The world could talk for decades (and centuries and millenniums and ions) about how Hollywood isn’t diverse enough. How the industry is predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly set in the freaking dark ages. How the lack of roles for ethnic actors and actresses is a frightening aspect of a glittering business that many (including myself) aspire to work in. How women’s roles in movies are still largely sexist and rooted in old-fashioned beliefs. And how, above all, Hollywood–despite the thousands of people who believe there needs to be change–seems to be kicking its feet in, (AGAINST diversity), clinging to its old-fashioned, sexist, and racist ways with the death-like grip of someone on the verge of falling.
The world could indeed talk for ages about all of the above, but the fact of the matter is, a lot of people are too stubborn to accept the notion of diversity. There are those of us who recognise that something has to change, that in order for the business to grow and continue, it needs to expand its horizons. But for some insane reason, this same business is scared of this change. We can’t let it happen too quickly, if at all. And so instead, Hollywood throws us a bone every few years, fooling us into thinking we’ve made some sort of accomplishment, when in actual fact…we have not.
Look at the picture for this article. Actually look at it. A collage of a handful of ethnic actors, actresses and directors who have won Academy Awards for their achievements in film. I say a handful, but almost every ethnic actor, actress, and director to win an Academy Award for their talents in film, is in that collage. Here we are, in 2015, and the pictures of ethnic actors, actresses, and directors who have won Academy Awards throughout the entire history of time can almost fit into one small collage.
A collage so small, it couldn’t even fill your computer screen.
Yet, if I were to create another collage, one with the pictures of white actors, actresses, and directors who had won Academy Awards, I would undoubtedly be here for the next two months, gathering pictures. Collating them into a picture so large, it would most certainly have to be split into multiple collages.
You see, year after year, the Academy Awards roll around. It is one of the most, if not the most, prestigious award show in Film. And yet, it has become entirely predictable.
“Why?” You ask.
Well, because there’s no diversity. There’s very rarely a film nominated for an Oscar that you did not and could not already guess would be nominated.
I like to call these films “Oscar Bait” (as do the general movie-going population). Their “powerful and riveting”, “mesmerizing and astonishing”story-lines all focus and center themselves around Caucasians. They hang themselves on a hook, dangling themselves in front of the Academy of White, male professionals.
It is no surprise then, (that out of these handful of White movies, made by White people, for White people), that the Academy picks White winners. Does that mean that the Academy is not at fault? Of course not. But when they’re predominantly presented with White movies, the outcome of the winners is also going to be White.
Of course, it’s not always White. Once, every few years, the ethnic people of Hollywood get thrown a bone. A small bone. Not big enough that we can shout from the rooftops that we’ve finally made it, but not small enough that we can say that we get no love at all.
In 2009, Slumdog Millionaire was that bone. In 2010, Precious was that bone. In 2011, The Help was that bone. In 2013, Django Unchained was that bone. In 2014, 12 Years A Slave was that bone. And during this year’s Academy Awards, Selma was that bone (and not even all that much, considering the lack of love it got. Unless we are factoring that whole Best Song thing into the mix).
These films also have to check of certain boxes and fulfill certain criteria.
It’s rather obvious when you think about it, but Hollywood has a pattern. As I mentioned above, there’s the issue of “Oscar Bait” (white movies, made by white people, for other white people). But that’s not Hollywood’s only issue. They counter that with “Token Ethnics”. These are the movies featuring one or more persons of colour (maybe they even cover more than one base! Maybe they’re Black and gay or maybe they’re Latino and disabled…etc, etc), that you know for a fact wouldn’t normally get a look-in, but the old white men at the Academy are feeling particularly generous this year, as they hand out Supporting Actress nominations to these movies, and if you’re lucky, Best Picture.
These movies differ from those in the “Oscar Bait” category in that they have a mission. Their entire reason for being nominated is to create an illusion that all films were created equal. That the Academy judges all films equally and recognises films not featuring an entire city of Caucasians. These movies normally start off by first establishing the “place” of the person of colour. It must be obvious to the audience, that this person is not an upstanding citizen. Hell, they may not even be a citizen. They’re not educated, or intelligent (this often times manifests itself in terms of literacy); they don’t own their own houses and cars, or have stable families.
But, why would they?
After all, they’re persons of colour.
