Academy Awards: White is not the Warmest Colour

A spate of awards for Mad Max: Fury Road, more success for Inarritu and a win at last for DiCaprio notwithstanding, the elephant in the room was race

Dhruba Basu Delhi 

Yes, Leo finally won, but let’s face it, the 2016 Oscars were only fractionally about that. All talk about the Academy Awards this year has been dominated by discussions about the absence, for the second year running, of non-white actors from the list of nominees announced on January 14. This was especially glaring in the light of the nominations of Sylvester Stallone for Creed, which featured black actor Michael B Jordan in the acclaimed lead role, and the (white) writers of Straight Outta Compton, a movie about the rise and fall of black hip-hop group NWA.

Social media became the site of unprecedented levels of outrage over the issue, with the redeployment of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag (created during the 2015 nominations announcement by New York-based journalist April Reign). Statements of protest from David Oyelowo (whose portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr in Selma was famously overlooked last year), Lupita Nyong’o (who won the Best Supporting Actress award in 2014 for her turn in 12 Years a Slave), Ricky Gervais, Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney, and Barack Obama himself amplified the movement. Taking a stronger stand were those who boycotted the event, like filmmakers Spike Lee and Michael Moore and actors Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith (who failed to get a nomination for his well-received performance in Concussion), while the Reverend Al Sharpton, founder of civil rights group National Action Network, called for a nationwide ‘tune-out’ of the live telecast and organised several rallies, including one outside the Dolby Theatre, where the ceremony is held.

It therefore came as no surprise that the question of diversity took centre stage on awards night, February 28. Black comedian Chris Rock, who faced flak for accepting the invitation to host the event, kicked things off with a series of pertinent takedowns, referring to the awards as the ‘White People’s Choice Awards’, snidely alluding at the possibility of ‘black categories’ to ensure black awardees (which he pointed out was no more absurd than the existing ‘man and woman’ categories), and describing Hollywood as comprised of ‘sorority racist’ ‘liberals’. However, his decision to introduce three Asian-American children on stage as part of a promotional segment on PriceWaterhouseCooper, as the firm’s ‘most dedicated, accurate and hard-working representatives’ and to follow that up with, ‘If anybody’s upset about that joke, just Tweet about it on your iPhone — that was also made by these kids’, are not regarded as having been in the best of taste. The jokes not only fail to pass muster in terms of comedic value but also give the impression that, at a time when a meaningful discussion on race and representation is gathering steam, it is alright to reinforce minority stereotypes like the math- and child-labour ones associated with ‘Asians’.

Rock’s gaffe does serve as a useful way, though, to touch on some larger ramifications of the discussion. To begin with, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign risks short-sightedness if it does not actively bring all neglected communities under its umbrella: what of the Hispanics and the Native Americans? That Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki, both Mexicans, won the Best Director and Best Cinematography awards, respectively (the former for the second time in a row, only the second time this distinction has been achieved), and that Priyanka Chopra was one of the presenters can be read as positive indicators, but fundamental facts remain unchanged and unignorable, such as that only 3%, 1% and 2% of the nominations go to Hispanics, Native Americans and others, respectively. This is disproportionate to the percentage of the American population constituted by these communities and that is unfortunate, but worse still is the reality that it is not disproportionate to the trifling number of important roles they get. The implication of this skewed statistic is serious, although not groundbreaking: it was articulated as long ago as 1973, when Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor award for The Godfather on grounds of his opposition to the fact that Native Americans had “virtually no representation in the film industry and were primarily used as extras.” Viola Davis famously made a similar statement at the 2015 Emmys: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.’”

The problem, in other words, goes deeper than the Academy’s 94% white voters and how many ‘coloured’ actors they nominate. It is a problem of opportunities; not just of opportunities for black actors (which was raised by Rock), but of opportunities for Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds to represent their experiences as Americans, as minorities, as women, and to be appreciated for their talent and hard work, as directors, as writers, as technicians. It is only appropriate that this debate should spill over still further, into the question of education: what kind of diversity is to be found at film schools that, like the rest of the American higher education system, bleed their students dry?

If the playing field is not expanded and levelled, the Academy Awards will continue to miss the mark: their significance will consist not in setting the standard for cinematic greatness but in celebrating the privileged and pre-eminent position of the white man in the world of film, in serving as barometer for Hollywood’s poor track record with diversity and representation. Until that time, the words of Sacha Baron Cohen, presenting in contravention of the Academy’s wishes as wannabe black persona Ali G, will continue to ring true as only genuinely good parody does: “I know what you was thinking when I walked on, here comes yet another token black presenter. But it ain’t just me brethren who has been overlooked, it is all people of all colours.”

 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2016