January 18, 2016

#OscarsStillSoWhite

The Oscar nominations came out last Thursday and they've been on my mind ever since because, in case you hasn't heard, all the acting nominations were for white people. Again. I was asked to share my thoughts on the matter and initially I demurred because I've seen only a tiny fraction of the movies nominated--how could I possibly complain the nominees were unworthy if I didn't have a solid list of people I'd list in their place?

Then I realized: it's not actually my job to list who should be nominated. Sure, I'm a movie critic [of my own volition], but I don't have the time, access, or financial incentive to see the volume of movies that actual critics do. I decide what to watch based on their recommendations, who is cast, and of course, what people on Facebook tell me to do. ;)

I am part of the problem.

On MLK Day, it's important to remember that the establishment (in this case, the Academy and other awarding bodies) isn't just going to give accolades to actors of color simply because they want to be fair and equal. We--the consumers--need to demand they give real thought to these matters because it's always easier to maintain the status quo. And currently, that status quo only includes white actors.

Now, I know all the standard arguments (assuming you're someone who disagrees with what I've said but managed to keep reading):

Actors shouldn't just be nominated because they're diverse! Awards are merit based. Yeah, sure. First of all, anyone who actually believes the best person wins for every category is far too naive. With all the politics of studios campaigning for certain awards, actors rubbing elbows with voting members, and the Academy's occasional attempt to look not racist, the result is far more complex that "people cast votes for the best person or movie."

Then of course, there is the other complicated factor that dramatic movies with all or predominately white casts get far more exposure and promotion than movies with a diverse cast or with a person of color as the lead (with a few exceptions of Hollywood darlings like Denzel or Morgan Freeman). Don't believe me? Watch TV for a day and tell me which movie trailers you see.

That's not the Academy's fault! Studios decide what gets promoted. Hey, guess who runs most studios? (If you didn't guess white people, this whole article is probably going to go right over your head). Studios get to decide a lot of things. Namely, what movies are going to be made and who will produce and direct them. Hey, guess what percentage of movie directors are white? (Answer: 82% in 2013.) The problem isn't just with the Academy and the awards given--it's systemic.

Maybe there just aren't as many minorities who want to be actors or directors or producers.

because there were apparently no available
Asian actresses for this role?
I've actually heard this. Which, to be honest, sent me into a white hot rage for about 48 hours after reading it. I'm not arguing there might be some element of truth to this. Asian culture, for example, heavily looks down upon non-traditional career paths (read: anything other than medical school). That's why every Asian contestant on Chopped or Top Chef constantly talks about how they're on the show to validate their career choice to their parents. But perhaps parents (and actors who currently face huge barriers to success in Hollywood due to their skin color) would feel less apprehensive about careers in acting if they felt more assured that they would be given fair and equal consideration in their work. Or that their potential roles wouldn't be limited to "Kung Fu guy #3." It's like when people argue that only 4% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women because women don't want to be the boss. It's an argument for another day, but the sentiments both for and against this "logic" are similar. Few people want to enter a field where the deck is already stacked against them.

But even all arguments of sheer volume of whites vs. non-whites aside, are we really expected to believe that the whites who are acting and directing are that much better than the non-whites? Consistently better? This isn't a matter of sheer statistics: just because there are 5 times the number of white actors to non-white actors doesn't make them 5 times more likely to be the best. That's not the way talent works. Don't believe me? Go watch women's professional tennis. In the last 5 years, non-whites won 10 out of 20 Grand Slam titles, despite only 15% of the Top 100 women being minorities.

That's not fair. If there is a standout in the group, he/she will be recognized.

Ok, I admit, most of the titles I referenced in the previous point were won by Serena Williams, who is arguably the greatest female tennis player who ever lived. But it's also like saying, "look at all the non-white actors who have won Oscars! Sidney Poitier! Denzel! Two years ago it was Lupita Nyong'o!" Yeah. All that's proving is you have to be undeniably better than everyone else to get any kind of recognition. And yeah, in theory, this is how awards should work. But then we circle back to the difficulty in landing a noteworthy role that will demand people's attention. Lupita Nyong'o won an award for playing a slave--a role that really, only an African-American person could play. Before that, it was Octavia Spencer for The Help. Again, a role defined by her status as an African-American. I'm not diminishing their ability or success, but my question is, why aren't there more roles that don't make someone's race the defining quality? Do we recognize actors of color who aren't playing roles stereotyped to their culture, race, or history? Why must minorities so often be relegated to supporting or minor roles in movies that would require them to essentially stand on their heads for anyone to notice them?

Besides this guy, and the kid
from Slumdog Millionaire
And lest anyone think this is a black/white issue, I actually think African-Americans have made great strides in recent years in gaining visibility in Hollywood and on TV, much of which can be directly attributed to Tyler Perry (regardless of how you feel about his movies) and Shonda Rhimes alone. But what about Asians? Indians? Latinos? Native Americans? (Seriously, how many can you name off the top of your head? Did you even know this guy's real name, or did you think of him as Kumar?) Where are their leading roles? Where are their accolades? Why was Han killed off in Fast & Furious 6? (No seriously, how could you kill off Han?!?)

I can't say with confidence I've convinced anyone who doesn't believe Hollywood has a diversity problem with a simple blog post. Race is a hot button issue that many people are uncomfortable talking about in regular life, let alone letting the discussion creep into something as frivolous as movie awards. But it's important that white people don't sweep the issue under the rug, and that people of color don't shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes, saying 'big surprise. The Oscars is #StillSoWhite.' Exposure brings about awareness.

So I will leave all the doubters with one final thought, and perhaps a couple of concrete examples of all the ranting I just did: Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Creed. Since he is being recognized, it's obvious the movie didn't slip under the critics' radar. And it was a good enough movie to be considered for awards season. Yet Stallone is the only person nominated from the movie. Sure, he's in it a decent amount, but is he single-handedly carrying the movie? Is he really the only noteworthy performance from the movie? Stallone is literally the only white person in the movie who says more than about 10 lines. Or the fact that Straight Outta Compton, a movie with an almost entirely African-American cast that highlights the racial injustices of society and grossed $161M domestically, managed to have only its screenwriting team nominated--2 white people. Are they the only people responsible for the movie's overwhelming success?

If you don't see something strange about that, well then, you are part of the problem too.

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