Whitewashed Hollywood is the Problem, Not the Whitewashed Oscars
The Oscar nominations came out on January 14th, eleven days ago, and once again there was an uproar because #Oscarssowhite. Immediately, actors and directors, including Will Smith, Spike Lee, and Jada Pinkett-Smith announced that they would be boycotting the Oscars.
Consequently, two white actors responded with such disheartening comments to this boycott, that just show how clueless and how uninterested they, and the industry as a whole, are about diversity. In an interview, Charlotte Rampling, nominated for Best Actress, said that this boycott was, “…racist to whites…Why classify people? These days everyone is more or less accepted.” Really Charlotte? Have you ever felt racism in your life? Have you been judged simply by your last name because it’s obviously Asian? Have you never heard of white privilege? Don’t make this boycott about white people, when it’s actually happening so the voices of black, Hispanic, Asian, and other minorities can be heard.
“Even if you say you’re not racist, if you’re white you have to realize that you benefit from a system of racism” -Professor Jill Bakehorn, UC Berkeley, Sociology 163
Similarly, in an interview, Michael Caine said, “You can’t vote for an actor because he’s black,” which I completely agree with, but did he see the critically acclaimed performances of Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson in Creed? I didn’t see all the performances of the Best Actor nominees, but it’s a shame when Sylvester Stallone gets nominated for Best Supporting Actor, when the star of Creed, Michael B. Jordan, who essentially revitalized the franchise, doesn’t get any recognition for his performance. Michael Cain continued saying, “Be patient. Of course it will come.” Asians have been waiting for fifty-eight years to see an Asian actress win an Oscar. How long should we wait for Michael? Till we’re dead?
The problem isn’t with the Oscars being whitewashed, the problem lies within the whitewashed industry itself.
Take a look at the bigger picture: we can’t be patient because there has been no significant progress made in increasing diversity in Hollywood, even in the 21st century. The University of Southern California conducted a study of 30,000 characters in the top 700 grossing films from 2007–2014, with 2011 excluded, and surprise, surprise, white characters made up 70–80% of all characters, year after year. If the whole cast of a film can’t even have an increase in diversity these past seven years, then how can I expect to see an Asian woman be the star of a blockbuster franchise in my lifetime?
One of my Media Studies professors, Josh Jackson, brought up an interesting point during his Television Studies lecture. He said that he previously only wanted to watch television shows that accurately represented America, and so decided to stop watching shows that had more than 66% of the cast played by white actors. 66% because that is the population of white people in America. Then he realized he couldn’t watch Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, How I Met Your Mother, Girls, Friends, House of Cards, and basically any popular American series that didn’t have a family premise.
Accurate representation in Hollywood is not only ignored, but films are whitewashed time and time again. Pan, The Last Airbender, Argo, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt, The Martian, and Aloha are a few. Minority actors aren’t even given a chance to star in roles actually meant for them, so how can they be expected to headline an “Oscar worthy” film? In fact, studios will only finance movies with white leads, even if the movies then become historically inaccurate. When replying to criticism of his white cast, Ridley Scott, director of Exodus: Gods and Kings, said, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Similarly, there was controversy over the white cast in Gods of Egypt. Director Alex Proyas and the film’s studio later apologized, and Lionsgate even said, “We recognize that it is our responsibility to help ensure that casting decisions reflect the diversity and culture of the time periods portrayed … Lionsgate is deeply committed to making films that reflect the diversity of our audiences. We have, can and will continue to do better.”
When exactly can I expect to see this commitment to diversity Lionsgate? It’s been three years from the criticism of the whitewashing of the Hunger Games, and yet nothing has changed.
It’s even more saddening when actors with liberal images, like Matt Damon, don’t think diversity is necessary in all aspects of Hollywood. Yesterday, Matt Damon spoke about the Oscar controversy and said, “We’re talking about huge systemic injustices around race and gender that are a lot bigger than the Oscars,” and said there needs to be more steps taken to increase diversity. Yet, just three months ago, when Effie Brown, a black film and television producer, argued there should be diversity in behind-the-scenes talent in Project Greenlight, Matt Damon retorted, “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” In other words, it’s only necessary to increase diversity for the actors onscreen, and not necessary to increase diversity for producers, writers, etc. Ironic then, that in the Martian, which Matt Damon is nominated for Best Actor, Mackenzie Davis, a white actress, plays a character that was written as Korean-American in the novel. Oh, and did I mention who directed this film? Ridley Scott, who had previous controversy over his white casting in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Since minority actors are given no opportunities, even those that were originally written for them, they are relegated to stereotypical roles where competition is fierce. This is perfectly illustrated in a scene from Master of None, where Dev Shah, played by Aziz Ansari, goes to an audition and sees a room packed with South Asian actors. Later, Dev gets asked to read lines with an Indian accent as he auditions.
Master of None itself, however, has been a breath of fresh air with its clever storytelling and its diversity within and beyond the show. Previously, Effie Brown argued that having a more diverse crew would help create nuanced interpretations for minority actors, and this is successfully seen in the critically praised Master of None. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, both minorities, created the series and they wrote an episode titled “Parents,” where two characters struggle to connect and talk to their immigrant parents, which many first-generation Americans can relate to. This episode, however, was praised for being original, but it’s only considered a novel storyline to the American audience, because minorities are rarely given a chance to share their unique experiences. When giving an acceptance speech for Best Comedy at the Critics’ Choice Awards, Alan Yang said, “Thank you to all of the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard and for so long that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original now.” The Master of None is a step forward in the right direction, where more voices are heard and stories are told, but we still need more shows and films that allow minority actors and workers to be fairly represented.
Audiences want to see something new, as evidenced by the popularity and critical praise of Master of None, the push for diversity from Oscar winners and nominees, including George Clooney, Mark Ruffalo, Brie Larson, Matt Damon, Viola Davis, and Reese Witherspoon, and the public outcry when a film is whitewashed. Yet, studios are still purposely shying away from diversity, and I want to say this to them: We are tired and bored of the next whitewashed franchise or sequel that you are making, and minorities have stories to tell and can be profitable stars if you give them opportunities, so get your act together Hollywood, it’s 2016 and we deserve to see diversity.