Calling the Oscar’s racist ignores the wider issue
And so another awards season comes to a close. The Champagne has been drunk, the tears shed and finally Leo has his Oscar. All stuff of glitzy Hollywood dreams, and yet there remains an unpleasant taste left in the mouth from all those interested not only in cinema but in the ways it reflects the society we live in. This awards season has undoubtedly been one of the most racially charged in recent decades, with both the Oscars and to a lesser extent the BAFTA’s being accused of racism and an appalling lack of black nominees, a charge they are both undeniably guilty of. Many notable black actors chose to boycott the Oscar’s, including Jada Pinkett Smith, and the red carpet rolled outside the Royal Albert Hall was lined with protestors carrying placards bearing the hashtag #baftasblackout. And yet, somehow these esoteric spaces feel like to easy a target. There is so much to dislike about the film industry; the absurd pressures it places on women, the discomfort it feels at openly gay actors and yes, its lack of racial diversity to name but a few. But cinema is nothing more than a reflection of our society and instead of challenging the Academy or BAFTA we need to do more to challenge our own society and the way in which our populace is segregated.
Just look at those individuals who dominate the entertainment industry here in Britain; Tom Hooper, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Watson, Tilda Swinton, Emma Thompson, Tom Hiddleston and Stephen Fry are just some of the Oxbridge educated individuals who crowd the silver screen. Certainly it is the worst kind of envious bigotry to criticise these individuals for their intellect. But it is arguably less controversial to suggest that perhaps having been to educational establishments that are overwhelmingly white, these entertainers are perhaps more reluctant to give a leg up to a talented young, black actor from Brixton if it means their college mate won’t be joining them in the industry. They are not racist; they merely wish to retain the status quo and the status quo is depressingly one shade. The circle of privilege is completed by the media who are also dominated by alumni of similar institutions. It always strikes me as hypocritical that the Guardian, that wailing beacon of liberal outrage, cannot seem to hire a writer that hasn’t been privately educated.
Across the pond, in the supposedly class-less society of America, things are no better. After the election of Barack Obama, the black community could be forgiven for thinking Martin Luther King’s march toward freedom was nearing its end. And yet, here we find ourselves in 2016, reading weekly reports on the shooting of unarmed black men and watching news footage of the citizens of Flint, Michigan who are predominantly black, drinking water riddled with poisons. That is before we even begin to consider the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, a man with the racial sensitivity of a burning cross. Is it any wonder then, that stories of black individuals are so often ignored by the screenwriters of Hollywood? When the media presents black lives as nothing more than cannon fodder for a trigger happy police force, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the story of a white individual suddenly becomes more valuable in the minds of producers. In turn, the Academy turns round and in answering the claim of a racially biased list of nominees blithely shrugs its shoulders whilst claiming no black actors have done anything of note that year.
This is of course because such roles are so few and far between. Don’t get me wrong, I think Cate Blanchett is great, but do we really need yet another film where she plays a tragic victim of high society and spends two and a half hours alternating between an expression of mild surprise and heartbroken lip quivering. Likewise, Leonardo Di Caprio has acting talent seemingly sent from the God’s, but must he be in every major production every year? Additionally, when Hollywood does make a film featuring a black protagonist or historical figure, could they at least attempt to find a story that is in someway not connected to either the civil rights movement or slavery? Surprising as it may be to Hollywood, black individuals have done incredible things in between those two facets of history. To lend a helping hand may I suggest a biopic about the great poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes? A young black man who helped founder the Harlem Renaissance movement and who also happened to be gay at a time when being so often resulted in imprisonment. I, for one, would rather pay money to see such a film over the three hour glorification of reckless financiering, Quaalude addiction and misogyny that was the Oscar winning Wolf of Wall Street.
While we’re at it, the film industry in both countries should stop the self-congratulation every time it does produce a major motion picture with a black actor in, this doesn’t prove how desperately forward thinking you are, its merely evidence of how far behind your industry is lagging. In the real world enormous strides have been made to rid the world of the scourge of racism and, finally it feels like progress is being made. America elected its first African-American president and just last year some of the Southern states of America began to acknowledge the connotations surrounding the Confederate flag and remove it from the rooftops of government buildings. Here in Britain, serious debates are being raised around the appropriateness of honouring colonial figures such as Cecil Rhodes with statues at some of this country’s most recognisable landmarks. Whilst these debates will continue, they are nevertheless representative of a society that is finally beginning to accept the wealth of difference to be found in the human condition and actively campaign against those who still think something different means something to be feared. The film industry ties itself in knots asking what it can do about the plummeting rates of cinema attendance, threatened as they are by Netflix and similar streaming platforms. The answer lies not in gimmicks; no one wants a vibrating chair or a bigger bucket of popcorn, the want to see those on screen reflecting those sat in the aisles alongside them.