From whitewashing to nepotism, and a bunch of stereotypes, it's about time we talk about race and film.
While some might have feigned surprise that the 2016 Oscars were so white, anyone with an insight into the industry could have predicted it. From whitewashing to nepotism, and a bunch of stereotypes, it's about time we talk about race and films.
It was hardly much of a surprise to us that the 2015 Oscars were a whitewash. Black folks have had pretty much every year since the first Oscars ceremony to practice our ‘resigned shrug with side-eye’ reaction to being ignored by the Academy. The building blocks of an argument were neatly in place by the time we arrived in our social media age of sharing, and opinion upon opinion being galvanised. The Academy decided to address its monstrous lack of diversity, again.
It’s a conversation that’s had every time someone Not White actually does win, and the industry discusses how it’s a particularly great achievement, a sign of real change. Each time we blink uncertainly at that same argument, because we’ve seen it before, and before that, but this time it was slightly different, because no one Not White was nominated in any of the main categories, and our usual resignation was spiked with anger.
The #OscarsSoWhite tag went viral in February, and it was quickly established the problem wasn’t the Oscars itself; the lack of diversity within the ceremony was the end result of deep-rooted problems in the film industry – namely rife racism, and a belief that Not White actors don’t have crossover appeal and lose studios money internationally.
The ever-growing list of movies bombing at the box office when a studio has whitewashed characters instead of casting the right colour indicates that authenticity might actually be less toxic to the box office than pretending today’s audiences will fall for the lie that we can only identify with white people. It doesn’t seem to stop the whitewashing though.
Actor, writer and director Don Cheadle was interviewed in the Telegraph last week, explaining how difficult it was to get the Miles Davis biopic he produced, directed and starred in onto screens. His story neatly encapsulates some of those problems; nobody wanted to fund the film, featuring as it did a black lead with no white main characters.
“Everyone but everyone wanted to be the second person to say yes”, said Cheadle, and the message this sent was clear: they needed an “international star” in a main role, ‘international’ being a cover word for white. Ewan McGregor got on board, and suddenly the film seemed to have legs. “When it became Ewan, Britain jumped in, and the money got to the magic number to get a green light,” Cheadle suggests, although he still ended up making the “biggest investment of [his] life, no question.”
His single-mindedness got the film to screen, to great reviews, but it shouldn’t have been so difficult.
Cheadle’s film, Miles Ahead, is further proof that there are quality tales to be told about Not White people, and that plenty of us are interested in them, and that if invested in, those tales become great pieces of art. It’s art that wouldn’t exist but for hanging by the skin of Don Cheadle’s wallet, because the industry considers Non Whiteness niche, and niche is risky.
Think about it, that’s millions of stories incidentally, millions of Don Cheadles but without the wallets. To think of the sheer weight of untapped and never to be realised talent of so many people, and the knowledge that it’s because the industry feels we’re not interesting enough? It feels something like despondency.
A reason a great pool of non- white talent misses out on awards recognition is found in the unwillingness to fund films deigned ‘niche’ because they don’t narrate a white experience. When the projects get greenlit, parts are coveted, their rarity elevating them to golddust. The indignant response to the ‘whitewashing’ of characters written as Japanese or part Chinese or black should be understood as justifiable in light of the pitifully few opportunities.
Remember when Laurence Olivier adopted blackface to play Othello? The man who the prestigious British theatre awards are named after once blacked up to play one of the greatest roles for a black man in theatre history, such was the aversion to Not White actors. Then you wonder why we feel the industry isn’t welcoming. Our resigned shrug with side eye is at the ready for when Keira Knightley gets cast as a young Aretha Franklin.
There’s justifiable anger when colourism comes into play, when casting directors use the most aesthetically Eurocentric actor they can find to play roles such as Nina Simone. I don’t just mean how light their skin is; it’s the straight hair, smaller nose and lips – the ‘Eurocentric’ beauty ideals which often white people possess.
It further exacerbates this fundamental problem with race and the casting of dark-skinned people. Zoe Saldana has done the a shit job of portraying Simone, but we all knew that would happen. The only reason I can think she took the role was that she has a habit of picking characters who are a completely different colour to her. She’s been green [Guardians of the Galaxy], blue [Avatar], now black. Her agent will next announce she’s attached to a new Teletubbies film, with her playing Tinky Winky, La La or Po.
Of course, the gauntlet is not yet run, and finally landing a role presents fresh problems, including the superficial rendering of ethnic characters, and the reality that you’ll more than likely be playing a flat role, whose character is nothing more than tired racial stereotype. Mixed-race actor Luke Elliott sees just how scarce the roles are, and when they do exist the construction of ‘blackness’ in the minds of writers and casting directors that’s so frustrating.
