I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a big fan of the Oscars. I’ve never been fascinated with the dresses, the glamour, the incessant talk about who is nominated and who isn’t. When co-workers or students start talking about the Academy Awards, I can normally be found running the other way.  Yet George Clooney’s recent comment that there aren’t “enough quality roles for black” actors and actresses made me jump into this years’ #OscarsSoWhite conversation. This statement is loaded with assumptions that need to be challenged. What, for example, constitutes a “quality role?” Does it differ for a person of colour than it does for a white person?  How?

It’s complicated. It’s not enough to say that the Academy is at fault for not nominating people of colour to receive awards. We need to explore how the problem is played out on different levels of the studio/audience/Academy relationships. Let’s start at the studio level and work our way to the viewer.

Studios create movies based on scripts (stories) that a director finds and decides (with the support of the studio) to develop. That director has a vision and shares it with their team. The producer helps to give form to that vision, and with the help of casting, as well as a myriad number of other components of the studio, the movie is filmed, edited, and released to the viewing public. As part of their plan to produce their movie, the studio makes some assumptions about their potential viewer – and this is where the public comes into the dynamic.

Studios assume that the person who has the disposable income and the time to go watch a movie in theatres is white.  This same assumption not only pre-disposes the types of stories being told, but also who plays the roles within the film.  It is then the studio’s job is to produce movies and choose stories that will appeal to their assumed (white) viewer and the hero/protagonist that they can identify with.

Unfortunately, white people have a hero complex. They want to see stories where they are seen as the saviours, the helpers, the ones who do right. They don’t want to see stories that portray white people as being corrupt, cruel, or evil. Because of this, studios typically cast the hero(ine) as white. This isn’t necessarily because the white actor/actress is the best person for the role, but because that is what the audience would want and expect.

The white audience assumption poses a problem for people of colour because it limits what roles they can get. People of colour are often stuck playing the same types of roles over and over again. Idris Elba (from the film Creed) recently stated that he can only play so many “best friends or gangstas.”  Artists of any colour at all end up being type-casted into specific roles which support white-normative narrative: the Asian computer geek, the Arabic terrorist, the First Nations historical Indian, etc. I know you understand what I’m saying.  

The next problem with white viewer assumption is the presumption that there is no difference between white movies and black movies. There shouldn’t be any difference. Yet there is.  Small studios produce black movies which feature a story with predominantly black characters driving the action/plot and resolution in everyday situations, with a black viewership in mind. Unfortunately, these movies aren’t blockbusters. They don’t receive critical acclaim, or make a lot of money. Most white people would never know they exist, much less watch them (think Six degrees of Separation, or The Pursuit of Happyness).

Large studios, on the other hand, stick to narratives that keep problematic black people and problematic black issues firmly in the past. Black actors/actresses get stuck in narratives of slavery and oppression (Amistad, Roots,12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained), often with white “helpers or saviours.” If these studios want to make money from black issue films, they need to select screenplays which tell stories that their viewers want to watch, with actors/actresses they want to see, lest they risk financial loss because they upset their white viewer.  

You don’t have to look far to see what happens when black performers “dare” to challenge white narrative. Just look at the vitriolic response that came from Beyoncé’s Superbowl halftime performance a few weeks ago because she dressed her backup dancers in outfits reminiscent of the Black Panther movement of the 1970’s. Static poses and dance moves made white viewers feel anxious that Beyoncé was supporting Malcolm X’s statement that black people should combat violence against blacks using “any means necessary.” It challenged the status-quo, which made white viewers feel uncomfortable.

George Clooney’s statement about the lack of quality roles for black artists, then, is troublesome. The reason there aren’t “quality roles” for black artists isn’t that there aren’t sufficiently-talented black artists, but that black artists weren’t selected for high-profile roles regardless of colour.

In addition to the complexity of the studio/viewer relationship, there is the inherent elitism which exists within the Academy. In order to become a part of the Academy, artists must first have been nominated to receive an award at least twice in the last ten years in their specific field. Once accepted as a member of the Academy, they can nominate a limited number of other artists in the field in which they were nominated in the following years. This means that actors can’t nominate producers, only other producers can. This results in an discipline-specific elite, and a predisposition and constant jockeying for the same people to keep their place in the inner circle.

The Academy is not without bias. It is predominantly a group of white men. Sure, there are a few women who have made it to the upper echelon as producers and directors, but they are few. There are even fewer people of colour. The issue of getting people colour into the inner circle is problematic. It’s not simply a matter of elitism within the organization. It is also shaped by the culture in which we find ourselves.

Right now, the American people are troubled with finding black narratives that aren’t violent or confrontational.  Animosity between whites and blacks is taking place in the stages of our cities. It is being played out between law enforcement and citizens. It’s being acted out on television news, and even in social media. Our art forms are not exempt from being affected by this animosity among the many peoples in our countries.

Is that tension likely to go away simply if we suddenly have black artists being nominated for an Academy Award? No. It’s not. It’s simplistic to believe that we’ll stop inter-racial conflict if black artists are nominated for an Oscar. That tension has been present for a long time, and will likely continue longer still. 

This is why I don’t care about the Oscars or any other awards show: because I’ve seen plenty of amazing performances by artists of different colours that could have, and perhaps should have, won Awards. Yet, they didn’t. Does that detract from my experience of fabulous movies, incredible performances, and stunning visual effects? It doesn’t. It simply means that I will continue to use my own standards to judge whether a piece has merit to me, or not. Perhaps you should do the same, and not let a small elite group tell you what you need to watch, read, or listen to. 

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