Two years in a row controversy has erupted after Academy Awards nominations as only one Person of Color received a nomination in any of the big six categories. Mexican born Alejandro González Iñárritu is the single persons and was nominated in Best Director category for Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014) and again for The Revenant (2015); Only The Revenant (2015) features any Persons of Color in a substantial role. When the writing categories for this years awards are included the quantity of Persons of Color nominated doubled as one Filipino, Ronnie del Carmen, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Conventional wisdom of the colorblind and genderblind society would likely inform us that no other Persons of Color, or women directors, deserved to be nominated the past two years nor were any actresses/actors fit for the roles portrayed by non-Latino Caucasians in the nominated films. (Un)fortunately the first and loudest voices were from prominent African Americans, but other voices from non-African American persons expressing similar sentiments have come forward. Unfortunately the conversation appears to be stuck solely on lack of African American representation, and given our country’s recent negative history toward African Americans this should be understood, but there should be outrage over the lack of Latinos, women directors, Asians, Native Americans, and so forth. And as hard as it may be for some to realize, this is not a call special consideration in nominations for African Americans, other Persons of Color, or for women, but one for equity in opportunities and options for all actors to show their unique abilities to not only entertain us, but be recognized by their peers. I do interpret that the dialogue around this important issue has been poorly communicated which has led to the seemingly inevitable and default interpretation of Black versus White race argument or the never-ending decree that there are more important things in the world. The latter argument should never be used; Newsflash no matter how horrific something is – there is always something worse.
Motion pictures are one of this society’s main forms of entertainment and the images portrayed on the screen can either affirm or deconstruct the way that we view the world. Yosso and García (2010) discuss the films Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007) and how the films affirm negative deficit thoughts about Persons of Color in these education themed films. The motion pictures give the story arc of accurately portraying a normal classroom experience for Persons of Color and the White female teacher in the inspirational White Savior role; White Savior a class of films that display situations where a White person saves, or helps, Persons of Color from plights that they were unable or incapable to solve on their own. As I read Yosso and García I pondered: Is there a moment when motion pictures are not just entertainment, but more accurately described as dangerous vehicles continually ramming deficit racially charged messages about particular racial groups? I believe that when films attempt to or express an intention to portray an accurate or truthful depiction the answer is definitely yes.
In reference to these types of motion pictures, Carlos Cortés expresses that films serve the role of the “’societal curriculum’” and “’have a major impact in shaping beliefs, attitudes, values, perceptions, and ‘knowledge’ and influencing decisions and action. In short, movies teach’” (1995, p. 75, as cited in Yosso and García, 2010, p 85). I believe that all media teaches and can be used as teaching tools.
Boske and McCormack (2011) studied the impact of social media on the people’s perceptions and primarily used the animated motion picture Happy Feet (2006) and its seeming prevalent topics of racism and homophobia against LGBTQIA, defined as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer/questioning, intersex, and ally/asexual, persons in a classroom setting. It is important to not only recognize the dialogue and actual occurrences when media is shown in the classroom, or viewed in general, but also the unsaid implications. Media can be used to perpetuate stereotypes or to uncover and combat them. In the study conducted by Boske and McCormack (2011), middle and high school participants grappled with Mumbo’s, the film’s main character, isolation due to the character’s perceived sexual identity and the other community of penguins with accents that appeared to be portraying Latinos. It is important that we sometimes take a step back out of our entertainment bubble and look critically at media that is presented. After engaging in critical media inquiry, the students came to express the significance of consciously criticizing and analyzing the impact of popular media including the internet, television, news, and movies (Boske & McCormack, 2011).
Saturday night live often highlights issues around race in the industry and did not fail to capitalize on film, and subsequent award, racial narratives. The skit Screen Guild Awards portrays African American male actors being passed over for recognition, even though the major story arc of the pictures surrounded Persons of Color, in the skit all African Americans, whereas their White male screen actor counterparts were nominated for their insubstantial roles in the films (Klein, Tucker, & King, 2016, January 23). In the Bland Man skit, which appeared to spoof the American television show The Bachelor, one of the actresses portrayed an African American contestant who exclaimed “I’m the Black one” to the bachelor who was then going to be eliminated from contention immediately, but given a week reprieve due to having a difficult life (Klein, Tucker, & King, 2016, January 23). While these skits are present with surface level fun, they appear to be the intent to present and deconstruct prevalent (negative) media messages.
