Hollywood, and entertainment in general, has long suffered from a lack of representation. Over the last few years, however, there have been notable improvements across the entertainment spectrum. Every notable medium, from comics to movies to television have seen some truly impressive markups in diversity, and they have paid off both in sales, box office revenues, and ratings. The importance of representation and diversity in entertainment cannot be understated, as everyone deserves the chance to see characters on the page or screen that look like them, that they can identify with. With the ever increasing diversity of our world, it only makes sense that entertainment should follow that trend.
In this list, we look at some of the best and most successful examples of diverse storytelling across various forms of media. This list is not arranged in any sort of hierarchy; it is not intended to rank any of these franchises, but simply to look across the spectrum at the representation they demonstrate.
17 Rogue One
This film was definitely one of the most representative films of the past year, and far and away the most inclusive flick the vaunted Star Wars franchise has featured to date. Young girls had another heroine to look up to in Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Hispanics could embrace a lead with an accent just like their own in Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and folks of Middle Eastern descent can see a technologically adept hero saving the day in Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The movie even features Asian actors portraying characters who are far more complex than the Fu Manchu ideal which plagues Hollywood.
This film more than succeeded in its presentation of a ragtag group of diverse heroes. Diego Luna has spoken on how hard director Gareth Edwards pushed for him to play Andor, the male lead of the adventure, and Felicity Jones was actually the highest paid cast member, which reflected the fact that she's the story's true lead (an all-too-uncommon occurrence for female stars). Edwards made his objective clear when speaking to Slate on the issue: “I think it’s about time that we represented the rest of the world.” The entire production of this film centered on the idea that even in a galaxy far, far away (perhaps especially there), diversity matters.
As far as the box office is concerned, Rogue One may not have quite measured up to The Force Awakens, but it's still been enormously successful. Despite releasing midway through December, the film finished as the fourth highest grossing movie of 2016, and its worldwide total is closing in on the billion dollar threshold. Not bad for the series' first anthology film.
16 Magnificent Seven
Westerns have a long history of misrepresentation and cultural appropriation. It is one of the most troublesome genres in film in these areas, with Native Americans and Hispanics often being portrayed as caricatures by white actors. While there were some critiques of The Magnificent Seven for its overall story, it did attempt to right some of those failings. Director Antoine Fuqua utilized characters from ethnicities that are often seen as worn-out sterotypes, using it as a chance to prove the importance of their portrayals.
The Magnificent Seven featured A-lister Denzel Washington as the headliner, turning the "white knight" trope on its head; Byung-hun Lee, who is South Korean, plays a skillful knife wielder; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, who is Mexican, is an intrepid, gunslinging outlaw; and Martin Sensmeier, who is Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan and an ambassador for the Native Wellness Institute, plays a thoughtful and highly adept Comanche warrior. While none of these broke from the mold of Western characters, it is worth reflecting on the honesty these actor’s portrayals had, as they could represent themselves, rather than a caricature of themselves, in this film.
The film received generally favorable reviews (it's currently sitting at a respectable 63% on Rotten Tomatoes) and was number one at the box office its opening weekend. Its $35 million opening was also the highest opening weekend ever for Fuqua.
15 Star Trek
The original series was built on the diversity that could be represented on daytime television at the time. In the pilot episode of Star Trek, creator Gene Roddenberry crafted a show that included a woman as first officer. Unfortunately, the production company requested a change -- one which Roddenberry reluctantly accepted. He would go on to assemble a crew that consisted not only of a woman serving on the bridge as an officer, but a black woman. He supported that with the creation of Sulu, portrayed by George Takei, and the other central characters ranged from Scottish to Irish to Russian.
That legacy continued with Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) as a female captain in Star Trek: Voyager, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) as a black captain in Deep Space Nine, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery, which will star Sonequa Martin-Green. Even the current rebooted film series has stuck with that diversity trend, casting Sofia Boutella as Jaylah (who honestly stole the show) in Beyond and introducing a newly expanded backstory for Sulu in which he was an out and proud gay man.
Star Trek has always been groundbreaking for its diverse castings and representations. Roddenberry was a true visionary for believing that humanity could aspire to be more than the violence so often seen in the world, and that that future included everyone.
