Why 'Z For Zachariah' Made This Major Change

One of the biggest changes the movie version of Robert C. O'Brien's 1974 book Z for Zachariah makes from its source material has, surprisingly, nothing to do with the plot. Although the addition of Chris Pine as Caleb and the toned-down behavior of Loomis are definitely noteworthy, the change that has people talking the most is something else entirely; instead, it's the decision to make Loomis black in the Z for Zachariah movie, rather than white, as he is in the book.

In the novel, John Loomis, the engineer who, after a nuclear war tore apart the world, escapes his underground lab in search of other survivors, is described as white, same as Ann, the teenage girl he ends up meeting. In the movie, however, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) takes on the part of Loomis. And the reason for the change has nothing to do with the character — in the book, race has no relevance, which makes sense, considering that the characters' main focus is simply staying alive in their radiation-filled country. Director Craig Zobel simply wanted to cast the right actor in the role. Speaking with Slate, Zobel said he was a "huge fan" of Ejiofor and met him at the beginning of the production process, so casting him as Loomis "just seemed like an obvious and good choice." Besides, he added, "It seems slightly weird to have only white people at the end of the world."

Although it might seem that making Loomis black instead of white isn't that big a deal, considering how little race is talked about in Zachariah (it's mentioned just once, when a jealous Loomis says Ann and Caleb should "go be white people" together), it's hard to overstate just how major a move this casting decision actually is. It's no secret that Hollywood movies in general are lacking diversity, but the plight of non-white actors is worse than you might expect. In 2013, actors of color made up just 16.7 percent of all lead film roles, according to the UCLA Bunche Center's 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report. Although this number shows an improvement from past years, such as 2011, when the number of non-white lead roles in Hollywood films was just 10.5 percent, when you take into consideration that people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, the 16.7 percent statistic is still startling. It's a disturbing underrepresentation of American society, not to mention an impediment to people of color looking for work in Hollywood.

There's been progress in recent years — so far in 2015, successful movies like Furious 7 and Dope have featured diverse casts — but still, by far, white lead actors are the norm. Some Hollywood movies — Aloha , anyone? — even fill parts that could've featured actors of color with white actors, instead. So for a mainstream summer movie like Zachariah to not only feature a black leading actor, but change a role originally meant for a white actor so that a black actor could be cast, is an important move.

Even better? It's not the only recent movie to do it. This summer's Fantastic Four cast Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, despite the character being white in the comics. Last December, Quvenzhané Wallis led the reboot of Annie, known for its titular character's white skin and red hair. Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury, traditionally white in the comics, in Marvel's many movies; in 2012, Queen Latifah led a Lifetime remake of Steel Magnolias, taking on the role of M'Lynn from Sally Field. The numbers may still be few in comparison to the amount of white-led movies made each year, but the message is clear: change is happening, and Hollywood better be ready.

Still, the casting of these black actors is not without its totally ignorant backlash. There was that racist (and sexist) interview with the F4 cast where the interviewer couldn't grasp how siblings could be different races, and kept rehashing the point (below); back in 2014, when a then 10-year-old Wallis was cast as Annie, there was no scarcity of ignorant tweets calling her — a child, mind you — everything from a movie-ruiner to racial slurs.

Z for Zachariah hasn't elicited the same negativity as of yet, and I'm hopeful that no one will take issue with Ejiofor in the role of Loomis. After all, the movie is about survival, and friendship, and romance — not the color of its characters' skin.

Images: Roadside Attractions (2)