According to Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling, boycotting the Oscars and adapting the system would be “racist against whites”. Discussing the topic with France’s Europe 1 radio, she said, “sometimes maybe black actors didn’t deserve to make the shortlist.”
Rampling has since clarified her comments. However, her words were naïve even if misinterpreted. For two years in a row only white actors have been nominated in the Best and Supporting categories. The forty slots available could not be filled by people of color, despite movies like Selma, Beasts of No Nation and Concussion bringing stellar performances by actors David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Idris Elba and Will Smith.
A matter of opinion?
Clearly there is an issue. Did Steve Carell really deserve his nod over Oyelowo for Foxcatcher? Personally, I say not. Nor do I believe Eddie Redmayne truly deserved to win. His adaptation was fairly mild and rested on the powerful idea of Stephen Hawking to carry him. Felicity Jones, his on-screen wife, was the stronger of the two but lost out, deservedly, to Julianne Moore for Best Actress. Neither Oyelowo nor Ejogo were nominated for their respective roles. For me, Oyelowo was a certainty.
My opinion, however, is just one. One of many. And this happens every year. In every category. Take Boyhood. It should have won Best Film because, regardless of the strength of the story, it is a masterpiece of artistry no other director could recreate. It is honest and beautiful. But Birdman won instead. And that was that.
Rampling revealed ignorance on several levels for her comments. But at the heart of it, was she wrong?
Michael Caine is another recognizable voice who has supposedly put his foot in his mouth over his comments. To him, the actors who were ignored just need to wait:
“There’s loads of black actors. You can’t vote for an actor because he’s black. You got to give a good performance, and I’m sure there were very good [performances].”
Is Mr. Caine wrong? Should we vote on actors because they’re black or because the work they do is exemplary? He isn’t incorrect. But since Oyelowo, Ejogo, Elba and Smith have all been ignored over Jennifer Lawrence (good, yet similar for three years of nominations), Carell (good, but great?), Bradley Cooper (exaggerated) and Redmayne (simple, two years running), the concern is plain enough to see.
The majority minority
The focus over the past two years has been on the lack of non-white nominees. Yet we seem to associate that generally with “black”. There has been little said over the lack of support for Asian, Latin, and Middle Eastern actors, as well as all the other races left off the list. We have simplified racial discussions between two groups when there are so many others which are also ignored and disenfranchised.
Demián Bichir is the last Latino to be nominated for an acting Oscar; 2012 for A Better Life. He didn’t win. You’d have to go further for the nomination of a different race.
And right here I have turned the Academy Awards into a system of quotas. Instead of looking at different performances, I’m looking for figures to try and quantify the imbalance of racial make-up. Is this wrong? Yes. And No. It’s complicated.
When Rampling says it would be racist toward white people if we ignored their performances for the sake of a non-white actor, it is hard to disregard what she is saying. First it takes away the ability to judge each performance without bias independent of politics. Second, it nullifies the concept of choosing the best if you’re looking at what they look like.
Of course the counter would be the current members of the Academy are already biased. And with that I cannot disagree.
The token black guy
Rampling is wrong for how she spoke, but not for her belief. Nor is Caine. And nor are Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee or anyone else who has anything else to say about the #OscarsSoWhite. There is a deep, underlying issue. But it isn’t with the Academy. At least not solely.
How often are we presented with real black, Latino or Asian characters and stories? Stories which are not centered on Civil Rights, Civil War, slavery or any other “typical” or “recognizable” views of what it means to be non-white? The two standout black movies of 2015 were Selma and Straight Outta Compton. Biopics. Stories about civil liberties in the fifties and sixties, and hip hop culture. Both are incredibly put together stories. And both are archetypal of Hollywood.
Birdman. Boyhood. The Martian. Brooklyn. Room. All movies nominated for an award over the past two years. All of them could have starred or co-starred a non-white actor without interfering with the contextual integrity of the film. That’s not to say they should have. It’s that they could have. These are stories which detail American life, growing up, mental health, human nature, struggles to survive. And all too often these roles go to white actors.
In the twenty-first century, we still live in a world where non-white actors are used to demonstrate “the other”, or “blackness”. Or, in a less artistic fashion, they are tokens used to express how multicultural Hollywood can really be.
Superheroes: for justice, righteousness, and white people everywhere
Other than Halle Berry who played an African tribal princess’ daughter Ororo Munroe, there have not been any mainstream superheroes on-screen who are not white. Jessica Alba is the only other representation, but since her character’s brother was played by Chris Evans, it seems her Latina reference was white-washed from production.
These comic books were conceived at a time when black or Latino lead characters would have been sensational. Other than the likes of Black Panther and Storm, there are not many minorities in the superhero world (although in some new arcs, Captain America is black, Thor is a woman and Wolverine is gay; progress). But does it matter whether the movies concern themselves with authenticity to the character’s race when adapting from the comics, especially when so much is altered in the more crucial plots?
Marvel’s reboot of The Fantastic Four, where the role of Johnny Storm (originally played by Evans, opposite Alba) was taken on by Michael B. Jordan. The new movie was not about a black superhero. The story didn’t ponder whether his blackness would hold him back to be a superhero. Here was a smart guy who overcame his own volatile attitude to become a hero. Oh and also, he was not white in case you were curious.
Hollywood studios live in a bubble of profit margins where they have to be cautious when choosing actors. And this in a generation where Will Smith is one of the most bankable movie stars, and the boundless talents of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Denzel Washington, Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne and Chiwetel Ejiofor to name a few. It’s incredible how often these performers go unnoticed and unused (especially when Tom Cruise continuously destroys movies with his top-billing).
Taking part matters
There is a problem with the Academy.
Should establishing a black alternative academy, as suggested by Jada Pinkett Smith, be realized in order for the talent of non-white performers to be recognized then our culture and society has failed. But that doesn’t mean Michael Caine and Charlotte Rampling are misinformed. Yes, their phrasing is questionable, but the topic has recently only focused on what is essentially a subjective voting structure. It would be disingenuous to select an
actor for an award because of their skin color and not their talent. When it comes down to it, the rewarding process is irrelevant. Non-whites are barely given a chance to actually be rewarded.
More roles, more characters, more stories about blacks, Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterns… For once, taking part is really the most important thing. And on this the big studios need to change, not just the Academy. Unless you’re allowed to even start the race, there’s no use in arguing why you didn’t get the reward at the finish.