Lack Diversity

A clip from the well-acclaimed LGBTQ+ film “Love, Simon”

Coming-of-age films, showcasing the transition from adolescence into adulthood through legal, sexual, spiritual or emotional maturity, have been a part of every generation. The American people literally grew up with this genre of film. Hollywood gave us Rebel Without a Cause, starring heartthrob James Dean, in 1955. The 80s and 90s gave us many popular cult classics such as Pretty in Pink (1986), Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1984), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Clueless (1995) and Stand By Me (1986).

Coming-of-age films have been prevalent throughout the generations. Known to showcase the transition from adolescence into adulthood through legal, sexual, spiritual, and emotional maturity, they have grown to play a significant role in shaping media culture. 

The American people, in particular, grew up with this movie genre. In 1955, Hollywood made waves by giving us Rebel Without a Cause, starring heartthrob James Dean. The 80s and 90s saw many popular cult classics come to life, such as Pretty in Pink (1986), Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1984), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Clueless (1995) and Stand By Me (1986). And much recently, Heathers (1989) has seen a surge in popularity.

Now, let us fast-forward into the twenty-first century. Hollywood has mirrored the socially progressive movements of late through female-centric coming-of-age films of critical acclaim, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Academy Award-nominated Lady Bird (2017).

Are these films all unique in their own way? Yes.

But they have some things in common? Absolutely.

They all have a stark lack of POC representation.

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Lady Bird (2017) via Slate

As found by the annual UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, 2017 (the same year Lady Bird was released), saw white people remaining over-represented in top film roles, comprising a whopping 77% of all lead roles. Black people had 9% of the roles, with Natives only landing an unfortunate 0.4%. That year was also an all-time low for ethnic women, with only 29 black women leading the top films of that year and zero Native American women represented. What this means is that despite making up about 40% of American population, people of color made up less than 20% of film leads.

Contrary to what Hollywood might think about the adolescence and teenage experience, white children don’t have the same childhood experience as children of color. Filmmakers must understand that non-white kids simply cannot entirely relate to white suburban teenagers, portrayed as defying their parents and wilding out at parties. For them, everything seems to go their way at the end (which is arguably the plot of many white coming-of-age films).

Of course, the youth of color can be able to relate to or enjoy many white-centric coming-of-age movies. Still, it is indubitable that these movies are not something they can connect with entirely.

Also, while people of color are pushing for more representation, it does not mean poverty, racism, and violence should fill the silver screens. 

For instance, Boyz n the Hood (1991) is generally agreed to be one of the most influential black-led, coming-of-age film of the 90s. Featuring several iconic black actors like Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut and Angela Bassett, it received a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But while its reception is excellent, it is seriously harmful to neglect black representation outside of the general narrative of drug and gang violence in poor, dangerous neighborhoods.

Other black coming-of-age films include Academy Award-winner Moonlight (2016) and Dope (2015). But that is just two movies compared to the dozens of films catered to white youth.

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Moonlight (2016) via Section925

Another marginalized group that deserves more elaborate screen-time is first-generation immigrants. Close to three million first-generation children live in America. Just like Americans of color, they are severely underrepresented on screen. Non-white immigrants have been portrayed as terrorists and criminals for decades (Arab bombers, Korean terrorists, etc.). As a result, it gives the impression that these are the only roles people of color can get. Recently, Academy Award winner Rami Malek refused to play a terrorist in the next James Bond film, unless the character was not an Arab-speaking religious fundamentalist. In short, he refused to play an Arab tied to harmful stereotypes- and for good reason.

The youth of color should be able to watch POC-led coming-of-age films that they can fully connect to. Young Asian kids should be able to watch a film free of stereotypes and filled with depth. Indigenous youth should see powerful, uplifted versions of themselves on screen. Young black teens should look forward to watching black-centric movies with plots near-void of racist undertones and police brutality. Not everything has to cater to white audiences. These concerns are not meant to discredit the small steps Hollywood has taken- after all; they are going in the right direction with expanding POC representation in film. 

Everyone should hope for a future wherein news of representation is no longer surprising- a future wherein it becomes a norm.