I see a lot of people calling the Academy the chicken or the egg of racism in the film industry. I’m in the crowd that believes it’s both. Here are just a few reasons:
Inevitability of Whiteness
I think a lot of people would argue that movies get made based on what the Academy will vote for, which is definitely comprised of more than a few people with just the worst cultural worldviews ever (Oh, Nancy). In my opinion, this has created an environment that is incredibly self-congratulatory to White people, with racism permeating everything outside of the Academy as well as inside. So, for example, while there’s a notoriously heavy White-bias and racism in the Academy itself and what gets nominated/wins, the same goes for film distributors who select what movies get made, what gets funding, and who is cast in them. It creates a kind of rinse-and-repeat pattern; Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone are inevitable leading women high profile awards darlings. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tessa Thompson should be inevitable, but aren’t, for reasons that make no sense when you put their performances next to each other. Somehow, Idris Elba and David Oyelowo both have zero Oscar nominations, but Bradley Cooper hilariously has THREE, one for playing a notoriously racist sniper in a film that elicited thousands of death threats towards Muslims and Arab-Americans during its theatrical release. Post-American Sniper, Cooper went on to be the lead in three high profile objectively crap films (No dice Booper), yet still somehow remains at the top of the “rumored” lists for the more-inevitable-than-death-and-taxes Indiana Jones reboot. Elba and Oyelowo also lost their Golden Globes this year to Oscar Issac, who controversially dropped his last name–Hernández- to better play into industry “colorblindness” (that a truly saddening majority of players and press appear to think is something we should aspire to). It’s too easy to argue just from several of the most salient examples that both awards ceremonies and film distributors have a pattern of favoring the same skin color, and since both are related, they both reinforce each other.
The Blacklist is Awfully White
Of course, there are lots of factors that play into what films get made in the first place, and that includes writing. Magnificent Queen* Viola Davis laid it out there in her Emmy speech: “You cannot win an Emmy for parts that simply aren’t there,” or even Nate Parker who just broke it down beautifully at Sundance and the lack of roles for Black men that possess integrity “As a Black man, you leave auditions not hoping you get the job, but wondering how you explain it to your family if you do.” There’s a reason it’s always the Best Actor category that is predominately White and always the one most stacked, and it’s not because non-White men (and women, in their respective category) can’t act or are not working. You’d honestly think it wouldn’t be that difficult to see more scripts on the esteemed Blacklist that don’t insist on White male leads. Even in 2015, four of the five Best Actor nominees were for playing biopics of famous White men and at least two of the scripts came from the top of the Blacklist (including Chris Kyle portrayed in an unbelievable, unrealistically favorable light, which was perhaps the greatest signifying moment that we are officially scrapping the bottom of the barrel on White Heroes to plaster onto movie screens). #OscarsSoWhite hit hard that year, but that category was a great reflection as to how AMPAS’ selection plate was already heavily White to begin with. Believe it or not, AMPAS, I don’t need every 9 out of 10 heroic biopics to be of White men and women. #OscarBaitSoWhite
Stop Bronzer Abuse
Whitewashing remains my favorite category of Ridiculous Racism in Hollywood. It’s probably the best evidence that early 19th century racism is still hanging around and playing out in our movie theaters. Just last year, Emma Stone, Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and Joel Edgerton all played People of Color in big budget studio films with high profile release dates. While Aloha was panned, it was originally slated for a run in awards season too. That sentence alone deserves the full whiplash-WTF reaction—Emma Stone as a “half-Asian woman” and FYC campaign in the same train of thought at Sony. When Sony was called out for it, as well as Whitewashing the entire island of Hawaii, they played the victim card. The fact that Hollywood is still hiring White people to play People of Color is genuinely troublesome. If Whitewashing is Hollywood’s most financially self-destructive rinse-and-repeat pattern, they still don’t show any evidence of changing, whether it be casting more White men in Michael Jackson and Edgar Valdez Villarreal biopics (Retitled: “Joseph Fiennes and Charlie Hunnam do brownface”) or having all of us relive Exodus: Gods and Kings by providing a nearly all-White cast in the already severely unfortunate Gods of Egypt next month. I say with almost full certainty that Whitewashing in films will lead to Box Office failure and Razzie fodder—so why is Hollywood still trying? It reminds me of the lyrics from the “Minstrel Number” from White Christmas, sung by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye memorably not in Blackface, but with words still racist and telling enough—
“I’d rather see a minstrel show
Than any other show I know
Oh! those comical folks
With their riddles and jokes
Here is the riddle that I love the best
“Why does a chicken go…?” You know the rest
I’d pawn my overcoat and vest
To see a minstrel show”
Every time I hear a Whitewashed casting announcement (like Sony wants white-as-snow Jennifer Lawrence to play Cleopatra, a Queen who ruled Northern Africa and many parts of the Middle East), I can’t help but think that there must be Hollywood executives that too readily identify with this song—ones who would rather see White people use darkening make-up to portray people of other races/ethnicity with dramatic or comical intent, than put on “any other show [they] know” (or would like to tell with their millions of dollars). Really, it’s kind of scary that this song can be used as a metaphor for 21st century behaviors of White people in the film industry.
