Lights, Camera, Racism

For all the folks who are outraged and depressed by how thoroughly black people were ignored in this year’s Oscar nominations, there is at least one useful piece of data to keep in mind:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always ignored black people among Oscar nominees.  So, to this season’s snubbed:  Don’t worry, it’s not you.  It’s the Academy.

Yes, the near-total absence of color across the 24 categories in next month’s Academy Awards is lame, weird, troubling and shameful (really, no Samuel L. Jackson?)  However, as we take a measure of the AMPAS’s diversity problem here in 2016, we should view it in the context of the entire history of the Oscars, which—sad to say—has been utterly consistent in not recognizing great work by filmmakers who are not white.

Care for some numbers?  Of course you would.

Not counting this year, there have been 87 Oscar ceremonies to date, amounting to roughly 435 total nominations in each of the two dozen categories.  In that time, black male actors in leading roles have been nominated on a grand total of 20 occasions.  Meanwhile, leading black women have been nominated 10 times.  Among supporting performances by black men and women, the numbers are 17 and 19, respectively.  Crunching all of that together, we find that African-Americans have accounted for 3.8 percent of all acting nominations in history.  This despite the fact that black people comprise 13.2 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

(In case you were wondering, the proportion of African-American winners in the acting categories is 4.3 percent—slightly better, but not by much.  As for black representation in Oscar’s remaining 20 categories:  You don’t want to know.)

Since it’s insane to argue that black people are any less talented at acting than white people, the explanation for this discrepancy is that either a) black actors have not gotten the same opportunities as white actors, or b) Academy voters—who, themselves, are overwhelmingly white—simply don’t value performances by black actors as highly as they do those by white ones.  (That is, if they even bother to see them.)

Common sense indicates that the answer is a combination of both factors.  And if common sense isn’t sufficient, the documented history of Hollywood racism should keep you busy for quite some time.

While one might be tempted to dismiss the above as ancient history—and therefore irrelevant to the present crisis—now would be as good a time as any to summon the old Faulkner line, “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”

In fact, understanding racism in Hollywood is no different from understanding racism anywhere else.  It’s the sin that keeps on giving.  (Or taking, as it were.)

As with racism in sports, in government, in housing and on the streets, the biases in the film industry were already deeply ingrained when the art form began—possibly as a byproduct of two and a half centuries in which one race was the legal property of the other—and if there’s one thing we know for sure about institutional biases, it’s that they are a royal bitch to get rid of.

It’s the nature of large organizations to change at a glacial pace, if at all.  Once people get it into their heads that some outfit or other “looks” a certain way (read:  disproportionately white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), the impression becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, at which point the whole culture conspires to maintain the status quo—including those who stand to benefit from a sudden evolution in thoughts and practices.

Consider the words of Michelle Wu, the 31-year-old Taiwanese American who was just elected president of the Boston City Council.  “When I was growing up, I never imagined running for office,” said Wu in a recent interview, “And I think a big part of that was not seeing anyone who looked like me in government.  I was told all the time to consider figure skating, because Michelle Kwan was such a popular and nationally-known figure and Asian-American woman.”

There you have it:  If you think a certain organization or profession is off-limits to someone with your background or genetic makeup, you will be far less likely to ever associate with it, regardless of your actual abilities.  As a consequence, stereotypes will be reinforced and segregation will continue to rule the day.

This is not to remove one iota of blame from those who instituted white supremacy in the first place.  Rather, it is to observe how white supremacy was designed to be self-perpetuating—how the system of black disenfranchisement not only hindered the advancement of an entire class of American citizens in the present, but also created the conditions whereby racial discrimination could persist across all subsequent generations as well—even after passing laws intended to prevent such a thing from happening.

So when we ask, “Why isn’t there a single black face among the 20 Oscar nominees for acting?” we must begin with the fact that Hollywood was established as a discriminatory industry—creating the most stereotypical of black characters and hiring white actors in blackface to play them—followed by decades of studio-backed films whose black characters were either non-existent, subservient or (again) utterly and crudely one-dimensional.  Logically, this would have led to a great many promising black actors to direct their gifts elsewhere (or nowhere), further discouraging writers and directors from anticipating such talent in the first place.

For the most part, filmmakers have since forged past all of that, and black characters today—like gay characters today—are not marginalized or pigeonholed into specific types of roles (except when they are).

And yet—as both critics and actors have attested in recent days—black actors have hardly achieved equity when it comes to achieving the Hollywood dream.  If I had to settle on one culprit above all, it would be the implicit assumption among far too many members of the Academy that, deep down, they just don’t deserve it.  On the basis of the Academy’s newly-proposed remedies for its racial gap—including tougher voting standards for its older members—it would appear there is some credence to this view.  Someday maybe we’ll know for sure.

In the meantime—if we could end on a slightly optimistic note—I have one more data point to convey.

At the moment, the smart money is on Alejandro G. Iñárritu to snag the Oscar for Best Director for his arresting work on The Revenant, which would make him the first back-to-back winner in that category since 1950 (he won last year for Birdman).  As you may know, Iñárritu was born in Mexico, as was the most recent previous winner of the director prize, Alfonso Cuarón (for Gravity).  Before that, Best Director went to Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist and Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech—respectively, men born in Taiwan, France and the United Kingdom.

That’s right:  For five (and possibly six) years running, the Academy has given its award for directing—arguably the most prestigious trophy bestowed upon an individual—to someone who isn’t even from the United States.  This pompous Hollywood gang—so “pure” and old-school that it can only see white—has nonetheless summoned the imagination to repeatedly honor work helmed by foreigners—people Donald Trump would be perfectly happy to deport.  (Ang Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen, so he would be safe.)

Is this open-mindedness toward non-Americans a portent of an open-mindedness toward non-whites?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe it just means the Academy is so racist that it will scour the entire planet to avoid honoring a person of color.

In any case, it indicates that the Academy is cognizant enough to recognize that the world does not end at the corner of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, that its values represent America’s values (or so it would like to think) and that it might as well enter the 21st century at one point or another.  Sooner or later, people are going to talk.

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