The #OscarsSoWhite debate raises the question of who gets to be human
Each film and TV race controversy shows that we are nowhere near a “post-racial” society.
This article is a preview from the Spring 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
It was April Reign, a former lawyer, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag back in January 2015. That year’s Oscar nominee shortlist revealed each acting category consisted solely of white actors and actresses. Reign’s hashtag caught on quickly. This was the year after Steve McQueen’s incredibly powerful 12 Years a Slave won three Oscars on the same night, after being nominated in nine categories, and the difference in diversity between the two years was palpable.
Fast forward one year, and the hashtag, accompanied by widespread debate, has resurfaced. The academy, noted UCLA academic Darnell Hunt, is 93 per cent white, 73 per cent male, and has an average age of 63. His research showed that films with diverse casts tend to make more money at the box office. As well as being narrowly exclusive, an overwhelmingly white accolades list is counterintuitive to the money-making nature of Hollywood. This year, there was one key difference in the conversation. Whereas, in 2015, some of the industry’s most revered actors and actresses had stayed largely silent on the issue, in 2016, everyone seemed to be scrambling to have something to say on the topic. Former Oscar nominee Viola Davis said that the problem was less to do with awards and more to do “with the Hollywood movie-making system”, whilst 2016 nominee Charlotte Rampling revealed her ignorance when she told French radio that the #OscarsSoWhite debate was “racist to whites”.
Prompted in part by this swath of opinions, the academy’s first black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, announced big changes to how Oscar voting will work from 2017. Measures include limiting voting terms to 10 years, in comparison to the current lifetime voting rights. The academy also pledged to run a targeted campaign to recruit new members in a bid to increase the diversity of voters.
The #OscarsSoWhite conversation speaks to an imbalanced tug-of-war happening across the entertainment industry in recent years – one that involves actors, writers, directors, producers and the all-important audience. Neither group has a monopoly on either side of the rope. Politically, there has been a push from audiences over the past few years for protagonists that aren’t mired in sexist and racist stereotypes. Some filmmakers have responded positively. The Bechdel test – which asks audiences to interrogate whether the women characters in a film ever talk to each other about something other than a man – successfully shamed the industry into recognising its marginalisation of women. But, as some creators have moved away from whiteness and maleness as a “relatable” default, they have been angrily confronted by audiences and critics who are so used to seeing themselves represented in all media they consume that they have had trouble coping with new presentations of what counts as “normal”.
When the cast of the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was announced in late 2015, it was a shock to many that the grown-up Hermione would be played by black actress Noma Dumezweni. Such was the fervour, anger and confusion that JK Rowling herself came out to support the casting decision, tweeting “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.” When the much anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens saw black British actor John Boyega cast as a main character, some angry people on the internet encouraged sci-fi fans to boycott the film, calling it “anti-white propaganda”.
The idea that casting black people as lead characters is inherently controversial reveals a political struggle over who gets to be human. This affects every area of our lives. Although movies are fiction, each film and TV race controversy shows us that we are nowhere near a “post-racial” society. A diverse set of characters can bring greater meaning to stories, both old and new.
With a strong and complex female protagonist, Netflix’s recent series Jessica Jones was a superhero story not just about Jones’s predictable superpowers but also about her building up emotional strength after an abusive relationship. A black or mixed-race Hermione Granger suddenly throws the Harry Potter books’ language of “Mudbloods” and “pure-bloods” into a politically uncomfortable new place, providing young readers with a crash course in understanding fascism.
The beauty of embracing difference is that it reveals our fundamental sameness, while introducing perspectives that have the possibility to expand narrow horizons. That, in itself, can never be a bad thing.