Why Hollywood Only Seems To Have Empathy For White Characters With Substance Use Disorder

Courtesy of TIFF

2018 seemed to be a year with a particularly large emphasis on movies about substance use disorders, with high-profile films such as Beautiful Boy, Ben is Back, and A Star is Born addressing addiction and the ways in which a person can heal and recover. While these buzzed-about movies do shed light on how addictions take hold and what it's like to work to overcome them, they exclusively focus on the experience of white people who are dealing with a substance use disorder — ignoring the universality of addiction and bypassing the opportunity to help combat stigmas and institutional bias that follow people of color who also deal with substance use disorders.

To be clear, addiction is something that all communities are impacted by, and not all in the same way — making it all the more important for media depictions to be accurate, sensitive, and representative. Yet, at least in 2018, Hollywood has focused its empathy mostly on white characters dealing with addiction. Conversely, people of color with substance use disorders and their communities have not been depicted with the same level of understanding and nuance, as is evidenced by a long slate of movies over the decades. In films such as Menace II Society and Training Day, non-white characters with substance use disorder are depicted as violent thugs caught up in gang activity. "Gator" in 1991's Jungle Fever is an example of such a character being leveraged as comic relief. In 2013's The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, Jennifer Hudson plays a woman with a substance use disorder who is a violent, neglectful mother. More complex portrayals that push against racial stereotypes are rare.

This selective focus on white addiction limits who we culturally regard as a person with a substance use disorder, and who we culturally regard as someone who deserves to be helped.

Substance use continues to be an American crisis, and the data backs it up. In 2017, 70,237 Americans died from drug overdoses — a 9 percent increase from the year before, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the majority of those overdose deaths — around 68 percent — involved opioids.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse calls addiction "a medical illness," yet stigmas persist. According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, while more than half of Americans now view addiction as a disease, many are still not willing to welcome someone with a substance use disorder into their home or “closely associate” with one.

These broad views have real-world implications. Many of my friends who have a substance use disorder have had their own individual histories of addiction and recovery buried by stereotypes and misinformation. They are often seen by society as criminals who have made the choice to do drugs — reckless, non-productive citizens, afforded no compassion whatsoever. It is clear that America is still struggling to see people with a substance use disorder as humans, still buying into the myth that punishment is the best way to solve the problem. Therefore, the conversations about substance use and misuse that movies have generated have never been more crucial. However, when movies dealing with substance use decline to respectfully depict people of color with substance use disorder — when they depict those characters at all — the conversation they generate fails to be inclusive.


Even when non-white characters with substance use disorders are present, it's usually white actors who are in leading, empathetic roles. Recent releases and their reception highlight the imbalance. Ben is Back, which has a 79 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, stars Lucas Hedges as a young man who's just left a treatment facility for his opioid use, and Julia Roberts as his loving mother. Timothée Chalamet leads Beautiful Boy, based on the true story of white teenager who uses crystal meth but is supported in his recovery by his well-off family; the actor has been nominated for a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his work in the film. 6 Balloons, a 2018 Netflix release with Dave Franco and Abbi Jacobson, shows how a white man’s heroin use destroys his family. However, the movie includes several scenes where Franco's character plays with and comforts his on-screen daughter, in an ongoing effort to humanize him and show that, in some capacity, he is a decent parent. In A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a rock star with alcohol use disorder. Though we see the negative effects of his drinking, Jackson is meant to be a likable character, encouraging and being loved by his partner, Ally, and cheered on by adoring fans.

This selective focus on white addiction limits who we culturally regard as a person with a substance use disorder, and who we culturally regard as someone who deserves to be helped. We are invited in these films to feel empathy for white people with a substance use disorder, who are granted repeated forgiveness from family and friends. Even as white characters commit crimes to fuel their habits — endangering their child like in Six Balloons or stealing from their own family like in Beautiful Boy — they are not met with resounding consequences from the criminal justice system, but patience and more chances to get sober.

