Friday, January 22, 2016

The Short-Sightedness of the #OscarsSoWhite Movement and White Invisibility

The media attention mounting around the #OscarsSoWhite movement reminds me of another recent, misguided liberal agenda in Los Angeles race relations: the treatment of Donald Sterling.  Though the statements of then-L.A. Clippers owner was unquestionably abhorrent and racist, much of the media reaction was best summarized by then-ESPN reporter, Jason Whitlock who called it “a ratings-pleasing mob hell-bent on revenge” built out of “our zeal to appear righteous or courageous or free of bigotry.”

The Oscars are an easy scapegoat here, but a boycott is the equivalent of turning off the Super Bowl because of the NFL’s concussion crisis despite being a season-ticket holder with your kid in pee-wee football.  The problems with racial representation in Hollywood are foundational and they will not be fixed by the Academy adding an okie-dokie sixth affirmative action nominee in the acting categories.

Not to subvert TheEconomist’s numbers against their initial point (which I agree with), but an analysis of their chart of proportional underrepresentation shows that the Oscars are pretty on-target with their nominations inside of roles offered by race.  The problem is not the Oscars, it’s the industry.

If I had an Oscar vote, it would still go to Charolotte Rampling in 45 Years despite her antiquated quote today suggesting the #OscarsSoWhite movement is reverse racism.  She said in a French interview, “Why classify people? We live in countries where now everyone is more or less accepted.” Right-wing bandwagoneers have followed with comparisons to its concerns of university acceptance and military promotion as if it were possible for a color- and gender-blind meritocracy to govern fields embedded in white male privilege.  I’m not here to argue the validity of white privilege, I’ll leave that to Richard Dyer:
"[W]e can't see that we have anything that accounts for our position of privilege and power. This is itself crucial to the security with which we occupy that position. As Peggy McIntosh argues, a white person is taught to believe that all that she or he does, good and ill, all that we achieve is to be accounted for in terms of our individuality. It is intolerable to realise that we may get a job or a nice house, or a helpful response at school or in hospitals because of our skin colour, not because of the unique, achieving individual we must believe ourselves to be.
"But this then is why it is important to come to see whiteness. For those in power in the West, as long as whiteness is felt to be the human condition, then it alone both defines normality and fully inhabits it."
A common meme spread by opponents to #OscarSoWhite suggests roughly 13% of Oscar nominations have gone to Black actors in the last 20 years, analogous to their U.S. demographic.  By this faulty logic, we could project a recently published list of the 100 MostValuable Stars in Hollywood by Vulture to be roughly 63% White.

Surprise!  The list is actually 90% White.  And here’s a few examples of when it isn’t: Idris Elba’s 2015 was characterized by a role as a Ghanan guerrilla commandant in Beast of No Nation and by significant resistance to the idea of a Black man playing James Bond.

Lupita Nyong’o, the sole Black woman on the list (coming in at #100, no less.  Token?), was relegated to voice a strange alien thing in Star Wars.

Additionally interesting, neither of these actors is American.  Opponents to #OscarsSoWhite often ask, tongue-in-cheek, where the Latino and Asian voices are in this condemnation.  My answer would include the question: what opportunity would we have to hear it?  Would the media cover their disenfranchised voices, or is their lack of Hollywood representation part of this problem as well?

Hollywood is not, and has little interest in being, a meritocracy as its lead roles aren’t distributed on an even playing field; productions are founded on old, White money.  The Oscars boycott is a misguided liberal-agenda not because it is incorrect but because it doesn’t go at the throat of structural racism.  The power of the representation of Whiteness in Hollywood film is precisely that we aren’t inclined to see it.  If movie roles aren’t written to be specifically ethnic, they are rarely filled with ethnic stars.  And when they are, they’re often stereotyped.

If Hollywood has had no incentive to change its racial representation it is because its audience isn’t challenging the structure of its racial representation.  #OscarsSoWhite would do well to question why— even in films about historical accounts— films choose to tell mostly White stories with mostly White heroes.  The impetus cannot be solely economical as largely diverse casts in Star Wars – The Force Awakens, Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron were not only three of the four highest grossing films worldwide in 2015, but three of the top seven grossing films of all-time.

Audiences aren’t opposed to diverse casts.  That White male actors dominate lists like Vulture’s speaks less to their own merits as to our expectancy to see lists like this filled with White actors.  Because Hollywood films are filled, disproportionately, with White male actors.  The snake eats its own tail.

It’s not that #OscarsSoWhite, it’s that #HollywoodSoWhite, and there is no great solution.  The answers, though few, are largely economic.  Go see the new Spike Lee joint when it hits your theater, then maybe this important, didactic voice won’t have to resort to Kickstarter.  Seek out the disenfranchised, film is its language.  The exhibition model makes it easier today with VOD.  If you’re going to pirate a movie, don’t let it be Dope, or Tangerine, or the upcoming sci-fi film by Claire Denis.  Maybe do something outlandish like wait to see Jurassic World via Redbox.

It’s a frightening thought that representation will likely change in sloth-moving politics before it changes in Hollywood, but Latino numbers seem to be imminent.  Hollywood representation, however, will not shift unless their bottom line is challenged or “ownership” at the studios changes.  If the #OscarSoWhite movement can make enough noise to move sponsors, maybe some eyes will open.  If it starts conversation about lack of representation in top Hollywood roles, even better.

This ship will neither right itself, nor be corrected with a kneejerk boycott; its problems are generations old.  And not to sound too utopianistically libertarian about it, but what we find unacceptable about race representation can be aided more by the films we patronize than by Twitter-fueled armchair activism.  I think the success of the Fast & Furious franchise echoes this in longwave format.

There is nothing scary about acknowledging White privilege.  The idea that, one day, the Jennifer Lawrences and Bradley Coopers of the industry will have their careers hampered by lesser talent needed to fill racial quotas is the worst kind of institution-blind scaremongering.  Of course #OscarsSoWhite.  HollywoodAlwaysBeenSoWhite.  The outrage toward a Black Rue or Hermione confirms the strangeness of ethnic heroes even in supporting roles.  The outrage toward a Black James Bond?  It falls on the “lesser” side of everyone being, as Rampling said, “more or less accepted.” 

That the Oscars found no room to nominate Jada Pinkett Smith or Michael B. Jordan this year is disappointing.  What is far more insulting is that Emma Stone played a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Aloha this year.  That Johnny Depp played Tonto in 2013.  That Hugo Weaving wore yellowface in Cloud Atlas.  If stereotypically ethnic roles are still cast to White actors to wide acceptance, what chance do minority actors have of being considered for lead roles when Whiteness is invisible in a colorblind society?

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