The Oscars: a night to celebrate the film industry’s “best and whitest.” Thanks Neil Patrick Harris, you hit the nail on the head – but frankly the issue deserves a little more than a cheap pun. Actually, as a room full of almost all white faces gasped and chuckled at the white host’s joke, plenty of people at home felt that twist in the stomach, knowing full well that this really isn’t funny at all.
This year Selma was nominated for Best Picture, but its director Ava DuVernay was ignored. Had DuVernay been nominated for Best Director she would have been the first black woman to ever compete in that category. Still more shocking is the fact that Selma is the first film directed by a black woman to be nominated for an Oscar, in any category, in the institution’s 87-year history. The incredible lead performances of David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo were also ignored, but hey, what’s new? Last year only three non-white actors received a nomination (Chiwetel Ejiofor for lead, Lupita Nyong’o and Barkhad Abdi for supporting) out of a possible 20 spots, and this year that has dropped to none. Actor Joe Morton’s article outlines a damning history of race and the silver screen: depressingly, over the course of 87 Oscar ceremonies, “only six so-called black films have been nominated for best picture”. Is this evidence that members of the Academy are a bunch of old racists?
To be hyperbolic, yes. Yes it is. And it’s an easy accusation when 94% of its 6000 members are Caucasian, with little to suggest this might change any time soon. However, simply pointing at the voters when it comes to the treatment of films like Selma is problematic because Academy voters are allowed to have a preference – they have to make judgements and when it’s one film over another then speculation on the motivations behind those decisions can be brushed aside as wild accusations. This happens especially when plenty of other great films are relatively ignored – Inherent Vice, Under the Skin and Mr. Turner barely got a look-in for their own reasons. The problem is that a single director is forced to stand alone and represent people of colour in the Oscar race. An anonymous voter justified the snub by insisting “when a movie about black people is good, members vote for it. But if the movie isn’t that good, am I supposed to vote for it just because it has black people in it?” This sits at the crux of the matter; if only one token black film each year even gets considered for nomination, it leaves voters with a choice they should not be allowed to make: DuVernay or an all-white line-up.
The lack of opportunities for people of colour in the film industry are at the heart of this issue; Chris Rock infamously insisted “Someone’s going to help the white guy. Multiple people will”, and the evidence is in the industry. There is a general acceptance that “minorities” won’t share the same screen presence as white actors, but when 22.3% of America is not white the almost total domination of white filmmakers and stars in comparison is damning. Richard Dyer, author and academic at King’s College London, will be familiar to most film undergrads and is best known for his theory of ‘invisible whiteness’, and this may be the key to understanding how deeply ingrained unconscious and institutional racism is in the film industry, which is – to be kind – probably where the problem lies, as opposed to conscious bias against people of colour.
Dyer outlines a major problem in visual culture; the way whiteness is simultaneously “invisible and hyperinvisible” – basically, when white people are everywhere they become the ‘normal’, the ‘neutral’ and anyone who isn’t white stands out against the whiteness. When every film nominated has an entirely white cast and production team, the one film that stars black actors and was directed by a black woman becomes the ‘other’, the ‘black film’. Selma, 12 Years a Slave, and The Last King of Scotland received the same treatment. Giving an award to one of these films becomes a political act, whereas rewarding one of the other films is thought of as only a judge of filmic merit and value.
If ‘whiteness’ is treated as a blank slate, then a white character can be assigned more complicated characteristics like ‘fierce’ or ‘sensitive’ or ‘clever’ or ‘cowardly’. To write a Black, Asian or Latino character is to write a character already loaded with a background and a set of characteristics; their upbringing, ethnic traits, heritage, and perception that they are a representative of their creed are stereotypes that have to be consciously rejected before the writer and actor can build any kind of character themselves. This leads to the stupid assumption that white leads are more relatable, because they aren’t politicised in any way. In the industry’s eyes, a white lead isn’t a racial preference, but simply a neutral choice that can be marketed to everyone.
This insidious belief becomes painfully clear in cases such as the ‘outrage’ surrounding the possibility of Idris Elba being cast as the next James Bond. It seems like the easy option to brand all those who were upset with it racists and call it a day – and don’t get me wrong, they are racists – but let’s dig a little deeper into their bizarre panic. Bond is an iconic 62-year-old cultural figure that has endured 8 film reincarnations. He has been played by English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, American and Australian actors; and yet according to some, 007 would be irreconcilably altered by the casting of a black actor.
Reacting on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh horrified most sane people by insisting “[Bond] was white and Scottish, period. That is who James Bond is”, conveniently forgetting that you don’t have to be white to be Scottish and that Bond is not a real person. Hell, he wasn’t even Scottish in the novels until Ian Fleming rewrote Bond’s backstory to reflect the casting of Sean Connery. It seems you can change his age, build, accent, nationality, hair and eye colour freely, but changing his skin tone would be too dramatic.
In protestors’ minds, Elba’s ‘blackness’ was a quality that was being added to Bond, one which would define him far more than hair colour or nationality. Bond’s backstory and characteristics would have to be changed because the character has to change to fit the mould set out by the history of Elba’s skin. To commentators like Limbaugh, Bond needed to stay neutral and invisible.
This reluctance to create stories with diverse casts and production teams means that as token characters pass for representation, writers allow themselves to be lazy. There is a desperate need for more: the presence of two good female characters requires differentiated roles; two black men must have different stories and ideas. When this happens, we start to see great actors given the opportunity to give great performances, playing characters that are as complex and interesting as real people.
It all comes down to one simple frustrating fact: there should have been more options than just Selma. There should have been more than two stand-out performances from people of colour. There should never again be just one token film which the Academy can choose to recognise or ignore.
This is an industry-wide problem with tangled roots buried deep, but just because the issue is complicated, it doesn’t mean we should ignore it. There is an art to calling out racism and prejudice in a way that can shut it down for good. The racism must be an act of undeniable choice. It must be undebatable, indefensible – and so far, the industry standard of ‘invisible whiteness’ allows the Academy a grey area, an argument that ‘this one film just wasn’t good enough’.
Could anyone ever argue that it just happened to be the two films by people of colour that just weren’t good enough? Would they try if it was three? Frankly, it’s the half-assed efforts of the privileged that just aren’t good enough any more. The film industry has come so far and it’s time to finish the job. It’s time to look these invisible white men in the face and see each roll of credits for the politicised battleground it is. We must demand for these ‘other’ stories the level playing-field they deserve.