Matt Damon, Really?
If you look at what people were outraged over this year, it’s also clear to see where Academy loyalties lie as well. #Damonsplaining revealed that Matt Damon has really messed up views of how he believes race and sexual orientation should be portrayed in front and behind the camera. Two months later though, Damon won a Golden Globe for Best Actor, his first ever in an Acting role, and is now probably a front runner behind Leo for an Oscar. Similarly, Ridley Scott’s Exodus came out last year, which elicited #BoycottExodus backlash for pretty much only casting People of Color in slave or servant parts and clearly bronzer’d White people as leads. This year, Ridley made it clear he still didn’t have any intention to apologize and actually continued Whitewashing in his films, but it didn’t stop the industry’s hard on for him–Now he’s been nominated for a Golden Globe too and the Martian is up for best picture at AMPAS. Wherever the mainstream outrage went, it didn’t break into the Academy, or most other award ceremonies, or the film industry and whoever decided it was okay to keep working with these assholes. Both of these guys just serve as easy examples, but their attitude feel almost characteristic of what movie stardom “used to be”—AKA White dudes talking over each other, not expecting to be called out because they’re not used to anyone who would. With social media, their actions can now be held “accountable” to Temperamental Internet Rage Monster, but they still possess enough social power and privilege to actively choose to give zero fucks, not apologize, talk louder, and expect their careers to continue on without a hitch. Better yet, to continue on with even more critical acclaim than before. This begs the question as to how else people can use their social media platforms to call out social justice issues, or if the majority of those behind #OscarsSoWhite are really only out to ride the rage machine until they get to the ticket counter.
Best Big Picture
Overall, #OscarsSoWhite is an Academy problem, but as the Oscar is an industry award, it means it’s also reflective of an industry-wide problem with non-White male culture. My biggest concern is seeing people place too much blame on the Academy and not the full picture–it’s not just diversifying the voting base and waiting for Charlotte Rampling’s fanbase to die off that’ll stop #OscarsSoWhite, but getting the industry to stop Whitewashing, stop writing stereotypes, stop making biopics solely about emotionally tortured White people, stop putting Ava Duvernay, Justin Simien or Gina Prince-Bythewood’s films in rushed, hushed, or limited releases, stop letting the film industry get away with believing Jennifer Lawrence or Angelina Jolie would make a great Cleopatra, stop making films that only star White people unless it is explicitly to portray a specific subset of White culture, etc. This all without even touching the microaggressions and prejudices spread by film reviewers and film news reporters (but that’s a different rant altogether). In sum, #OscarsSoWhite is a brilliant hashtag reflective of a much bigger picture than just one body of “problematic” voters, and it is very important that we remember this lest we think attaining equality is as simple as the headline “Problem Solved You Guys: AMPAS is Totes More Diverse Now.” Personally, I believe that such a headline is capable of appeasing the pain associated with awareness of privilege and acknowledgment social injustice, when really, there is no pain more necessary to experience, as it is the kind that truly creates change.
*Viola Davis is a Magnificent Queen and one of the greatest actresses of all time. This is a science fact.