I notice that audiences always seem to get blamed for Hollywood’s attitudes: people say things like “audiences wouldn’t have accepted an actor like this in a lead role before such-and-such, but the country was more mature now.” I remember seeing a clip from a Film Noir documentary where someone was saying: “The Bogarts and the Alan Ladds and so on would never have been accepted as leading men by audiences prior to World War II, but the country pretty much grew up during the war.”
Except (ignoring the patronizing attitude) no one tried casting people like Bogart, Ladd, etc. in lead roles before then. It was Hollywood that judged them to be secondary players at best, not the country as a whole. So who can say whether audiences would or would not have accepted them in such a position? The fact that audiences took to them at once when given the chance implies that they might have been just as successful before the war.
Now, maybe audiences wouldn’t have accepted someone like Bogart as a leading man in the 1930s, or maybe they wouldn’t have gone to see a Charlie Chan film starring an actual Chinese man. But the thing is, we can’t say that for sure because no one tried it. And no one tried it because the filmmakers thought it wouldn’t work or were against the idea.
We see this all the time: filmmakers will preen themselves over having ‘the first Black-led superhero film’ or ‘the first female-led superhero film’ or say things like ‘audiences are finally ready for an Asian-led blockbuster’, apparently forgetting that they and not the audiences were the ones in control of whether such films would be made all along.
(Of course, these days when there are very few such ‘firsts’ left available, this sort of thing is even more obnoxious, but that’s another story).
Audiences, by and large, don’t much care, and I frankly don’t think they ever did. It’s Hollywood that worries about that sort of thing, because apparently in all this time they haven’t figured out that all people really want is a good story told well by talented and / or charismatic performers.