Films that are nominated for, and ultimately win Oscars, are typically critically acclaimed and considered to be of a higher societal standard. For Oscar-worthy films being a bankable star, which only a handful of entertainers possess this crown at a time, rarely comes into play as these films typically are not expected to be box office successes. There appears to be a lack of economic expectation for these films domestically, and especially internationally where racial representations appear to still play a large role. I will take the liberty to assert that most people believe that there are great actors of all different races, creeds, orientations, and ethnicities that are capable of giving performances worthy of Oscar nominations each year – so why do these roles, and subsequent nominations, do not maintain the surface level appearance that they are allocated in a manner that is reflective of the general American population makeup? This is the real confusing part if we really are colorblind, which I do not have any evidence to believe that this society has reached that level. It should not take a story line covering a specific racial issue or historical person in order for a Person of Color to be cast.
Sirota (2013, February 21) outlined ten White Savior motion pictures between 1987 and 2013 that have received considerable recognition from the Academy and other prestigious award giving bodies. As African Americans tend to be the subject of these films, often through the retelling of slavery and segregation tales, I understand why African American actors and celebrities have been the loudest voices to factual or perceived, depending on perspective, lack of recognition when critically acclaimed pictures that present narratives counter to White Savior, like Straight Outta Compton (2015), are ignored. Michael Caine expressed that non-white actors should “Be patient. Of course it will come…It took me years to get an Oscar” (Caine & Robinson, 2016, January 22). While I wholeheartedly understand, and even agree with the intended sentiment of the responses to Robinson’s questions, it still does not sit right with me. The end result of this for Persons of Color is taking a passive role that is content with being passed over and requests that non-white actors patiently wait for the chance, or maybe for their very own white savior, to be recognized. With all due respect to Sir Michael Caine, there is a great difference in one actress or actor waiting for recognition and entire ethnic groups consistently waiting for acknowledgment, not being acknowledged, only being acknowledged for pictures that share deficit portrayals, or most importantly simply being given the opportunity to give a worthy performance.
The Academy has announced a plan of action to makes strides in changing its voting membership by doubling women and diverse members by 2020 along with changes to how one gains lifetime membership as well as acknowledging that as a board that they will not wait for the remainder of the industry to catch up (Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, 2016, January 22). Viola Davis succinctly stated that “the only thing that separates Women (Actresses) of Color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there” (Davis, V. (Emmy Winner), & Television Academy, 2015, September 20). I believe that this sentiment spreads true for all Persons of Color in the motion picture business. The Academy Awards, and other awards shows, are not at the forefront of the problem as the issue lies with movie studios, executives, and those who do the casting, but maybe the award shows can be apart of the solution.
Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. (2016, January 22). Academy takes historic action to increase diversity. Retrieved from https://www.oscars.org/news/academy-takes-historic-action-increase-diversity
Boske, C. & McCormack, S. (2011). Building an understanding of the role of media literacy for Latino/a high school students. The High School Journal, 94(4), 167-186.
Caine, M. (Interviewee), & Robinson, N. (Interviewer) (2016, January 22). Sir Michael Caine Interview. Today [Video footage from interview]. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03g6r28
Davis, V. (Emmy Winner), & Television Academy (Emmy Giver). (2015, September 20). Emmys 2015: Viola Davis wins Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards [Video footage from live event]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/OSpQfvd_zkE
Klein , R., Tucker, B. (Writers), & King, D. R. (Director). (2016, January 23). Season 41, episode 1694: Rhonda Rousey with musical guest Selena Gomez [Television series episode]. In L. Michaels (Producer) Saturday night live. New York, NY: NBC.
Sirota, D. (2013, February 21). Oscar loves a white savior. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2013/02/21/oscar_loves_a_white_savior/
Yossi, T. J., & García, D. G. (2010). From Ms. J to Ms. G.: Analyzing racial microaggressions in Hollywood’s urban school genre. In B. Frymer, T. Kashani, A. J. Nocella II, and R. Van Heertum (Eds.), Hollywood’s exploited: Public pedagogy, corporate movies, and cultural crisis (pp. 85-103). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.