14 Suicide Squad
Regardless of what DCEU detractors may say, DC certainly seems to have a leg up on Marvel in the diversity department. Despite the kooky plotline, Suicide Squad incorporated a unique blend of characters who demonstrated not only visual diversity, but lifestyle diversity. The film features Viola Davis as government official Amanda Waller, who assembles a ragtag team of villains to combat worse threats. Will Smith plays the squad's true leader, Deadshot, and Margot Robbie takes on the role of a lifetime in Harley Quinn, who will next be seen as the focus of the DCEU’s second female-led film, Gotham City Sirens. Director David Ayers told USA Today that the decision to feature such an eclectic cast was no accident, saying, “it’s important for kids to see people who look like them in movies.”
With the diversity of the cast, the film sought to present people on the fringe of society as the heroes and show that criminals are not inherently bad. Deadshot is an individual seeking to do right by his daughter, thereby upending the trope of the absent black father. Even El Diablo’s (Jay Hernandez) arc demonstrated the reality of gang life without glamorizing or demonizing it.
Although the film was not a critical success by any means, it did succeed in grossing beyond what other comparatively-budgeted superhero adventures have managed to chalk up, including 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier.
13 Orange is the New Black
This sensational Netflix show has captivated audiences with its adaptation of Piper Kerman’s book of the same name. While the lead character may be white, the supporting cast is comprised of women of various ethnicities and focuses on who they are outside of the stereotypes. It looks at the dynamics surrounding a group of women who may all be criminals, but are not all bad. From a morality perspective, OITNB seeks to bridge the divide between what people think of inmates and what they really are. There is also a complexity with which the characters are written that addresses the diversity, but avoids tokenism. These characters are not there to be in the background, they demand your attention (often with hilarity). Beyond this is a truly representative portrayal of a trans individual in the character of Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), as well as a more accurate and normalized representation of sexuality.
Selenis Leyva, who plays Gloria Mendoza, said that this show is important because “[studios need to know] you will make money. People will tune in.” In the case of OITNB, that could not be more apparent. Netflix announced that it’s season four premiere had a viewership of 6.7 million people on its release day, matching and exceeding the ratings of many network shows. People are definitely watching.
12 The Fast and the Furious
Arguably the best example of the success of a diverse film series is the long-running The Fast and the Furious franchise. With an eighth film in the works, this series proves that a diverse cast is not in fact a detraction (which is often the assumption of studios), and can actually propel a franchise into near cult idolization. In fact, it was reported that, from a box-office perspective, Furious 7 was the fourth highest grossing movie of all time, just below films like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Interestingly, 75% of its domestic audience was non-white. This franchise has capitalized on diversity, while still perpetuating ideals of inclusion and representation.
When speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Vin Diesel explained the transition from the mostly segregated groups of street racers in the original Fast and the Furious (2001) to the multicultural “family” that exists in the franchise now, and the importance of that: “It doesn’t matter what nationality you are. As a member of the audience, you realize you can be a member of that ‘family.’ That’s the beautiful thing about how the franchise has evolved."
11 The Force Awakens
Once again, Star Wars is improving on the universe from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In this introduction to the newest trilogy, they created a new main cast. It included the lost and as-of-yet-unknown parentage, Rey (Daisy Ridley), the former stormtrooper who just happens to be black, Finn (John Boyega), and the savagely suave X-Wing pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The film even incorporated a female villain in the form of Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), but that was less well received upon viewing the film, where she has only a few short scenes. Presumably, this visually intimidating character will appear in a more impressive manner in the remaining films.
The Force Awakens also succeeding in breaking box office records, bringing in an incredible $936 million domestically. The impact of this can be felt in the expansion of films to include anthology stories, as well as the introduction of a new Star Wars theme park at Disneyland.
As the galaxy continues to expand and Disney incorporates more stories beyond the main series, it will be interesting to see just who joins this increasingly diverse galaxy.
10 Mad Max: Fury Road
As amazing and cult-ish as the Mad Max series has always been, no one quite expected the impressive magnitude of Mad Max: Fury Road. It holds an astounding 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the site's top reviewed action & adventure film.
Not only was it visually stunning, with practical effects that flat-out blow your mind, but it got at the heart of a very real shortcoming in Hollywood: women as action heroes. Although it may be a Mad Max film, Furiosa is viewed by many as the main character. Charlize Theron and the former brides presented a compelling and unique view of the apocalypse, delving into issues of gender, sexual assault, ageism, and religion -- which is a lot for an action movie. But director George Miller pulled it off with aplomb, even using his wife Magaret Sixel as the film's editor (she won an Academy Award for her work), because “if a man did it, it would look like every other action movie.” In front of the camera and behind it, Miller presented the world with a new take on the action genre, and it’s coming up Furiosa. We're as excited for the sequel as Tom Hardy himself.
