Knives Out: A Blueprint for Representation in Hollywood

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Seth Courtad, Editor in Chief

This article contains mild spoilers for Knives Out concerning details which are revealed in the first act. However, key twists and major plot points are avoided.

More than ever, the need for cultural representation in Hollywood is glaringly apparent.Surprisingly, studios have taken the task seriously, and throughout the past five years an increase in films heavily featuring minority characters has occurred. From superhero flicks like Captain Marvel to romcoms like Crazy Rich Asians, nearly every person in the United States can find themselves represented in one film or another. However, some have called the quality of that representation into question. Of course, the typical online troll exists. You know the type: the kind of person that calls Star Wars “SJW propaganda” simply for featuring a female protagonist and thinks Joker is the best film of the decade. But aside from that vocal subset of internet bottom feeders, another group has raised concerns regarding the manner in which representation is approached by many in Hollywood. This group wants more diverse casts to appear in popular movies, but realizes that many movies featuring minorities either wholly define people of color by their struggles or outright ignore those struggles. Additionally, this representation can oftentimes feel hollow rather than empowering.

For example, the shot in Avengers: Endgame where every single female Marvel hero comes to Spider-Man’s rescue looks really cool! But, that doesn’t change the fact that, aside from Black Widow, the female characters have virtually no effect on the overall story. For this reason, the line between pandering and exclusion has proven itself a difficult one to walk. On the one hand, movies that focus on the real-world problems facing minorities are a great means of raising awareness; on the other, true equality is getting to a place where minorities can appear in movies without seeming like an “other.” Furthermore, studios frequently make the mistake of writing one dimensional, token minority characters to gain “woke points” with affluent liberals. Personally, I would rather have no cultural representation than representations that amounts to cardboard cutouts of nonwhite people created to fill some Hollywood quota.

Here, Rian Johnson’s new film Knives Out comes into play. The film is a fast-paced, slick, and hilarious roller coaster that cleverly adapts the murder mystery for modern audiences.

As a fan of Johnson’s filmography, I had high expectations before watching, but the decision to make the main character, Marta, an immigrant nurse whose parents are undocumented truly came as a surprise. Even more surprising was the skillfulness with which Johnson incorporates this decision into the story. Throughout the movie, Marta’s mother’s undocumented status creates many problems for the protagonist, and Johnson never overlooks the ways in which these problems affect the overarching story. Yet still, Johnson manages to do this while avoiding turning the movie into a preachy mess. At its core, Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, and Marta is defined by her kindness, not solely by her status as an immigrant.

In this way, Johnson creates a movie that accurately represents its minority character without boxing her in, while simultaneously delivering one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year. The rest of Hollywood would do well to take notes.