Diversifying the screen

The Covid-19 pandemic may have stalled the entertainment industry, but only for a brief moment because 2021 has a fresh and diverse slate of releases for movie-goers to look forward to. With the announcement that most films will be released in a hybrid-format, meaning they debut in open theatres and a streaming platform, people around the world can enjoy these upcoming films regardless of what sort of quarantine they are in.

However if there is one thing we have learned about the entertainment industry, it is that it is in need of rapid change. Since the event of the "Black Lives Matter" protests in June 2020 and the subsequent fierce call for racial equality in the U.S. it has become clear that if there is one thing in need of more diversity, it is films.

"It is important for African Americans to play lead roles because it legitimizes their point of view as told from a cultural perspective," said senior Alexa Calip. Hollywood is built upon storytelling, and Calip believes there is no one more apt to tell a story than one from that particular culture.

"2014's "Selma" was [a portrayal] of the Civil Rights [movement] and told from the African American perspective... It would be a misrepresentation of the culture to have anyone else play that role," reminded Calip.

In the past 10 years or so movies has made large steps toward featuring African American actors and actresses in primary roles rather than background characters. There have been amazing and impactful films such as "12 Years A Slave" and "Hidden Figures," but there have also been the lackluster movies that obviously only wanted to quiet dissenters or poke fun at racial stereotypes. In 2021 though, the American film industry has opened its eyes and begun to include African Americans in serious, emotional and front-and-center roles, and that is immensely exciting.

Calip shares in this excitement, as she believes that when African Americans are casted in lead roles it "normalizes the race and audience will see that African Americans are from all walks of life," so that African American actors and actresses will no longer be limited to the stereotypical roles of drug dealers and gang members.

As we celebrate Black History Month this February, delve into this list of films being released in 2021 that feature African American actors and actresses in their lead roles.

1. Malcolm and Marie

Netflix original starring John David Washington and Zendaya brings back the classicism of black-and-white drama to the screen. "Malcolm and Marie" follows a filmmaker and his girlfriend just after a celebratory movie premiere, and depicts the evolution of their relationship as they come to terms with each of their past struggles. A cinematic ode to achingly romantic dramas and great Hollywood romances, this Sam Levinson (Euphoria) directed film does not present an action-packed night, but rather something more introspective and well... real. With two leads such as Zendaya and Washington, anticipation is high and hearts are being prepared for breaking. Not much else has been revealed about this movie, but the trailer promises strong themes of jealousy, insecurity, honesty and real, tangible love. The plot may be simple, but perhaps that is what is needed during these times of turmoil, especially when it is being delivered by two such prominent and inspiring actors.

"Malcolm and Marie" will be released on Netflix on Feb. 5.

2. Respect

Perhaps one of the most recognizable names in the entertainment industry to date, Aretha Franklin is finally receiving her own biographical drama, directed by Liesl Tommy and justly titled "Respect." The music-packed film follows Franklin's journey to stardom and the obstacles she conquered in order to earn the title "Queen of Soul." This upcoming movie has such a promising team behind it, including the legend Franklin herself until her 2018 death. Judging from the trailer, "Respect" will sparkle with the talent of Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Tituss Burgess and Mary J. Blige.

The queen arrives with the theatre debut of "Respect" on Aug. 13.

3. Coming 2 America

There is nothing we are no longer strangers to during quarantine than rediscovering our nostalgic favorites, and the long-awaited "Coming To America" sequel makes that very clear. Starring Eddie Murphy, "Coming 2 America" brings all of your original favorites alongside very promising and fresh faces. While primarily a comedy, "Coming 2 America" is the light-hearted yet diverse film the U.S. needs during such dire times. Rather than searching for his queen, King Akeem returns to New York to search for his long lost son, the next heir to the kingdom. "Coming 2 America" promises the same humor and wholesomeness that the original brought movie-goers, and comes at a perfect time when the industry is in need of diverse characters and exposure to such a prominent culture.

King Akeem returns when "Coming 2 America" debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Mar. 5.

4. Space Jam: A New Legacy

In keeping with the theme of nostalgia, 2021 will also see the return of Bugs Bunny and the world of "Space Jam," this time with LeBron James taking the spaceship wheel. Upon the release of the original, basketball star Michael Jordan took over every child's screens and sky-rocketed to even more fame, if that was even possible. Now it is LeBron James' turn to fly high into space and establish his own movie legacy. Like the original, "Space Jam: A New Legacy" brings the iconic nostalgia of favorite cartoon characters to the modern world, as well as promises a continuation of diversity on screen.

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" will debut on HBO Max on Jul. 16.

5. In The Heights

Possibly more long-awaited and highly demanded is "In The Heights," the film adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name. "In The Heights" was originally slated for a summer 2020 release but due to Covid-19 was pushed to summer 2021. With music penned by "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, there is no better film to end this list than one packed not just with black leads, but a cast full of people of color. "In The Heights" follows Usnavi, Vanessa, Nina and Benny around the Latinx Washington Heights neighborhood as they fight against gentrification as well as fight for their dreams. Anthony Ramos (Usnavi), Melissa Barrera (Vanessa), Ariana Greenblatt (Nina) and Corey Hawkins (Benny) promise a night full of salsa music and tremendous dancing. Miranda and close-friend and "Hamilton" castmate Christopher Jackson even make heartwarming appearances. Just from the trailer, it is easy to see that "In The Heights" will be the highlight of the summer and bring a whole new look into the lives of immigrants and their dreams of success.

"In The Heights" will air both in theatres and on HBO Max on Jun. 18.


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