This Amazon show seeks to represent a family dynamic that must shift after the father (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out to the family as transgender Maura Pfefferman in season three, finally requesting to be called “mom.” It’s a quirky and heartfelt introspective look at gender and relationships. It's normalizing the discussion and understanding of gender through the antics of a dysfunctional family. Co-star and trans actress Alexandra Billings -- who plays Davina, a guide of sorts for Maura as she transitions -- said of the show, “It’s affecting the part of society in such a way that it’s changing the political climate when we talk about gender.”
And not only is it changing that dialogue, but it is being recognized for those efforts and for its production as a whole. It has been nominated for and won numerous Emmys and Golden Globes, including Best Performance by an Actor (Jeffrey Tambor) and Best Television Series - Comedy or Musical, with the latter being a first for an online TV show. This series proves that television can be a medium for not only entertainment, but important social dialogue.
Season four is set to premiere this fall.
Sense8 is a fascinating sci-fi series about the shared lives of 8 characters and the sinister organization that is after them. While the story itself is intriguing, its representation is a major force in its ability to captivate audiences. It includes not only ethnic diversity, but cultural as well, as it features characters from Korea, Kenya, India, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, and the United States. It also sports one of the most significant portrayals of the LGBTQ community on the small screen, in the form of Nomi Marks, a trans character played by trans actress Jamie Clayton, and Lito Rodriguez, portrayed by Mexican actor Miguel Angel Silvestre.
What makes this show unique is that these identities are not necessarily a story point; they are simply characters living out their lives. And while they sometimes find themselves at odds with each other over their differences., the group has learned to embrace and protect each other in the face of the danger posed by the villain “Whispers.” This show uses the sci-fi premise to explore religion, culture, politics, and identity, while showing the viewers that it is our differences that make us strong. That connection to the audience is why it has an audience score of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (although only a 67% from critics), and why it has a second season coming this year. You can catch the recently released Christmas special on Netflix now.
7 Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a quietly diverse series, with all the quips and heart of a show like Park & Recreation, but with a little more murder thrown in. It features multiple badass, crimefighting leading ladies, two of whom are Latinas, Terry Cruz as the lovable family man Terry Jeffords, and Andre Braugher as Captain Holt, the out-of-the-closet leader of this highly unorthodox New York City police unit. While commentary is made in regards to these aspects of the characters, they are still represented in a fun and inclusive way that doesn’t even border on caricature. The diversity is an aspect of who they are, and it informs the characters without becoming a joke. This show goes beyond the usual sitcom tropes to present a refreshingly funny take on the workplace.
In its first season, the show received two Golden Globes, including for Best Musical or Comedy, and it has continued to receive nominations in the proceeding years. And although it has not yet been confirmed for a season 5, it seems likely that its celebrated run will continue.
Disney is often critiqued for their lack of representation in their animated films, especially their princess films. However, this year, Moana was released as their first movie with a Polynesian princess as the star of the show. Although the film incorporated aspects from several cultures, it was definitely a step in the right direction. Beyond the story, the cast was likewise diverse, with actual actors of Pacific Island descent portraying the characters, notably Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and the Samoan Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as the god Maui. The music also embraced the linguistic diversity of the region, with lyrics in English, Samoan, and Tokelauan. Overall, Moana grossed $451 million worldwide, proving not only that princesses of any color matter, but that a step outside the norm can be a success. And although the film did not reach anywhere near Frozen-levels of popularity, it did place second for the highest grossing Disney film over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Dwayne Johnson viewed this film in a particularly important light, referring to his own daughter and her identity as well as the “opportunity to showcase Polynesian culture to the world on the big screen in a way that it had never been showcased before."
5 Ms. Marvel
The current Ms. Marvel series is not only an amazing read for the storylines, but for the cultural awareness it presents. Kamala Khan, a young Muslim-American girl, is the reigning Ms. Marvel, a hero who stands up for her friends, her culture, and the community she lives in. The recent Civil War II storyline saw our hero deal with the morality of the powers she has, and she did it with poise and confidence. The series effortlessly interwove her family’s cultural past with the development of Khan, leading to a beautifully illustrated example of a young, modern Muslim girl. Marvel Comics has certainly been working hard to incorporate a more diverse superhero universe, one that reflects the nature of the world. The creative team behind it all is just as diverse, as it includes Muslim-Americans Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson.
