Happy Martin Luther King Day! How is your universe’s arc bending today? Well, if you want to know about mine…
After this year’s Oscar nominations were revealed on Thursday, the press went through its second annual paroxysm of #oscarssowhite conversations. This very useful dialogue is missing a crucial element: namely, the fact that Hollywood’s period films are, as a general rule, missing the crucial element of persons of color. Because the film industry generally presents the past as “whiter” than it was, and because period films attract Oscar nominations, “prestige” is coded as white. It’s also the case that #oscarssowhite grievances carry the connotation that persons of color, and women, are being “uppity” and demanding a brand-new sort of consideration, instead of the sort of representation they should have had all along.
Let’s back up a minute. Unlike most of the writers writing about #oscarssowhite, I’m basing this article on statistics. Last semester, I taught two sections of a “Diversity in Cinema” class to about 60 undergrads, and I tasked them to make spreadsheets that broke down the ethnicity of the six “top roles” (as cited by rottentomatoes.com; each of their film pages ranks the film’s main six actors) in the 20 “top films” of each year of this century (as decided by the Top 15 earners at the domestic box office as well as the five Best Picture nominees, or the films that earned Best Director nominations in more recent years, when the Academy expanded its Best Picture slate).
If you’ve been following the #oscarssowhite conversation online, many of the findings won’t be surprising. Persons of color and women are drastically underrepresented, objectified and reduced to supporting white men in about 18 or 19 of 20 “top films” in each year of this century. In 2010, blacks constituted 6% of the 120 Top Roles in the Top Films, Latinos made up 4.5%, Asians made up 7%, Muslims made up 0%, and Native Americans were 1 of 120. In 2014, those numbers were 6%, 2%, 2%, and 0%. With very slight, 2 or 3-point variations, these numbers were seen in every year from 2000 to 2015. Most of this simply provides statistical evidence to support the complaints of the #oscarssowhite opinion pieces.
But there’s a detail that emerges from these pieces that I feel is important. To cut to the chase, as we say, Hollywood’s historical and period films are terrible at representing persons of color. As a rule, when Hollywood dips into the past, it’s a whitewashed past. These days, major blockbusters and minor films that are set in the present are almost always at least partly integrated (if rarely in the top six roles), making this “idealized” past seem all the stranger.
I mean films set in the periods of Les Miserables, Lincoln, The Great Gatsby, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, and almost any film by the Coen Brothers…in other words, any time before this decade. This is a particular problem for the Oscars, which tends to look kindly on period films like, this year, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, and The Danish Girl. If these films had felt the need to have persons of color in their top roles, the #oscarssowhite conversation would have been different or even unnecessary.
The whitewashing problem also plagues period blockbusters like the Indiana Jones franchise, Captain America: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class. If a franchise has a person of color in a lead role – like Rush Hour or The Fast and the Furious – you can guarantee that it’s set in the present. The world of fantasy/fairy tales is often “coded” white, even though there’s no reason for it to be – it’s made up! So films/franchises like the recent Hobbit trilogy, Clash of the Titans, Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Frozen, How to Train Your Dragon, Maleficent, and Cinderella have no reason not to include persons of color in prominent roles – yet they don’t. Why not?
There are exceptions to this rule, particularly if the film is about oppression of persons of color, especially if set in the 1860s or the 1960s. If Hollywood can connect to the civil rights movement, then there’s financing to be had, as in the cases of Ray, The Help, and Selma. And Trevor Noah was right on last week’s #oscarssowhite reaction to say that Hollywood finds slavery narratives palatable, though he may have overestimated just how palatable; in fact, Hollywood commits an 8-figure budget to a slave-related story about as often as it commits to the Little Big Man-like narrative of whites joining forces with Indians – namely, three times in 40 years (the other times being Dances With Wolves and Avatar).
In a way, Hollywood only reflects high school history classes, of which many people already ask: what happened to people of color before the Civil War, and in the century between emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement? Where are films about Reconstruction or the founding of the NAACP? What were Latinos and Asians doing in California before 1950? Where are films about the Harlem Renaissance or the Tuskegee experiments? Now, before I get angry emails, I’ve seen Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Sounder (1972), The Color Purple (1985), Rosewood (1997), Amistad (1997), Beloved (1998), and others, but these are rare exceptions.
There is also the hope and promise of the inevitable film version of the game-changing musical “Hamilton,” which upset convention by casting persons of color directly in “white” roles. It will be fascinating to trace the influence of this boulder as it hits the Hollywood stream, but we shouldn’t exactly expect, say, color-cast biopics of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to happen anytime soon.
Some say the problem is that writers write what they know, and thus we have to bring more persons of color into the writers’ rooms. Indeed, when white people DO dare to write about persons of color, there can be blowback, as the white writers of Straight Outta Compton experienced last week.
That brings us back to the 2015-16 Oscar race, or what some are calling #oscarsstillsowhite. I tend to side with the more measured account offered in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, and Wesley Morris. Gradual progress is happening through diversifying membership, though perhaps not fast enough. Some say that members should lose their voting privileges if they haven’t had a union credit in a decade, though I’m personally not yet ready to tell Kirk Douglas to stop voting.
In summary, Hollywood’s whitewashed version of history is one of the undiscussed drivers of #oscarssowhite. However, to end on a note of hope, it’s worth noting that Hollywood IS making more and more historical movies regarding persons of color outside the two “Civil”s (War and Rights Movement). In recent years we’ve seen 42 and Red Tails and Cesar Chavez. And Straight Outta Compton and Concussion (the latter set in the same period as Spotlight) were at least non-60s period films starring persons of color that made it as far as the Oscar conversation, if not to the Best Picture circle. What Hollywood really needs are more historical films that include more and more persons of color and white people in harmony and in conflict. Why not a Django Unchained-flavored rainbow coalition revenge mob, perhaps including one of John Brown’s sons, that rides against the KKK in 1869 or so? Call my agent.