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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Teachable Tragedy

On the American home front, there were two big events last week.

First, a 63-year-old man killed himself for no good reason.  And second, a police officer killed an 18-year-old kid for no good reason.

The former is newsworthy because the man was beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams.  The latter is newsworthy because the officer was white and the kid was black (and unarmed), and because of the subsequent uproar in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing occurred.

If the official narratives are to be believed, both deaths came about through mental illness.  Williams was a victim of depression, while the kid, Michael Brown, was a victim of racism.

In fact, we don’t know for sure whether either of those assertions is true.  Williams apparently did not leave a suicide note, and there are crucial details about the shooting of Brown of which we remain ignorant.

But that’s not the point.  These two incidents were tragedies—both incalculably unjust and unnecessary and preventable—and we, the human race, have made it our duty to make sense of them, regardless of the facts.  To explain things that are inexplicable.  To transform a tragedy into a “teachable moment.”  To shape individual deaths into symbols of broader crises in our society, in order that we might prevent such misery in the future.

There is scarcely anything wrong with this impulse, as such.  While it would be nice for us—particularly our representatives in Congress—to address all the injustices in the world all the time without any prodding, certain practical considerations prevent it.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Accordingly, we often depend on specific, isolated moments to remind us of the issues that especially deserve our attention, and which had perhaps been neglected up until then.  Hence the emphasis on gun control legislation following a school shooting (or three), or on climate change policy in the aftermath of a destructive hurricane.

So it is understandable that the suicide of an admired celebrity with a history of depression and drug abuse would lead to an outpouring of public interest in suicide, depression and drug abuse.  They are real and serious problems—as are the stigmas attached to them—and if it takes the loss of Robin Williams to examine them closely, so be it.

But the situation in Ferguson is exceptional, owing to the sheer number of “national conversations” that have arisen in its wake, some of which not necessarily having much to do with each other.

There is, for starters, the question of whether outfitting local police forces with military-style tanks and weapons might carry unintended consequences.  And whether dispersing non-violent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets ultimately does more harm than good—both in terms of maintaining order and establishing trust.

As well, there are the matters of suppressing freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble that have come into question amidst the public response to the Brown shooting, along with the media’s tendency to perpetuate clichés and prejudices as to who the “heroes” and “villains” are, long before all the facts are known.

But this is all mere window dressing around the central concern of black and white. 

First is the assumption that Michael Brown is dead because he was black and the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, is white—in other words, that racism itself, be it latent or blatant, is the primary culprit. 

Second, that the near-uniform whiteness of the Ferguson police force in a town that is two-thirds black is at least partly to blame for all the mayhem that has occurred there in the past week and a half.

Third is the long history of racial tensions in the greater St. Louis vicinity, illustrated and exacerbated by the way that black people there tend to be overrepresented in number but underrepresented in power—a fact partly, but by no means entirely, explained by politics.

This is but a partial list of the topics that have suddenly sprung to the nation’s lips, and they are all due to a single incident that—at the risk of repeating myself—we know practically nothing about.

This year marks the centenary of World War I, whose very existence still baffles us 100 years hence.  To this day, much of the world is still trying to fathom how a single, seemingly random incident—namely, the assassination of the Archduke of Austria by a 17-year-old Serb—could possibly throw every great empire on Earth into conflict.  How could so much come from so little?

In light of the events in Ferguson, I am beginning better to understand.

The answer, in both cases, is that the commencement of hostilities did not, in fact, come from nowhere.  Rather, such tensions had been simmering, lying in wait for many years, until some triggering event forced them to the surface, allowing the aggrieved parties to have it out once and for all.

This at least explains the readiness of virtually every person on Twitter to attribute the Brown shooting itself to racial prejudice.

In point of fact, we do not know what was inside Darren White’s head when he decided that shooting an unarmed 18-year-old six times was a good idea, just as we do not know what was inside Robin Williams’.  White hasn’t yet appeared in public, and thus hasn’t uttered a word in his own defense.  We have been provided several eyewitness accounts, and they do not agree on all points.

The shooting of Brown might well have been motivated by racism in one form or another; perhaps one day we will know for sure, although we shouldn’t hold our breaths.

The broader point, though, is how convenient it would be for our national narrative about race relations if it were.  If Darren White considered Michael Brown threatening purely (or even partly) because he was black, it would confirm all our suspicions about racial bias in our police forces.  And if White is ultimately exonerated, it would confirm similar biases in our justice system.

It’s not as if we require any such confirmation at this point in the game.  As no less than Senator Rand Paul put it, “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”  The statistics speak for themselves.

Nonetheless, it would greatly serve the purpose of noticing and ultimately rectifying the problem of racial prejudice in America if the shooting of Michael Brown could, indeed, be categorized as just such an incident.  What is more, it would save us the discomfort in considering that the shooting had no basis at all.  That it was a senseless act from which nothing meaningful can be learned.

No, it is much better always to have a moral to the story.  To not let the facts get in the way of the truth.