Hollywood’s (Not So) Black and White Race Debate

“Ladies and gentlemen – welcome to diverse TV,” actor Idris Elba declared, standing centre stage at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards this past Saturday. Compared to the upcoming Academy Awards, famously tagged with the #OscarsSoWhite moniker because, for two years running, no person of colour has been nominated for an Oscar in any acting category despite many viable candidates, the SAG Awards made good. Four actors of colour were nominated in five categories, all eventually victorious. Elba himself won two trophies, one for best supporting actor for the film Beasts of No Nation – a role many felt he deserved an Oscar nod for – and the other for best actor in a miniseries or TV movie for Luther.

Now, a cynic could point out that Elba’s nomination for Beasts of No Nation was the only nomination for a person of colour in a film category, with the others – Viola Davis (best actress in a drama, How to Get Away With Murder), Uzo Aduba (best actress in a comedy, Orange Is the New Black), Queen Latifah (best actress in a miniseries or TV movie, Bessie) and Elba’s Luther nomination – all coming on the television side. If you count the nominations for best performance by a cast in a motion picture, then the casts of Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton and Trumbo all include actors of colour. However, when it comes to the categories that both the SAG Awards and the Oscars recognize – namely, the film acting categories – the SAG Awards only nominated one actor who wasn’t white compared to the Oscars, which nominated zero.

As well, according to the SAG voting guidelines, all eligible voters (read: any SAG-AFTRA member whose dues are paid up) were required to have their vote in by Jan. 29 at noon – just over 24 hours before the award show broadcast. Again, a cynic could suggest that enough voters may have been influenced by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that they voted for all the nominees of colour. They could do that, but who would want to?

Progress, of course, is a slow process and should be closely examined to ensure it remains steadily on the upswing. And, as this award season has shown, the discussion about race in Hollywood is an incredibly complex and layered one. It’s important for those with platforms to use them to provoke discussion and positive change. Unfortunately, sometimes asking successful, white actors about Hollywood’s diversity problem can be like asking a Kardashian who they think deserves this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics: you’ll get an answer, but it probably won’t be of much use to anyone.

Wait, what?: Celebs Who Should Hold Their Tongues  

Recently, both Charlotte Rampling, 69, and Michael Caine, 82, chimed in on talk shows about the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite debate. Rampling, nominated this year for Best Actress for her role in the film 45 Years, labeled the debate “racist to whites” and suggested that perhaps no black actors in the last two years deserved a nomination and that people will always find a reason to knock someone down a peg. “But,” – oh goodie, there’s a “but” – “do we have to take from this that there should be lots of minorities everywhere?” Because who would want minorities everywhere, right?

Not to be outdone, Caine, who’s won two Oscars, implored black actors who want recognition to “be patient,” saying that Academy voters can’t just award an Oscar nomination based on race – successfully refuting an idea that absolutely no one was arguing to begin with. This followed on the heels of him telling Will Smith that, “’When I started, I was the ‘black’ actor. We didn’t have black people; we had working-class people,’” a statement that shows his confusion with both the distinction between class and race as well as the fact that actors of colour like Sidney Poitier were performing and wowing crowds long before he was.

Then, at the Sundance Film Festival, Julie Delpy, 46, actress and two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter, added: “Two years ago, I said something about the Academy being very white male, which is the reality, and I was slashed to pieces by the media … I sometimes wish I were African American because people don’t bash them afterward.” While women clearly have their own battles to fight in Hollywood – from ageism to equal pay to the Bechdel test, in which a film or TV show is examined to see if it contains two female characters whose dialogue revolves around something other than a man – to suggest that it may be easier to be African American is a case of “my oppression is worse than your oppression” and highly offensive.

For her part Delpy later apologized while Rampling issued a statement of regret that her comments were “misinterpreted.” And yet, as ludicrous as these celebrity sound bites may be, they reflect that, ironically, this isn’t a black and white issue at all.

Every Nomination Tells a Story

Since Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar – Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Windonly 13 others have ever won an acting statuette. And even McDaniel’s Oscar win is tainted by the fact that she won for playing the explicitly racist role of a slave in an explicitly racist movie which some have compared to the Confederate Flag in calling for its consignment to museums. It also raises the question of why many African American performers, from McDaniel to Whoopi Goldberg (The Colour Purple) to Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy) to Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis (The Help) to Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) have to play enslaved and/or abused characters to earn Oscar nominations, let alone a statuette. Marc Bernardin wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “More often than not, the black films that are in Oscar contention are about people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X or Solomon Northup … And if you’re a filmmaker trying to push a film that’s about a fictional African-American who just, you know, has a story to tell, forget it.”

When it comes to nominations, who gets them and who doesn’t can be, in part, attributed less to a lack of racial awareness and more to a lack of good taste. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “The Oscars almost never get it right. Alfred Hitchcock never won one; Elaine May has never won one. Barbara Stanwyck never won an Oscar; Robert Mitchum never got a Best Actor nomination. The intersection between the art of movies and the Oscars is coincidental at best.”