“The amount of jobs I have to filter out because the casting says ‘White/Caucasian’ is ridiculous”, explains Smith. “On top of that I have to filter out the two-dimensional stereotypes, ‘street’, ‘urban’, ‘hip’ etc – it’s coded language that means ‘black’- or what they think ‘black’ is.
Luke’s opinion of whitewashing is the resigned shrug with side eye in sentence form. “People got mad about Rue from the Hunger Games being played by a black girl, and she was written as a black character, so…” The sardonic response is perfect for the sputtering racist fury at the mere casting of non white roles, and the tepid takes on why Hermione simply cannot be black, even when her creator says she can.
It was an important moment, particularly for black women and girls, when Hermione was cast black for the new Harry Potter and the Cursed Child plays. One blogger talks about disidentification, and the idea that our minds can and will construct our favourite characters in our own image, despite contrary descriptive indicators. Hermione’s bushy hair did beautiful magic by making that disidentification a step easier, and JK Rowling’s intervention was welcome. Since I felt that I was in fact Hermione growing up reading the Potters, I can vouch for the process whereby we suspend our disbelief enough to become the character we most admire. But why should non white people have to do this, all the time, throughout all media, as though whiteness is default?
Luke’s message for the industry is one which they should take heed of: “Make yourselves inclusive from top to bottom, or we can let you flop like Exodus and Gods of Egypt. Your choice.” Did you go and see Stonewall? Thought not.
Film director and producer Campbell X, whose LGBT feature film Stud Life has screened at LGBT film festivals around the world, believes that casting ignorance is a mere part of a system-wide diversity problem.
“It is easy to get bogged down in what people look like, hence why we get distracted by the ethnicity of actors because that is who we see. What is often missing in debates is who is behind the camera in terms of writers, directors and producers.
“As a filmmaker I am more interested in the mindset of the invisible people who influence what eventually gets made and screened on mainstream platforms – the financiers, sales agents, the distributors, and the publicists.”
Campbell X also clocks the casual racism which dictates that Not White stories are uninteresting.
“We need to change their ways of thinking that assumes that (white) people and those in other territories like China, the Middle East and Southeast Asia etc are more interested in “white” stories/actors – that those are the only films with mass global appeal. This has been disproved so many times by box office statistics.”
An issue with roles being confined to maids, slaves or gangsters is also causing offence, and a fervour for more complex roles beyond narratives which have race centred is palpable. Campbell X believes though, that we need to cast our net further afield.
“Films that show black people as complex, layered and authentic are being made right now by indie filmmakers who are black. Just because they are not on mainstream TV or cinemas doesn’t mean they do not exist! We have always been there. Let’s also remember as people of colour we have Nollywood and Bollywood.”
Perhaps this is the way forward- a retreat from seeking Hollywood approval, independently creating and gaining traction in a social media world where sharing content is easy. This doesn’t solve funding problems, but with crowdsourcing gaining popularity, perhaps diversity will be taken by cutting out the middlemen. Oh, and the film industry needs to get less racist too.
It isn’t difficult to imagine why white writers don’t want to tackle characters they probably wouldn’t get right and get flack for. How a character might talk, might walk, the music they’d listen to and where they’d head on a messy night out. There’s a subtlety to the art of creating a character that requires knowledge of a relevant culture to accurately depict their nuances. Getting this wrong forces characters into two dimensions, leaving the writer a failure. If the job is to create life out of words, then the audience is short-changed. Of course, men write female characters and vice versa, but there are fewer similarities between divergent cultures than there are between the binary sexes. We all know people of the opposite gender, but how many of us can safely say our lives are culturally diverse enough to write nuanced characters whose narratives exist beyond our personal experiences?
What’s needed is a more diverse pool of writers, with adequate funding.
Entry into a writing profession requires cold hard cash. You need money to study, while you’re interning, while you desperately try to build a career by writing for free, while you battle the nepotism that permeates the industry we adore.
From writing to casting, we’ve got problems with diversity behind and in front of the camera. Writing requires full and more meritocratic access to education and source materials- books, plays and productions need to be more affordable, too. Scholarships for these arts need to focus on ensuring places for Not White people; so-called ‘positive discrimination’ redresses imbalances using fair means.
In the meantime a good place to start is surely where Oprah is at - getting funding in place for diverse projects, cutting out the need to bow to a Hollywood (as we resigned shrug and a side-eye) that thinks ‘doubling’ its number of minority Academy members from five to ten is dealing with a race problem.