So naturally, they must be shown to be a slave, perhaps a maid, or a single mother raising an unruly child with no father figure around.
Of course, they must have dreams bigger than their station. This helps to incite within the audience hope and fool them into believing that this person of colour will have their life greatly improved somehow. The notion of hope is a strong one and it is with these “Token Ethnic” films that Hollywood instills false hope into a community of ethnic people who dream of change.
12 Years A Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture; so, of course, Hollywood (or indeed the Academy) isn’t racist.
Lupita Nyong’o, the brilliant and beautiful Kenyan actress from 12 Years A Slave, won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as an entire plethora of White audience members–mixed in with a few token ethnics, obviously–clapped for her and cried (hey, look! White actors and filmmakers support this decision); so, OF COURSE, HOLLYWOOD OR INDEED THE ACADEMY ISN’T RACIST.
Why ever would we think it is?
Perhaps because the basis for most movies start with someone Caucasian (and presumably male. That is, after all, the default in these things). The featured collage is one created after a simple Google search for “Romantic Movies”. Apparently, the only people capable of love are Caucasians, because movies like Think Like A Man, Love & Basketball, Daddy’s Little Girls and Just Wright–movies featuring black leads– seemingly don’t count.
The biggest and most successful Rom Coms (and I use the term “successful” very lightly when talking about Rom Coms) all feature White leads. It’s as though, in the minds of those working in Hollywood, the only way a Rom Com can do well is by having two White leads (screw plot, character, and logic, right?). Of course, at a push, you can throw in one ethnic lead, but two or more, and it’s an “ethnic movie”.
And if it’s an ethnic movie, it’s on limited release, for a short amount of time, made on a smaller budget, and going to less countries.
Oh, that’s right. There’s actually no valid reason for it at all.
Looking even deeper into the problem, we land on Action movies (a highly successful and popular genre, that really never gets old)
And apparently, neither does the idea of having Caucasian actors fill in all the lead roles.
In the picture to your left are some of the most well-known, popular action franchises. Notice that all the lead roles are filled by Caucasian actors/actresses. When you get past the genre’s patriarchal problem, (the fact that, by default, most Action movies star men in the lead role as opposed to women), you come across the problem of these movies having the inability to highlight women of colour in the lead role (yes, I am in fact ignoring the likes of Will Smith and Denzel Washington in this case).
This problem gets even more conspicuous when you move on over to Superhero movies. For the most part, Superhero movies seem to be taking on the mantle of the black sidekick aka the token black superhero, who helps out everyone’s favourite Caucasian hero.
But where do women of colour fit into this? There are loads of small-budget Asian movies, featuring strong, badass, action female leads, but no one ever hears about those. Hollywood’s too scared to take that leap and put a woman of colour as the lead in an action movie/franchise. Kate Beckinsale, Mila Jovovich, Umu Thurman and Angelina Jolie, and even Scarlett Johansson are the biggest names I can think of in female Action movies, and yet not one of these women is a woman of colour.
I’d like to throw Michelle Rodriguez in, (although given her recent comments on minorities in Hollywood, I’m inclined to disinclude her in anything related to diversity), but when have you ever seen her lead her own franchise and not just be featured in one?
This is also a serious problem with the Young Adult genre as well. Movies like City of Bones, The Hunger Games, and Divergent are all big-budget, Action franchises with female leads. And yet all the lead characters, based on those within the books, are White. It’s a bone of contention for avid readers of this genre like myself and a constant source of annoyance. One of the reasons I will always recommend Vampire Academy–the books–is because it’s main character, Rose Hathaway, is half-Turkish (and her father plays a significant part in the books later on).
Hollywood’s diversity problem is far bigger than a few people of colour winning Academy Awards. It’s far bigger than just putting a few more ethnic people into movies. The basis for Hollywood films is White. Its foundation is White, it is seen as the norm, and no one questions that. We build our films with White characters and attributes, and then try to build our diversity and ethnicity around that– throwing in a “sassy Black friend”, “spicy Latina”, or “quirky Asian”– and that is not the way.
Until we change the basis (the foundation, the belief that “white is right” by default, etc, etc), there can be no change and any perceived “change” will just be a glorified illusion at best.
Images From: Giphy.com, The Inquisitr.com, Gifsplanet.com, Moviepilot, Wikipedia, Fotor.com