Friday, January 22, 2016

Oscars Whiteout (Again)

Who really cares about the Oscars? Clearly some of us care about the Oscars. Should we care about the Oscars? Should we care about the fact that the #Oscars(Are)SoWhite--again?

For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards out the annual gold-plated Oscar statuettes, considered the pinnacle of the multibillion-dollar American film industry's honors, have nominated an all-white slate of actors in the Best and Supporting categories. Ten slots, ten white women and men, and even in two films, Creed and Straight Outta Compton, with black leading actors, only a white supporting actor and the white scriptwriters respectively received nominations. No leading actors of other races or ethnicities were nominated, nor were any films in which they played the leading roles.

While this might not have drawn much notice fifty years ago in 1966 (which in fact did have an all white roster of nominees) or, in 1936 (unsurprisingly), closer to the Oscars' establishment in 1929, it does stick out in 2016, at a time when the United States is growing increasingly more diverse in racial, ethnic, religious, and other ways, and when industry figures themselves note that 46% of Hollywood movie ticket buyers in 2013 alone were people of color (designated as black, Latinx and "other" in the marketing study linked above), and Latinxs in particular are the most enthusiastic moviegoers. And the Academy has a black woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, as its president.

2013 in fact was supposed to be "turning-point year" for black filmmakers. In his The Dissolve article "New study puts numbers to the lack of minority representation in film," Vadim Rizov quotes producer Harvey Weinstein uttering a quintessentially post-racial (and deeply deluded) paean to America's changing political and thus social terrain, noting that the micro-burst of black directed and starred films "signals, with President Obama, a renaissance. He’s erasing racial lines. It is the Obama effect." How wrong he was and is. Hollywood cinematic representations lag behind those on TV, which has certainly improved since the heyday of the 1970s, and those "racial lines" Weinstein spoke of are as present today as they were in 2013 or before.

As it turns out, 2013 was more of a mirage than anything else. The USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism study that Rizov cites makes clear, diverse racial and ethnic representation in Hollywood cinema is still a problem:

Examining 500 top-grossing films released in the U.S. from 2007 to 2012, the study considers some 20,000 characters and finds diversity is sorely lacking. “Across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8 percent of speaking characters are Black, 4.2 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent are Asian, and 3.6 percent are from other (or mixed race) ethnicities,” the paper notes at the outset. “Just over three-quarters of all speaking characters are White (76.3 percent). These trends are relatively stable, as little deviation is observed across the five-year sample.”

I observe this not only when I catch previews during my increasingly rare visits to see movies in theatrical release but on TV, where film after film appears to reflect a very narrow, usually white, upper-middle-class, coastal perspective. Innumerable stories not just from the present but the past remain offscreen, at least those screens commandeered by Hollywood studios. Non-traditional casting has improved somewhat, but people of color are still relegated to secondary or subsidiary, and often stereotypical roles, and even though blackface performance thankfully is rare to nonexistent in Hollywood these days, whitewashing source characters happens regularly, and yellowface characterizations crop up. Far more frequent, though, are stereotypes.  Quoting Rizov again:

Among the other conclusions reached: “Hispanic females are more likely to be depicted in sexy attire and partially naked than Black or White females. Asian females are far less likely to be sexualized.” While women got assigned the same kind of domestic status regardless of their race or ethnicity, “Hispanic males are more likely to be depicted as fathers and relational partners than males in all other racial/ethnic groups. Black males, on the other hand, are the least likely to be depicted in these roles.”

Some actors of color, like Kevin Hart--who has become the current go-to black sidekick-enabler in comedies--continue to make careers out of this situation. What exacerbates the problem is the lack of diversity behind the camera, with the ratio of white directors dwarfing directors from any other racial background. Thinking intersectionally, given the sexist and ageist challenges women in Hollywood still face (articulated without intersectionality last year by Patricia Arquette and again this year by media darling Jennifer Lawrence), things are even worse for women of color.

Meanwhile certain plotlines, including "white men battling adversity"; an older white man paired with a younger white woman; younger upper-middle-class white people facing relationships hurdles; and all or mostly white historical scenarios characterize a great many of the plots of Hollywood films. Yes, pace Vladimir Propp, there are a limited number of plots out there, but still a far greater array of narrative configurations, inflected by cultural difference, which is to say stories and experiences, in the US and across the globe, that rarely if ever make it through Hollywood's system.

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan
in Creed (
This imaginative narrowness, which I would only partially chalk up to racism, only magnifies the inequities the Academy members' racial and gender makeup (94% white and 77% male) and voting patterns produce. Fewer and less culturally and narratively diverse film opportunities mean fewer roles in which actors of color appear on screen, whatever their acting skill level. I should also note that most of the black actors who have won Oscars in recent years have usually been honored for performances involving strong elements of abjection and spectacle, which also points to Academy voting biases.

Ultimately it comes back to gatekeepers at all levels of the movie industry who fail to approve and advance scripts and films that might offer a richer portrait of the society, or who tend to view issue of race and ethnicity, religious difference, and so on, through a narrow lens, are one major source of the problem. The revelations emerging from the Sony hack made this very clear. Moviegoers who support the status quo are another, but while it is conceivable that Americans could boycott Hollywood standard offerings (and excuses), films are a global business, circulating from Canada to Argentina, the UK to South Africa, Russia to New Zealand--and China is the largest single market of all. Hollywood's representations are not just a domestic problem.

Actress Jada Pinkett Smith, supported by her husband actor and musician Will Smith, who starred in the film Concussion (which I did not see) and did not garner a nomination this year, has called for a boycott of the Oscars ceremony, as has director Spike Lee. Actor and comedian Chris Rock, the event MC, may be considering boycotting the proceedings as well, though it appears he will show up and, I hope, skewer the debacle. Other actors, including 2013 Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o and actor Idris Elba have called out the movie and TV industry's failings, and in the Briton Elba's case, the UK's parallel problems with cinematic and TV racial representations.

April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, has challenged one of the default excuses behind the film industry's ongoing whiteout, male domination and this and the previous year's nominations: "Don't tell me that people of color, women can't fill seats." But Hollywood, which pays attention to the bottom line, apparently isn't as concerned about who fills those seats as it is with endlessly replicating its tiny store of self-regarding visual narratives. It's not about the money, but rather systemic and structural problems that need to be dismantled completely. Perhaps beginning with a boycott of the Oscars this year, and from now on all movies with retrograde casting approaches and stories.

As important, filmmakers, actors and movie audiences must proactively devise ways to build systems to enable domestic filmmakers of color to create, distribute and screen not just more, but better films, and perhaps if people desire an awards system, as in the case in the literary world and other artistic areas, create that as well. The technology is increasingly there, as are the rival film bases Bollywood and Nollywood (whose films I increasingly watch). Given that Hollywood's earnings have taken a dip in recent years, the studios will change--or they'll realize too late that they could have but did not.

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