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Does It Matter That the Oscars Are Overwhelmingly White?

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Posted on Feb 28, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

(Page 2)

Still, “12 Years a Slave,” despite being the lone “black” film, did get multiple nominations from the mostly white male Academy. Mikki Kendall, a writer for The Guardian newspaper, pop culture analyst, blogger and creator of the popular Twitter feed #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, explained to me, “It’s easier to think about the oppression of black people in terms of slavery because that was then and this is now. For the Academy it is very difficult for African-Americans to be telling a story about what African-Americans experience in America right now.” And that means that a film like “Fruitvale Station” is ignored because it is “a hard look at what mainstream America likes to pretend doesn’t matter.”

Five years ago, the Academy expanded its pool of nominations for best picture from five to as many as 10. In spite of this, films featuring almost all-white casts captured eight of the nine slots in the highly desirable category this year. Kendall unhesitatingly listed those films dominated by white actors that she believed did not deserve nominations at all. On “Wolf of Wall Street” she lamented, “I don’t know how many more times we can examine New York stockbroker greed.” “Philomena” came recommended to her by a friend whom Kendall now wryly blames for wasting two hours of her life. “Dallas Buyers Club,” according to Kendall, was also problematic because it was yet again about “a relatively privileged white guy who has money and connections.” But worse, the film uses a straight man, Jared Leto, to play the role of a trans woman. Kendall likened Leto’s performance, nominated for best supporting actor, to “blackface.” She said, “You can get an Oscar nom playing certain kinds of roles, but we’re only going to hire certain kinds of people to play those roles.”

If the Academy is failing people of color, what about women? Several films with strong female lead roles, such as “Gravity” and “Blue Jasmine,” were recognized with nominations. But, as Kendall pointed out to me, issues of race and gender cannot be separated. After all, not a single woman of color was among those nominated for best actress.

And it’s not just the Academy, but also casting directors and the studios they work for that are falling short of reflecting the modern American demographic in films. Sandra Bullock’s role in “Gravity” was especially powerful. But media reports reveal that while a parade of actresses were considered for the role, every single one was white: Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Naomi Watts and even the French actress Marion Cotillard, as though the idea of an American actress of color was unfathomable in the role of a modern-day astronaut.

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Kendall told me, “Gender hasn’t been quite the problem [in Hollywood] for some of us as it has been for others. I can find you a white romantic lead, a white action lead, a white drama lead, all female. [But] ask me how many black, Asian, Latino, South East Asian women of color are in lead roles.”

Morris agreed that it is not just the Academy, but those who decide which films get made and distributed who are unrepresentative. “Why some films make it and others don’t,” she said, “is because there is a system in place that allows certain films to have very wide distribution and access and others where they don’t have any at all. And the people who continue to make those decisions are by and large white men. No matter who is the person behind the camera or the actors in front of the camera, the people who are pulling the strings and who control the pocketbook remain white men.”

It appears likely that the Academy’s ongoing reluctance to embrace films by people of color will make it less and less relevant. Morris suggested that “people of color who are working in the film industry, what they’re going to have to continue to do and what they have always done is to create alternative institutions where the kind of stories that we want to see being told are able to circulate and will reach audiences who will benefit from them the most. With or without the support of the Academy, I believe that these filmmakers are going to continue to do their work and will continue to find audiences who are responsive to the kinds of stories that they are telling.”

And so while we must criticize this year’s mostly monochromatic lineup at the Oscars, we can take comfort in the certainty that it is only a matter of time before the Academy either faces the reality that people of color represent the nation’s future, or risk utter irrelevance.


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