“What Men Want”, a new film directed by Adam Shankman and starring Taraji P. Henson, is a mixture of slapstick comedy and an exploration of gender bias in the present day. Henson plays Ali Davis, a Black female working as a successful sports agent in an industry almost completely dominated by white males. After being surpassed for a promotion that she deserves several times and being told to “stay in her lane” by her white male colleagues, Henson drinks a potion that allows her to hear men’s inner thoughts.
The film includes several scenes where Henson is depicted centered in a conference room surrounded by white males. What shocked me most about the film was that while there were several moments where the sexism that Ali faced everyday at work was depicted very accurately, her race was barely shown as explicitly affecting her in the workplace. The one scene that touched on it was a heated exchange between Ali and her boss, where he insinuated that he couldn’t fire her because it would look bad since she was not only a woman, but a Black woman. As a whole, the gender dynamic was much more overpowering than the racial one. Maybe Hollywood was trying to prove a point that the prevalence of different types of bias varies on the setting. Or perhaps they wanted to highlight Bblack woman in a leading role that didn’t define her character by race.
At the end of the movie, Ali is finally rewarded with the promotion she deserves, but then announces that she is quitting, starting a new firm, and partnering with a white male colleague. The ending was a refreshing message that Black women and women of color as a whole aren’t defined by succeeding in a “boy’s club”. What really distinguished the movie, however, was the creation of a character that had struggles to overcome that weren’t her race. Ali is funny, relatable, and strong, a character that is hopefully foreshadowing an era where Black actresses and actors can be cast in roles that aren’t explicitly written for a character that is meant to be Black.
The creation of characters that aren’t defined by and are struggling to overcome racial issues is admirable, but this also has deeper implications. Is it okay for this movie to ignore a relevant part of someone’s struggle? How would the movie be different if Ali Davis was played by an Asian woman, or a white woman, or a Hispanic woman? Would it be different at all? Should we be looking to cinema to reflect the realities of today or to be representing an idealistic world where someone’s race wouldn’t be a hurdle to overcome in the workplace? Personally, I like the view of film as a way of looking to a more idealistic worldview, which is why I enjoyed Ali’s character and Henson’s portrayal of her so much.