Diversity Matters in Movies
Not only has Whiteness been perpetuated in Hollywood but through the White Savior genre, Whiteness is deified. The White Savior genre can be defined as a plotline following the character development of a likeable but flawed White character, with varying levels of being culturally challenged, who engages in interactions with a non-White person or group, helping to achieve their goals and in the process becomes a more aware and better person. In the past, it was no surprise that these types of Hollywood movies were popular. In a White male dominated culture, Hollywood has always made movies for and about White males who controlled the types of movies they were willing to pay to watch.
A Win for Women
Over the last few decades, with the rise of the feminist movement, moviemakers in Hollywood recognized that there was a market for movies produced, directed and acted by women. Producers also realized that White male audiences were appreciative of strong White female characters. Of special note is the transformation of Sarah Connor’s character from shy and sheltered in Terminator 1 (1984) to warrior woman in Terminator 2 (1991). The White female action hero was successfully spawned as evidenced by Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (2001) and found more recently, in Katniss, Hunger Games (2012). Both movies helped catapult their female leads to stardom. While some may argue that the female action hero is still being sexualized, the same can be said for male action heroes. If White female characters have been able to break the celluloid glass ceiling in Hollywood movies, why have non-White characters lagged behind?
White Saviors and Oscar
Movies are a celebratory, vicarious experience in which audiences can escape into and participate in the choice of their ride, be it a sober documentary or a thrilling action adventure. Unsurprisingly then, White Savior movies that may assuage White guilt, have led the way in winning awards. In the 2013 article, “Oscar Loves a White Savior,” David Sirota observes that over the last 25 years, a whopping 10 White Savior movies have won major awards and that if a movie depicts people of color following a White Savior, an Academy Award nomination will soon follow.
Mississippi Burning (1988) is a movie about the civil rights struggle in the South. Three organizers of the movement, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who attempted to register Black voters, were murdered by the KKK. Mississippi Burning stands out in the White Savior catalog because the FBI is portrayed as a force of moral rectitude and the director, Alan Parker admitted, “because it’s a movie, I felt it had to be fictionalized. The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society as much as of the film industry. At this point in time, it could not have been made in any other way.”(1) In other words, the screenplay disappointingly did not focus on the civil rights activists who heroically gave their lives to fight for the voting rights of African Americans.
Plus ca change plus ca meme chose
But that was back in 1989. Surely times have changed. Not! Recently, Avatar (2009), another White Savior movie, won four Oscars. Blindside (2009), a Christian themed female White Savior movie that portrays a stereotypically affluent White Christian family that helps a stereotypically poor Black boy eventually achieve academic and professional success through their helpful intervention, was nominated for and won numerous awards. Not the least of which was an Oscar for Best Actress. Who could have predicted in 2009 that in the liberal bastion of Hollywood, Los Angeles that a movie with Christian undertones would be honored by the Academy Awards? Hollywood is not known for its social conservatism but rather for pushing the envelope in challenging the social mores of the time. So why the prolonged reticence towards racial inclusivity?
Despite commercial and critical success, movies with non-White protagonists continue to be treated dismissively by the Academy. Even when films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008) with non-White protagonists are acknowledged, all 10 Oscar nominees and all 8 winners were White, except for the music category. Life of Pi (2012), nominated for 14 Oscars, won 4 with Ang Lee being the notable exception in winning for Best Director. Fast forward to 2014’s civil rights movie that rivetingly portrayed how Martin Luther King Jr. and the African-American leaders perspicaciously chose Selma, 50 years ago, as a strategic site to advance the civil rights cause. Yet, Selma was snubbed at the Oscars, again save for a music win. This year, Academy nominations for Creed (2015) omitted any non-White members of the production. Straight Outta Compton (2015), a biography about the influential N.W.A. on West Coast hip hop/gangsta rap did not even make the Academy music award cut, despite receiving positive reviews from music critics and winning numerous music and film awards. It appears that Brent Staples comment back in 1989 that “movie people seem to believe that whites would be alienated by serious dramatic films with black principals, no matter how compelling the story lines,”(2) was prophetic. In fact, 2015 was noted as the Whitest Oscars since 1998. Interestingly, not only were no people of color nominated, neither were any female screenwriters, directors or cinematographers. (3) The same trend continues in 2016. One small step backwards for movies, one huge leap backwards for humanity.
Another issue is that White actors are often chosen to play non-White characters in true to life inspired stories. One of the most famous examples is Ben Kingsley, of mixed heritage, when he played Gandhi in Sir Richard Attenborough’s film with the same name in 1982. Given the movie’s content on the eventual demise of Britain as a colonial power as India struggled to gain independence through Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts, Kingsley’s casting is ironic. In A Beautiful Mind (2001), Alicia Nash, who is from El Salvador, was portrayed by Jennifer Connolly, not from El Salvador. Her story as one of the few female physics students at MIT in 1955, who sacrificially gave up her career to take care of her schizophrenic husband, John Nash, forms a compelling story of its own even though she was relegated to the sidelines in A Beautiful Mind. Both Kingsley and Connolly, playing cross-racial roles, won Oscars for Best Actor.
