The Academy Awards and the issue of representation in film.
Sunday, February 28th, 2016. I’m settled into the posh seat at the local cinema to watch my Superbowl, the Academy Awards. I go in knowing what to expect. This is going to be a tour de force moment for this year’s host, Chris Rock. Despite it being a fantastic year for movies, the buzz surrounding Hollywood’s biggest toast to the craft is mainly about two things:
- Will this be Leo’s year?
- The controversy best summed up by the hashtag: #OscarsSoWhite
Before we even get into the theater, other audience members are talking about it. “They never give Academy Awards to us for our merits. Lupita Nyong’o got it for playing a slave. Denzel got his for playing a thug. And Halle basically got hers for having sex with Billy Bob Thornton.”
It’s not that she’s wrong. It’s just that this other theater-goer and I have very different opinions on this matter. I think she’s looking too far into the conspiracy. Lupita won because she was a stunning newcomer. Denzel won because it was a make-good. And Halle Berry won because despite Monster Ball being a so-so movie, she was friggin’ brilliant in it! It hurt me that the controversy was suddenly marginalizing the success of black actors that have won in the past.
And yet, she was not taking the argument far enough in a different direction, in my opinion.
That’s the thing about the 88th Annual Academy Awards. At times the message was belabored to the point of ridiculous proportions. And at other times, the message was so focused on a myopic point of view that it missed the point entirely.
If you’re unfamiliar with the – let’s just call it a conversation – allow me to explain. In the midst of unarmed black men being shot by police officers and private citizens and white supremacist presence at political rallies where they are forcefully ejecting minority protesters, the fact that this is the second year in a row where there are no black nominees in any of the acting or directing categories became a hot topic.
The conversation was the text and subtext of much of the day. In fact, before the broadcast, one of the fashion commentators threw in a rather subtle burn. At least I think she did. It’s fashion commentary, so it’s kind of difficult to say what is supposed to be serious and what isn’t. But when commenting on Best Actress contender Saoirse Ronan’s appearance, the commentator said how much she loved the Brooklyn star’s “luminous, pale white skin.”
So as Kevin Hart said, it was Chris Rock’s job to address the elephant in the room and then make everyone comfortable, and Rock did an incredible job. Not only did he give one of the funniest monologues in memory, he also both defused and clarified the issue.
And beyond the monologue – and the obvious black and white part of the conversation – the issue was just kind of batted around from time to time until it got tiresome. There were a few notable times it was brought up. On the other hand, there were a few times when it went awry.
Two moments in particular were very hard to watch. They were awkward and clearly did not land.
The introduction of Stacie Dash (Clueless) was spectacularly flat. It’s been described as a “black Twitter inside joke,” but apparently the Fox News commentator who spoke out against Black History Month really is the Academy’s hope for racial diversity outreach. I honestly thought it was a joke about Rachel Dolezal at first.
The introduction of three Asian children with tuxedos and briefcases as “accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers” – Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz. You know, because everyone knows Asians and Jews are good at math! Oh, and the built your phones too! This joke had absolutely no depth besides to insist on racial stereotype and was far more exploitative of the ambitions of the children involved than it was clever.
There were neutral moments too. Chris Rock revisited the Compton theater he took us to the last time he hosted. The intention in the original broadcast remained the same. Not only are the Academy Awards out of touch with black audiences, but the same is true the other way around.
And there were a few moments later in the show that worked quite well.
Angela Bassett starred in a parody short that showed how the Oscars might celebrate Black History Month. It was risk-taking and funny
When Sacha Baron Cohen is invited to present, the Academy knows they could get more than they ask for. He was supposed to present as himself, but instead slipped off to change into his Ali G persona. Instead of giving a synopsis of Room, like the teleprompter was – well, prompting him to do, he gave a full-blown satirical performance that set our own prejudices against us.
That’s where I feel like the argument failed. It was made clearly apparent that people of color are not being given proper representation or opportunity in film. But while the broadcast only hinted at other issues, it remained a mainly black and white matter. And that’s where I feel like we are having a dishonest conversation.
Here is a picture from a film in the 1950’s.
How offensive, amiright? Instead of casting indigenous actors, they simply employed white actors and then employed a technique now commonly referred to as “redface.”
It’s a lot like blackface.
Thank goodness we’ve moved past those antiquated, outdated, racist practices!
Still. . . I mean… That was the 80’s. It’s not like we would –
That’s pretty bad. But… I mean… This year?
I’ve been talking about this since the release of The Lone Ranger. Hollywood has created opportunity for minority actors, but just like they did in our racist past, they are giving these roles to white actors. This time, however, instead of making wild claims that they are “protecting our children” and “common decency,” they are afraid that the audience won’t accept an actor that doesn’t already have a proven box office pull. And because the list of minority actors with monetary appeal is short (and make no mistake, the ones that are on there are mainly black), the roles are cast white and made up in redface, blackface, yellowface, and brownface.
I’m glad that the conversation has begun. And maybe things have already started to get better. After all, the tenor coming from Hollywood is a positive one for representation. I just hope that we don’t get lost too far into the whole black/white debate and forget about everyone else.