Martin Scorcese’s résumé includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and Casino to name a few – all of which the Academy passed over for a best director Oscar before finally bestowing a gold statuette on him for The Departed in 2007. And that had nothing to do with race.

Then there’s actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who released an impassioned viral video declaring her boycott of the Oscars, saying, “At the Oscars…people of color are always welcomed to give out awards…even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments.” Though her husband, Will Smith, didn’t receive an Oscar nomination this year for his role in Concussion, he’s been nominated twice for best actor in the past – for Ali in 2002 and The Pursuit of Happyness in 2007 – and both times he lost to another African American nominee (Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker respectively).

Hollywood White Out

This debate, however, goes beyond simply who was nominated and raises deeper issues. The fact that, somehow, the only nomination the Academy doled out to the biopic Straight Outta Compton, about pioneering African American rap group N.W.A., was to its two white screenwriters harkens to longstanding questions over cultural appropriation in Hollywood – a battle personified by the rift between directors Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust,” Lee tweeted in 2012 in reference to Tarantino’s slavery revenge flick Django Unchained, which used the “N-word” more than 100 times. Tarantino also helmed the Blaxploitation film Jackie Brown.

Then there are examples of Hollywood whitewashing – most recently last year’s Stonewall, about the Stonewall riots of 1969 that helped launch the gay rights movement. Petitions decrying the film’s exclusion of pivotal ethnic community leaders hit the Internet shortly after the trailer debuted, with one reading, “A historically accurate film about the Stonewall Riots would center the stories of queer and gender-noncomforming people of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Not relegate them to background characters in the service of a white cis-male fictional protagonist.”

Or the news that, in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite debate, white British actor Joseph Fiennes, 45, who played William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love, has been cast as Michael Jackson – yes, the Michael Jackson – in a new comedy about a supposed road trip out of New York that the King of Pop took with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Sir Ian McKellen, meanwhile, added a new layer to the debate when he questioned why no openly gay actor has ever won an Oscar, before noting that straight actors have won for playing gay men while he, who is openly gay, has been nominated twice but never won for playing a straight man. “My speech has been in two jackets … ‘I’m proud to be the first openly gay man to win the Oscar.’ I’ve had to put it back in my pocket twice.”

Though these are all valid points, the fact is they’re merely the symptoms – the throbbing pain and indigestion one suffers after a bad meal – of an uncooked mess served up by Tinseltown’s executive class.

Black, White and Green

“The Academy Awards is not where the ‘real’ battle is. It’s in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks,” Spike Lee, 58, wrote in a social media essay on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last week. “This is what’s important. The gatekeepers. Those with “the green light” vote … [W]e ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lilly [sic] white.”

As much as this issue is about black and white, it’s also about green. Green money, and those filmmakers who have it compared to those who don’t; green lights, and the lack of minorities in a position to promote films that reflect diverse backgrounds and stories; box office green, and the lost revenue studios sacrifice, according to Lee, by not making films with stories and characters that minorities can relate to and will pay to see.

As Cuba Gooding Jr. said in Jerry McGuire – a role that, in 1996, at age 29, made him the youngest African American male to win an acting Oscar – “Show me the money!” Fox Searchlight Pictures certainly has, reportedly forking over $17.5 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for the film The Birth of a Nation, a biopic about the Nat Turner-led African-American slave rebellion of 1831. It’s the highest price ever paid at Sundance, arguably propelled by Fox’s anticipation of a demand for more films starring actors of colour stemming from the #OscarsSoWhite debate. On one hand, it ensures the film will receive as wide and publicized a release as possible, which is a positive. But it’s also, as has been pointed out, the only film starring an African American actor/actress on Fox’s slate for the entire year.

Still, there are signs the industry is moving to diversify the playing field in Hollywood. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and herself an African American woman, declared, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” evidenced by the AMPAS Board of Governors’ pledge to introduce “a sweeping series of substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse. The Board’s goal is to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” Meanwhile, industry trade publication Variety published their latest issue with an entirely white cover, including a white Oscar statuette, with the cover line “Shame on us.” Inside the magazine they note, “… the fault lies not just in the star-making Oscars, many agreed, but in ourselves. The Hollywood studio hierarchy remains an exclusive club chaired by white men and one white woman. The big talent agencies have almost no minority partners. And the media that cover it all — Variety included — employ only a few people of colour.”

So the industry and the people who cover it are beginning to take responsibility. Whether it results in real, meaningful change is anyone’s guess. But it’s a start.

As Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, wrote in a recent edition of the Globe and Mail, “This protest is not simply about counting faces and looking for an accurate representation of the world, although that would be a start. It’s about whose experiences count. Whose stories get told? Whose emotions in the movie theatre are validated and amplified by awards, and whose are rejected or ignored?”

An equal balance of black and white and, yes, green, within the Hollywood system is the first major step on the road to true equality in film. The time for patience is over, despite what Michael Caine may tell you.