On Diversity in Hollywood and White People in Trouble in Space

I’m a dilettante when it comes to cinema, but despite my ignorance I still find myself interested in what and who people describe as being the best every time awards season comes around, like my opinions on such matters are just rough drafts waiting on the validation of someone more qualified.

Most of us are at least passively interested in what’s considered a “good” movie, as evidenced by how quick we are to passive aggressively cite Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb ratings when friends question our taste. And how else would you explain the phenomenon of watching a game of Monopoly-length awards program on a Sunday night when you have work the next day? Nearly every year I tune into the Golden Globes and the Oscars to see the fashion, get emotional over acceptance speeches, and find out if my personal opinions are in line with a shadowy group of presumed taste-makers wielding their power like the Wizard of Oz. The issue of representation in Hollywood is a hot topic lately, with an all-white roster of acting nominees for the second year in a row, #OscarsSoWhite trending on Twitter, and Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee calling for an Oscars boycott. Increasing diversity in casting, directing, writing, and acting in movies is easier said than done, but if we keep glorifying familiar white actors and actresses in the same formulaic movies, we don’t stand a chance at discovering and celebrating new talent.

When I saw the list of this year’s Oscar nominees, I wasn’t surprised to learn there were so few people of color nominated, especially in the acting categories. Despite Viola Davis’s poignant acceptance speech at last year’s Emmys, the issue of opportunity for people of color is as persistent in Hollywood as Leonardo DiCaprio’s bloodthirst to endure as many CGI bear attacks as it takes to take home an Oscar. In the year that’s passed since Davis said, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” we’re still seeing more of the same usual, white suspects.

Does Cate Blanchett have a permanent seat at the Best Actress table? Does Jennifer Lawrence’s hype entitle her to a nomination every time she manages to convincingly pull off playing a 30+ woman (side note: thereby also taking that role from a 30+-year-old actress)? Will the Leonardo DiCaprio awards season foreplay ever finish so we can all get closure and move on? These actors and actresses are great. We get it! Many of them have won before and might even win again someday. But why are some actors and actresses rewarded with an Oscar nomination for every role they deign to take on (*cough* TOM HARDY *cough cough*) while others get snubbed entirely?

The reputations of the most popular, acclaimed actors and actresses make it damn near impossible to even discern a truly exceptional performance from a mediocre one, because we’ve put them on the coveted pedestal of being Good. He’s not just Matt Damon, he’s Matt Damon: Good Actor. And Kate Winslet? She’s Kate Winslet: Known Good Actress. There are people of color that share the same esteemed distinction, but they’re outnumbered and overshadowed by their Caucasian peers.

Every single one of the actors, actresses, directors, cinematographers, animators, etc. that receive award nominations are exceptionally talented — they wouldn’t get nominated or even be part of the conversation if they weren’t — but as I read the comment threads (a masochistic hobby) on articles about Oscar nominations, whenever race and the lack diversity in nominees is mentioned, the same exhausting argument kept coming up:

“So you’re saying that people of color should be nominated even if they don’t deserve it just so the nominees are more diverse? How is that fair to the people who happen to be white but still deserve recognition? That tarnishes the prestige of the award. Is that what you want, a participation trophy? People of color get nominated plenty! Remember Twelve Years A Slave? That got nominations! Everyone watched Master of None. Viola Davis just won something last year! Taraji P. Henson got a Golden Globe! See! Diversity issue? Pah!”

Here’s the thing. When people of color or movies with a diverse cast win awards, they stick out in our minds because they’re rare, not because it happens so often it’s on the tip of our tongue. Where do you even begin rattling off all the movies with a principally white cast that have won Best Picture? Oh, let’s see, Birdman comes to mind, The King’s Speech, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, American Beauty, Titanic, The English Patient, The Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, The Sound of Music, every movie nominated during the 30s and 40s, etc. etc. Try the same thing with movies that don’t focus primarily on white people. Okay, let’s see. We’ve got 12 Years a Slave, Slumdog Millionaire, Crash, The Last Emperor, Gandhi, In the Heat of the Night, and West Side Story. Unless I’ve missed something, that’s all of them. That means there are seven movies in the history of the Academy Awards that managed the formidable feat of winning Best Picture and not focusing on white stories at the same time. There’s a similar lack of representation in nominations for people of color in the acting categories.

