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Faline Bobier

February 25, 2016

The widely used and shared hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has served to highlight the fact that for the last two years there have been no Black actors (or indeed any actors of colour) nominated in any of the acting categories.

Compelling movies about Black lives like Creed, Straight Outta Compton and last year’s Selma did receive some recognition, but with Creed and Straight Outta Compton nominations were either for white writers (“Compton”) or a white performer (Sylvester Stallone in “Creed”). The Black directors of all three movies were shut out, as well as many of the non-white actors.

Some might say this isn’t important because the Oscars are largely irrelevant anyway, an annual mostly mind-numbingly boring celebration that in essence congratulates the 1% - those who are probably among the most highly paid in an industry and a profession where the majority of working actors cannot rely on acting jobs alone to feed themselves and pay the rent. However, awards like the Oscars do matter in terms of industry-wide recognition and the ability to get the money or exposure to get other acting jobs or to raise money to make films.

Racism and resistance

This year’s debate has also highlighted another important aspect of popular culture-how it can reflect or distort people’s experience. This is not a new phenomenon. Marlon Brando famously refused to accept his Oscar for the Godfather in 1973. This was portrayed in the mainstream media at the time as the incomprehensible act of a spoiled Hollywood actor but if you read Brando’s speech, delivered by Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather, who attended the ceremony in Brando’s place, it reverberates with the ongoing obliteration of whole segments of the population that continues in Hollywood to this day:

“Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don't concern us, and that we don't care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes. I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil. It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know… I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother's keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.”

Brando in his statement offered support for the American Indian Movement (AIM) and referenced the ongoing situation at Wounded Knee, the South Dakota town that had been seized by AIM members the previous month and was then under siege by U.S. military forces. Brando had been involved in the Civil rights movement for years and was a supporter of members of the Black Panther Party.

How refreshing this is compared to some of the truly appalling reactions that have come from some white actors about the lack of recognition of Black, Hispanic and other underrepresented groups at the Oscars.

Consider Charlotte Rampling, a British actress nominated this year for her performance in 45 Years with Tom Courtenay. She claimed in an interview that the uproar over the lack of diversity in this year’s nominees is “racist to white people.” And further, “We can never truly know whether it’s truly the case, but maybe the black actors didn’t deserve to make it to the final list.”

Likewise Michael Caine advised black actors to be “patient.” Speaking to the BBC he said: “There are loads of black actors; I think in the end you can’t vote for an actor (just) because he’s black. You can’t say: I’m going to vote for him, he’s not very good but he’s black, (so) I’ll vote for him. You’ve got to give a good performance.”

Comments like these sound exactly like very similar self-serving arguments that were and are used against any attempts to challenge the systemic racism and sexism in the workplace or in higher education. When affirmative action was instituted to some degree in institutions of higher learning, because of the fightbacks of the civil rights and student movements of the 60s, the composition of students on college campuses began to change. Black and other minorities, women and working class students began to gain access to institutions of higher learning in ways that hadn’t been possible before.

In the 80s many of these short-lived gains began to be rolled back under the right-wing politics of US President Ronald Reagan. The backlash against attempts to win some kind of equality was couched in the language of reverse racism or reverse sexism, as if Whites and men suffered systemic oppression. In the end the attacks on affirmative action went hand in glove with attacks on other progressive forces, such as Reagan’s successful union-busting efforts throughout the 1980s.

Following the widespread criticism when the nominations for this year’s Oscars were announced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences approved a series of changes, in terms of voting and recruitment — all part of a goal to double the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.

Considering that approximately two thirds of the 6,262 voting members of the Academy are white men over the age of 65 it’s not surprising that there is very little diversity in the films that they nominate. Of course it’s also true that out of 305 eligible films only a few were made by non-white directors and only a handful were directed by women.

Black Lives Matter

It’s nonetheless important to defend the changes made to the voting pool for the Academy Awards. The only reason there is such a huge outcry is because of the context: Black Lives Matter, the revelations about the poisoning of the water system in Flint, Michigan, which is affecting mainly poor Black families, goes hand in with a system that reflects racism at all levels, including the kind of entertainment that is sold to us, who has the money and who gets access to the hearts and minds of the viewers.

But of course that’s not the end of the story. Many independent filmmakers, actors and others struggle to bring to the screen the kind of stories that are not often told in Hollywood, with much less money and much fewer rewards. One of these movies is Nat Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film is the portrait of African-American preacher Nat Turner who led an insurrection of fellow slaves and freed Blacks in 1831, three decades before slavery would be abolished in America.

There are audiences for those films, as well as for the more mainstream movies, such as Twelve Years a Slave, Malcolm X, Suffragette, which against all odds, try to tell us some truths about the world we live in.

Not surprisingly some are not attending this year’s Oscar ceremonies, including filmmaker Spike Lee and actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett. Black comedian Chris Rock has confirmed he will be hosting the Oscars. One can only hope on Oscar night that he will follow in the proud tradition of another brilliant Black comedian and actor Richard Pryor, who co-hosted the Oscars with 3 others in 1977. In his opening monologue Pryor explained, “I am here tonight. To explain why Black people. Will never be nominated for anything…This show is going out to 75 million people. None of them are Black. We don't even know how to vote. There's 3,349 people in the voting thing. And only two black people. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte." With his biting wit and caustic humour he skewered the Academy and highlighted a problem that is still very much with us 40 years later.

On Oscar night, February 28, visit for the live-stream of the benefit event #JusticeforFlint, organized by Selma director Ava DeVernay, Creed Director Ryan Coogler, comedian Hannibal Buress, actor Jesse Williams, and others.

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