People of color with substance use disorders, meanwhile, are often portrayed in Hollywood as ruthless drug lords who need to be brought down by well-intentioned cops (think 1991's New Jack City, or 2007's American Gangster) or as an irresponsible member of society, as in 1995's Losing Isaiah, in which Halle Berry plays a mother with an addiction to crack cocaine who leaves her baby in a dumpster, only for a white couple to swoop in to adopt him. And people of color with a substance use disorder are often one-dimensional in movies that center white characters. In 2006's Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling, non-white drug dealers prey on the vulnerability of white people with a substance use disorder, to advance their drug trade. The audience is asked to invest emotionally only in the white lead, who has been led astray by people of color.


Moreover, the sheer fact that many white people with a substance use disorder in these films end up in rehab and detox programs compared to prison cells is the most glaring imbalance. The NAACP notes that Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than white people, even though the rates of usage are similar.

Additionally, different communities may have unique cultural factors and stigmas when it comes to substance use. For example, a 2006 study in the Journal of General Psychology exploring the link between alcohol use and acculturation, or "the degree to which a Native American identifies with his or her tribal culture compared with Western society," notes that "tribal elders often report that many of today’s problems are a result of a loss of traditional Native American beliefs and culture." Yet, Native people with a substance use disorder rarely, if ever, see this unique experience onscreen.

Additionally, there are different circumstances that can influence addiction in communities of color that many movies don’t highlight. According to a study from Purdue University that surveyed nearly 5,000 people of color, discrimination and mistreatment is associated with the likelihood that Black people will misuse drugs and alcohol. And a separate 2010 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that studied nearly 900 families found those effects in participants as young as 13 years old. However, many movies do not dissect the role that racism can play in fostering an opportunity for substance use.

Hollywood continues to avoid the work of constructing accurate, human, and diverse stories of addiction in favor of white-washed ones.

Meanwhile, film critics rarely point out the lack of diversity in casting and storytelling within the genre. For The Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper writes that Ben Is Back is "a finely constructed slice of fractured family life." Kenneth Turan writes in The Los Angeles Times that "there are elements of Beautiful Boy that strike notes different from the usual [addiction movie.]" Linda Holmes of NPR praises A Star Is Born for allowing Cooper's Jackson "to be fully in the grips of his addiction."

And as we've seen in 2018 alone, filmmakers continue to feature white characters in their addiction narratives in a way that is objectively more empathetic than that which has been, historically in Hollywood, afforded to people of color. But how reflective are these narratives of reality? According to the 2013 and 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, of the 21.5 million Americans with a substance use disorder, only 8.5 percent are white, with the majority, 14.3 percent, being Indigenous Americans. Where are their stories on screen? When are audiences ever invited to learn about the different circumstances of their addiction, which can be attributed to the introduction of drugs and alcohol by white settlers? These legacies are consistently overshadowed and replaced.

Warner Bros.

Why does Hollywood have such clearly defined shades of empathy, even as addiction continues to be a universal disease? Black suffering sells; white victimhood does, too.

The question then becomes: How can Hollywood respectfully empower more diverse narratives on addiction? The answer, while complicated, is also quite simple: Tell the truth.

The truth about addiction is that there is no single story. If there were 10 people with a substance use disorder of the same race within a room together, each story would be different. Trying to essentialize Black or Native or any other non-white encounter with addiction into a single trope is inaccurate, and masks the unique circumstances that causes addiction in the first place. When human truth is prioritized over profits and shock value, movies that sensitively explore how addiction affects people of marginalized identities will be accurate and avoid falling into the trap of stereotypes. Barry Jenkins' Academy Award-winning Moonlight, a thoughtful and truthful story of how addiction to crack cocaine decimates communities and families, serves as a very recent example of how empathy can be tactfully applied to share the experiences of non-white people with a substance use disorder.

Truth comes when you consult communities about their stories instead of leaning on secondhand sources and stereotyped knowledge. It comes when you hire actors, directors, and writers of color to directly shape their own narratives.

Hollywood continues to avoid the work of constructing accurate, human, and diverse stories of addiction in favor of white-washed ones. This habit of storytelling is lazy and misrepresents the nature of the evolving drug crisis. It is time that we demand movies with accuracy and humanity so we can expand our own understanding of who the casualties of addiction are. Maybe then, for once, films can inspire us to see the humanity in all people with a substance use disorder instead of saving our empathy for a select few.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).