Halle Berry is the only woman of color that has won the Oscar for Best Actress. Hispanic actresses have only earned a Best Actress nomination on four occasions, and have yet to win. Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker are the four winners of just 20 black Best Actor nominees dating back to 1958. Despite two victories, Asian men have only been nominated for Best Actor three times: in 1956, 1982, and 2003. February 28, 2016 marks the 88th Academy Awards, and there are still so many firsts that haven’t happened yet, and while institutionalized racism still plays a role in the movies being made and the actors who are cast, fear and complacency are formidable foes of progress as well.

Creating a character for a person of color requires looking outside of yourself and your privilege and attempting to understand the culture, fears, and struggles of someone who has lived very different experiences than you have. And my goodness, imagine the effort it takes to make an entire movie from that perspective. It might show us something we don’t understand, something we’ve tried to forget. It might make it harder to ignore certain headlines. It might bring to mind the uncomfortable truth that even on the days when the Wi-Fi is spotty, the coffee isn’t strong, and everything finds a way to go wrong, we lead charmed lives that are generously represented and celebrated in media. Movies that focus on people of color or movies that tell the stories of people of color might remind us that entertainment and emotion are colorblind. So Hollywood keeps on creating the characters and movies that are within its comfort zone, famous white people get casted because they have proven box office earnings and awards on a shelf, and we keep paying $20 for popcorn to see these movies in theaters because why should the fight for inclusivity fall on our shoulders? We’re just seeing the movies they make. We can’t help it if there aren’t people of color.

Of the movies nominated for awards this year, I’ve only seen The Martian and The Revenant, so I have some catching up to do. The Martian in 2015 marks the third White People in Trouble in Space movies that we’ve had following Interstellar in 2014 and Gravity in 2013. As for The Revenant, it’s being touted as a movie about revenge, but let’s be real: It’s a movie about Leonardo DiCaprio getting attacked by a bear. The Martian and The Revenant are both quality films boasting good acting, but were they so blindingly brilliant that Will Smith in Concussion, Michael B. Jordan in Creed, O’Shea Jackson Jr. in Straight Outta Compton, or Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation couldn’t earn any nominations? What The Martian and The Revenant (and a few other Oscar nominees, I suspect) have in common is that they’re movies about white people doing things that aren’t exclusive to white people, yet that’s the movie that was made. And if these movies did have casts with more people of color, they may not get the same favorable buzz.

“You have it all wrong,” you say. “I’d still go see a movie about Idris Elba growing crops in space or Will Smith getting attacked by a bear or Morena Baccarin and Gina Rodriguez in a romantic relationship in the 1950s or Anthony Mackie in Mad Max.” Maybe you mean it, or maybe you wouldn’t, but the point is that we haven’t had the opportunity to find out because those movies haven’t been made.

We don’t need to create award nomination quotas for each race; we need to create more movies and roles that are inspiring and memorable for everyone — not just white people. If people of color have been finding value in movies starring all white casts for all these years, why couldn’t the same be true for movies that are more diverse? We need to look harder for the stories we haven’t heard yet, the ones that couldn’t be brought to life by anyone but an actor or actress of color.

As a white person, I of course love watching long, boring, pretentious movies about other white people having experiences, but other races deserve the same privilege of being in those long, boring, pretentious movies, too. I have never once seen a movie and thought, “Wow, the whiteness of this cast really saved an otherwise awful plot.” Perhaps more importantly, when people of color create and star in movies that aren’t long, boring, or pretentious, they should still be taken as seriously as those that are and given the recognition that they deserve. Being more inclusive doesn’t denigrate or threaten the talent we’ve always recognized, it creates the opportunity for new talent to emerge and create movies that represent, inspire, and inform everyone.

And for crying out loud, haven’t we seen enough white people in trouble in space?

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