After years of criticism about the lack of roles available for people of color, the film industry appears to have heard us. However, putting a person of color in front of the screen is all they seem to do. They don’t tell that person's stories or acknowledge the complex role that race plays in their lives. Unforgettable, the new thriller with Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl, is a perfect example of this.
As the films leading lady, Dawson plays Julia, the new fiancée of an aloof divorcée and brewery owner, David. She has relocated from her home in San Francisco to be with him in Southern California and continue working remotely as an editor. Her new town is quaint enough to make the women of Big Little Lies jealous. Just like her Monterey counterpart, Julia is the only woman of color in sight, and in the same way that Bonnie was whitewashed in the HBO series, the subject of Julia’s race is avoided like the plague in Unforgettable.
In fact it’s safe to say that the producers went out of their way to avoid including Julia’s ethnicity in the film. Instead, Julia’s otherness is marked using an array of other signifiers. She is typically dressed in darker colors than everyone else. When her soon-to-be step-daughter Lily doesn’t like the food that Julia has prepared, Tessa (Heigl) the bleach-blonde ex-wife of David — and Lily’s mom — suggests that the food might be “too spicy.” Speaking to her maternal grandmother about Julia, Lily describes her “long brown hair” as the feature that stands out. David mentions that Julia’s father was an alcoholic and that she’ll be a better mom than her own was. But we never even see a picture of them.
It's as if the producers were afraid that even the slightest acknowledgement of Dawson’s race was too much work, or would threaten to throw the film off course. However, the movie suffered as a result. Had they acknowledged how women of color are disproportionately affected by intimate personal violence, perhaps they may not have created such a flat portrayal of domestic abuse. Or had they addressed how racist microaggressions affect people of color’s ability to feel safe in their communities, they wouldn’t have credited Julia's every moment of discomfort to her history of domestic abuse.
Unforgettable fell short in more ways than one — despite staring two amazing actresses as lead characters — because it failed to realize most people don’t get to live in a vacuum where their identities don’t affect their lives. Putting people of color in front of the camera just to figure out how to get them to blend in with everyone else is not the kind of diversity we need.