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White-Out : A Review of The Oscars

“The one thing I noticed about these films that are nominated is that there are no African-Americans in them. Social Network? There could have been a black guy checking his Facebook. Not even in a montage! James Franco cuts his arm off in 127 hours and his arm doesn’t even turn black! Black Swan? There’s no black people! The Kids Are All Right? The Kids Are All White! ” ““ Aziz Ansari

In a year where we had Sex and the City 2, a documentary praising Hugh Hefner and a whitewashed version of The Last Airbender, one could say that with the choices given, the Oscar nominees were reflective of the cream of the crop. But were they? While the Oscars haven’t always had the best reputation for diversity, they usually mirror the film industry as a whole.

Awards shows are always problematic. They concentrate on the worst parts of mainstream entertainment and achievement”“ the awkwardness, the vanity and the self-congratulation of an industry that can be incredibly self-serving. They have been filled with attempts at political rhetoric, sometimes coming off successfully like Charles Ferguson’s, co-director of Inside Job, observation of the number of Wall Street bankers that have yet to be penalized. The problematic ones have included Vanesa Redgrave’s attack of “Zionism” in Hollywood and Marlon Brando’s use of Sacheen Littlefeather on the mistreatment of Native Americans. The speech that she gave on behalf of Brando brought Sacheen much grief and caused the mainstream media to question her “authentic Indian history,” due to the fact she was bi-racial. But the Oscars and the film industry are important; they are part of the collective mainstream conscious, giving weight and value to the types of films and talent that we as an audience are exposed too. What we see and come to expect as normal representation comes very much from what is projected to us as a reflection of culture. Much like the actual stamped-out Oscar statue itself, the films represented a very homogenous demographic, this year possibly being one of the weakest yet.

There were more people of color in the Diet Coke commercial that kept airing during the Oscars than in the Oscars entirety. Where are the nominees featuring Hispanic talent? Asian talent? African-American talent? Women in complex roles? Of course, it’s hard to give out nominations for roles that don’t exist ““ one feeds into the other and it’s inherently cyclical. When you give out awards for movies that rely on the same formulas, it’s guaranteed that those same movies will be made again and awarded again. But there are films are out there that have a diverse cast that have been overlooked ““ Spike Lee would have a couple of things to say about this. This writer is still mad and convinced that ever since Denzel Washington lost the Oscar for Malcolm X, the film industry has saddled him back into movies about runaway trains. Part of me thinks that Denzel has also said “To hell with it,”  and concentrated on what makes money these days. Can you blame him?

In years past, we have seen examples of the film industry branching out, ergo the Oscars recognizing talent like Monique, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker and Halle Berry. Even with these nominations, though, the roles that these actors and actresses played were typecast as stereotypical. Whitaker took steps to darken his skin to appear more “tyrannical” in his Oscar-winning performance of Idi Amin in The King of Scotland. And while actors and actresses take painful steps to alter their appearances for films, what does that say about the nature of race, specifically a black man’s, in film? Berry’s character in Monster’s Ball, while raw and moving, was also an example of the enduring “loose, angry woman” stereotype, and how black women are typecast to playing one-dimensional roles of poverty, uninhibited sexuality, and abuse. The same goes for Monique, whose role in Precious was that of the same poverty and abuse. And while these issues are very real, why is it that actors and actresses of color are rewarded for these roles as opposed to more complex ones?  Why can’t there be someone of color in a role such as Black Swan? Someone awarded for being a person of color in a role that might go beyond racial categorizing?

This is also the first year that the Best Picture category has allowed ten films, seven with men as the leading role, three with woman and one portraying a gay couple with children. To further note, no director of color has ever won Best Picture. It’s slim pickings and also problematic. In The Kids are All Right, there was the debatable representation of Juliette Moore’s lesbian character sleeping with a man ““ a further pinch at the LBGT community that slightly implied, “See! It is a choice!” In Black Swan, the film was touted as a “Super Sexual Psycho Thriller,” when the actual scene everyone raved about lasted three minutes and had little to do with the unraveling of Portman’s character ““ lesbian love as spectacle, as sexual gratification for a male audience. As far as supporting and lead actress roles go, there was some hope. Melissa Leo, a woman in her fifties and Hailee Steinfeld, the one bi-racial female nominee, provided incredibly complex characters. Leo was awarded, a step forward proving the women past the age of forty don’t need to be relegated to grandmothers and harpies.

But where is Kerry Washington’s nomination? Starring in both The Night Catches Us and For Colored Girls, Washington was left unrecognized in two of her strongest performances. The Night Catches Us was also left out of the nominations, a huge disappointment. For those who may not be familiar with the film, The Night Catches Us is a story of a former Black Panther who comes back to his city, only to find race relations and relations within his own community strained. Anthony Mackie stars as Marcus, a man who may or may have not disagreed with the actions of his group and fled,. It’s a compelling role that questions how the good in social causes can sometimes go wrong and how individuals react. No nomination for Mackie? What about Don Cheadle’s role in Brooklyn’s Finest? Another film with a majority black cast that was swept over and easily has the same emotional performances of “masculine” strength as The Fighter. Don Cheadle played an undercover cop stressed out about having to fulfill the stereotypical role of a “drug dealer” and yearns for a desk job.

What would Hattie McDaniel say if she were at the awards ceremony today?  As the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for her role in Gone With The Wind, would she be impressed by the industry’s progress towards recognizing talent in those of color and roles for women? Or would she be surprised at how similar the amount of recognition by the industry today is to 1939? I cannot decide on her behalf what she would say, I can only wonder if she would have the same questions that I have.

” I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry” –  Hattie McDaniel

2 replies on “White-Out : A Review of The Oscars”

Casting directors still struggle to envision people of color in more complex roles that aren’t about their race, or about a stereotype relating to that particular skin color–but largely, I think, because audiences can’t do it, either. Or don’t want to.

In the Old LB and other less intelligent forums, plenty of people still posted comments on posts on these topics that said things like, “Well but nobody would ever watch a black Superman; it’s a period piece, it would be weird to have blacks in it anyway; this character is supposed to be white, so it would be Crazy to cast a nonwhite actor….”

As long as the audiences feel this way, Hollywood has no incentive to change its formula.

Jay Smooth (who has the longest running hip hop radio show and is an occasional commentator on NPR) quipped about the PS 22 choir singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow: “seeing this wonderfully diverse chorus of kids really makes you notice the lack of diversity in all the Oscar winners behind them.”

PS, Unstoppable might not be an Oscar winner, but it was a damn entertaining film. I find that even though I love movies, I can only muster very little interest in the Oscars every year. I’m curious to see who did what kinds of shenanigans and to see some of the actors and actresses I adore looking all lovely. But as for who is nominated and who wins the awards? Meh. The thinky movies are always nominated. The emotionally draining ones. The smart ones that are “films” not “movies.” For the most part, they’re popular because the industry tells people that they should see them. Yes, there are exceptions, but they’re not the type of films that the average person gets super excited about. The Unstoppables and Indiana Joneses, no matter how much they rise above the rest of the blockbuster drivel, are rarely nominated.

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