Cross-racial casting continues to be factor evidenced by the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Director Sir Ridley Scott defended his casting choices by citing funding challenges for non-White leads. Scott argued, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, 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.”(4) The director did not even trouble to defend his choices by saying that Christian Bale, an excellent actor, was chosen for being the genuinely best choice for the role of Moses. The upcoming Gods of Egypt (to be released in 2016), has faced similar criticisms with an all White male cast. Responding to the negative feedback, Chadwick Boseman, an actor who is African-American, was chosen to play the god Thoth. An apology was also issued by the Lionsgate production house after considerable backlash, demonstrating the power of audiences and critics in influencing the direction of inclusive cinema.
Trends in Television
In the last couple of years television has proved to be a more fertile ground to plant the seeds of diversity: Maggie Q’s (2010) Asian revamped Nikita, Pryanka Chopra’s (2015) Indian headlined Quantico and Trevor Noah (2015), as South African host in The Daily Show. Let’s not forget the diversity represented in television’s Marvel universe, gay, straight, Black, White, male, female, Asian and multiracial. TV producers are aiming their shows for a global audience and getting it. Quantico has been translated in 44 languages and is being seen around the world. Hopefully, the trend towards inclusivity will continue and it won’t be a two steps forward, three steps backward scenario as in the case of Hollywood movies.
Will Oscar Become Obsolete?
Promisingly, the 2016 People’s Choice Awards winners were much more diverse than the Academy Awards. Pryanka Chopra broke ground as the first Indian to receive a People’s Choice award. Vin Diesel, Kevin Hart, Nicky Minaj, and Selena Gomez also won awards to mention a few diverse winners. In recent years, Oscar ratings have been declining as “a dearth of diversity among nominees and unfamiliarity with some of the most honored films may have contributed to the lower tune-in for the 2015 Oscars.”(6) On MLK’s birthday, January 18, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee both posted tweets using the dreaded B-word: BOYCOTT. Will having Chris Rock host be enough to soothe the ire of boycotters and capture a sizeable market? Will having a token African-American host boost ratings? Declining Academy Award viewership will ultimately lead to lower revenues and if the Oscars hope to stay relevant, they should plan to target an international audience.
Films For Diaspora
But, why pick on Whitewashing in Hollywood? When was it commanded for movies to worship at the altar of diversity? What about movie industries around the world such as Nollywood (Nigerian movies) and Bollywood (Indian cinema)? Do international movie production houses care about inclusivity? Since the 1990s, Bollywood producers have been making films in global cities such as London, New York and Paris as well as more exotic locales like Malaysia, Switzerland and Greece. Over the last 20 years Bollywood production companies have courted their overseas markets and incorporated themes that deal with issues faced by Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). Today, sci-fi flicks Ra.One (2011), super-hero action stories Krissh 3 (2013) and historical dramas Bajirao Mastani (2015) are made with NRI dollars in mind.
As diversity increases around the world, there is a diaspora audience consisting of various ethnic groups that can form potential international markets. Asian action films such as Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002) and Ip Man (biography, 2008) give credence to the idea that there is a solid market for Asian movies in the West. Also worth mentioning is the long held enduring popularity of Japanese anime. There is a growing presence of international language films at local theatres in larger urban centers. Satellite television as well, has opened up a virtual portal of endless multilingual entertainment. The technology is now available to view awards shows in any country and any language of choice with English subtitles, if required. It may be possible that international awards shows could increase in importance and status for an actor’s career in terms of reaching a global audience. International awards such as the Caanes Film Festival held in France and the International Indian Film Awards (IIFA), held in various cities around the world every year, demonstrate that there is a global appetite for films with diverse narratives.
The Future of Films
At the end of the day all producers, Hollywood, Bollywood and Asian, aim to give audiences movies that will bring in profits, great profit$$. If audiences value diversity then they will strategically choose to see movies which have multicultural casts. An example of a possible wave of the future is the Fast and Furious 14-year franchise with its diverse cast attracting not only global audiences over a decade, but in the latest installment garnering 49% of a female audience, unusual for an action movie.(5) As more movies are released worldwide and relating to international audiences becomes the norm, it is likely that Hollywood will offer more diverse lead roles, especially when producers are racially diverse. Vin Diesel, was brought on board to produce the fourth installment of Fast and Furious after audience numbers declined in the third installment. A two-tier audience marketing strategy may develop as production houses attempt to cater to their national audiences and also expand to the global market. Ultimately, international movie fans will control what types of movies, monocultural or multicultural, are made in the future.
Critical film analysis offers a perspective on whether progress has been made in perceptions of society’s racial divides. Meaningful dialogue can be sparked on why Whitewashing film productions through screenplays and cross-racial casting are perpetually rewarded and awarded, while diverse cinematic contributions are dismissed. It will be interesting to see how producers and audiences respond to the globalization of movies. Directors and producers have passed the buck, literally, in terms of explaining why they Whitewash lead characters as giving audiences what they want. If a large number of viewers decide to boycott the Oscars, then cinematic decision makers will be challenged to rethink their assumptions about audiences as to whether instead of perceiving a need for Whitewashing protagonists, there may be a need for inclusivity among lead roles in the future. To paraphrase MLK, let’s look to a day when movies will not be judged by the color of their skin, but will be judged by the content of their plots. Because diversity matters in movies.
This article is dedicated to the great civil rights leaders from the 20th century: Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. May they inspire a new generation of activists in the 21st century.
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