The series has received several awards, including a Hugo Award and the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics. Wilson has given her fair share of love right back to the fans, calling them “the beating heart of the series… They are the ones changing the face of the industry.” With the critical acclaim and fan fame of the series, it seems like Ms. Marvel is a giant leap forward.
4 Pacific Rim
In Pacific Rim, giant robots fight giant monsters. And as would be presumed of such a catastrophic war, the entire world is affected by the ongoing conflict. The unique thing about this otherwise blockbuster fight-fest was the inclusion of a diverse cast (both ethnically and nationally) to highlight the truth of a global battle. The cast is headlined by Idris Elba (who gives one of the most epic speeches in robot/monster fighting history), Charlie Hunnam, and Rinko Kikuchi. Director Guillermo Del Toro explained that the diversity was intentional, because “every movie is political, every single one. I try to celebrate diversity… it’s saying that we all need each other to survive… We need to trust each other because metaphorically we’re all in the same robot.”
While Pacific Rim can hardly be considered a domestic box-office success, the incredible success of it globally (in China alone it made $111 million, higher than the U.S. gross) has led to the production of a sequel, which will star The Force Awakens’ John Boyega.
3 Agents of Shield
Despite its occasionally faltering storyline, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., now on its fourth season, is still a wildly successful attempt at Marvel television outside of the Netflix realm. Its popularity has led to the move for an Inhumans series, while also incorporating storylines from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This show has succeeded in providing a truly diverse team of heroes to the point of making it absolutely normal. First, the cast is full of powerful women with literal powers (Daisy/Quake, played by breakout star Chloe Bennett), scientific powers (Jemma Simmons, Elizabeth Henstridge), and ass-kicking powers (Melinda May, Ming-Na Wen). Two of those actresses are of Asian descent (Ming-Na is Mulan, after all!), and the series' inclusionary elements don't stop there. The show features multiple black and Hispanic heroes and villains, and the series had the first openly gay character in the MCU in Joey Gutierrez (Juan Pablo Raba).
This show thrives on its diversity. It seems obvious that the superhero world would be filled with the many faces of the world, and yet this is one of the few shining examples of that. Thankfully, though, it's not the only one.
2 Luke Cage
Luke Cage stands as one of the best Marvel series to date, and the ratings definitely reflect that. By looking at legitimate issues housed in the genre of superheroes, it provided a unique view of heroes. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a somewhat reluctant hero who is first faced with the corruption of his neighborhood before ever facing off with another superpowered individual. The show moves through the world of Harlem, New York, creating a uniquely ethereal and soulful world as a backdrop for the dealings and lives of heroes.
This show relied heavily on a production team who understood the dilemmas and struggles of black America, and the honesty of the show reveals that. Shortly after its release, a viral video appeared on the internet of people on the New York City subway talking about the accomplishments and excitements in their lives, to which one black man stood up, exclaiming, “Just about a month ago, I’d be considered a scary guy with a hoodie; black, beard. But just a month ago on Netflix, Luke Cage made it cool!” Even shows about superheroes can have a deeper impact than expected.
The success of this show and the others will lead directly into the upcoming Defenders series, which will bring together Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Matt Murdoch (Daredevil), and Danny Rand (Iron Fist).
1 The Flash
As a whole, the Arrowverse (the DC shows created by the CW) has pushed for diverse castings and has grown in popularity through that. In Arrow, there is David Ramsey as John Diggle, and Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) features a powerful and fun female lead. The unique representation of The Flash is that they didn’t just pick characters of color from the comics for the show, but they cast a wide net of actors regardless of the source material's original makeup. Cisco Ramon, a brilliant and young engineer, is played by Carlos Valdes, while the West family (Detective Joe West, Iris West, and Wally West) -- who take Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) in when his mother dies -- are played by Jesse Martin, Candice Patton, and Keiynan Lonsdale respectively. Beyond this, the show also has some seriously powerful women, with Iris working as an unstoppable reporter and Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) as a brilliant scientist working alongside Cisco and Barry.
Showrunner Andrew Kreisberg has said that the show represents “the world in which we live; men and women work together; different races work together, and you have gay friends and people have relationships. We just try to show that."
What other films, TV shows, and comics are at the forefront of the long-overdue push for diversity in the entertainment industry? Let us know in the comments.