This post has been corrected.
On Sunday, tens of millions of viewers will tune in to watch the 2015 Oscars broadcast, Hollywood’s annual pageant of pomp and self-congratulation. This year many fine films are in the running for awards, but perhaps the most talked about is one that does not have a chance to win. This movie of course, is Selma, the Civil Rights-era period drama directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. Like many, I am more than a little disillusioned with the year’s nominations, or lack thereof, as neither DuVernay nor Oyelowo received nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, respectively. Accordingly, there’s been much debate these past few days over whether Selma’s snub is proof of systemic racism in the film industry. While certainly part of a valid and important conversation, this line of speculation has overshadowed a far more nuanced but similarly troubling trend: that black actors and directors are only taken seriously when they tell “important” stories.
Of course Hollywood has a race problem. According to Variety, the top ten films in 2014 were all directed by white men, featuring casts that were mainly white and male. Indeed, according to The Washington Post, since 1927 only 24 people of color total have won in acting categories and black writers have been credited with only seven of the 803 Oscar-nominated screenplays. Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times reports that approximately 94% of the Oscar voters are Caucasian and 77% are male. From the Academy to the casting call, this lack of diversity creates a trickle down effect placing most minority artists at an extreme disadvantage.
This disadvantage is manifested in a number of ways, but the question of what black actors and directors are “allowed” to create is directly related to Hollywood’s fraught relationship with minorities. I often wonder if white directors believe that race obstructs their view to able to create both wildly and freely. This would certainly explain why, when faced with a person of color, they so reliably stick to dredging up historical archetypes. In their eyes, this is the “safe” route.
When movies with black casts do in fact receive wide acclaim, it’s generally because said films are race and content-specific. Selma, Twelve Years A Slave, The Color Purple, Malcolm X, Boyz N Da Hood—while I enjoyed all of these films and the superb talent they highlighted, it’s hard not to wonder if their mainstream success is a product of society’s inability to relate to black artists outside of a few limited circumstances. We cannot be whimsical concierges like in Grand Budapest Hotel or washed up actors like in Birdman. Put simply, films with primarily white casts are afforded complexity—even superficiality—in the eyes of their audience. But for black-centered films, the same is not true.
This isn’t to say films about slavery and urban poverty and the Civil Rights movement don’t deserve to be made. Quite the contrary, these films are desperately needed. They remind the public of our history and its continued influence over present day. But there needs to be a balance. Black people can and should have tour de force roles as Wall Street bankers, as international spies or even as mothers living on a mundane street in suburban America. Of this year’s (all white) best actor and actress nominees, there are some extraordinary storylines, certainly, like Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking or Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as unsung World War II hero Alan Turing. But there are plenty of ordinary people, too. Julianne Moore, a frontrunner in the Best Actress category, plays a comparably unremarkable academic who happens to have early-onset Alzheimers. Her main competitor, Patricia Arquette, has been lauded for her willingness to lay bare the mundane realities of aging and motherhood. Meanwhile Reese Witherspoon’s character is based on a woman who, to oversimplify, is famous for taking a very long walk in the woods.
A talented actor of any racial or ethnic background could certainly have played these roles, but when was the last time a black actor was lauded for his portrayal of the average human condition?
Part of the problem is financial. Clearly, even when minority actors are auditioning for roles and pushing to get films made, the backing is not always there. Julie Dash, a Black writer and director of Daughters of the Dust, spent years trying to receive financial support only to be told by Hollywood executives that her depiction of the Gullah—a culture descended from slaves living primarily in South Carolina and Georgia—was “too different.” And guess what? This problem is consistent irrespective of the director’s racial background. George Lucas himself said that when he presented his all-black film Red Tails, no one in Hollywood knew how to market it. “This film has been held up in release since 1942,” he joked to Jon Stewart. There’s seems to be a breach between white Hollywood insiders’ perception of black people and their ability to accept them in imagined worlds.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Blacks make up 14.1% of the American population: To ignore them is to be amazingly ignorant of such potential earning power. People of color are not expected to generate money and money is how Hollywood lasts There is a reason that the general public knows more about Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart than KeKe Palmer or Jurnie Smollett. Regardless of talent or role choice, white actors are still the most promoted.
A recent BET study found that black Americans view films 21% more than the general market and we’re 22% more likely to see a well-received film twice over. Yet despite all this, white Hollywood movers and shakers refuse to see the error of their shortsighted, small-minded ways. Lest we forget, Samuel L. Jackson, and Will Smith are among the top-grossing actors of all time. I join many of my black friends and colleagues, both educated and socially mobile, in expressing my deep disappointment with an industry that is either unwilling, or unable, to see black actors and directors as anything other than stereotypes, both positive and negative. We cannot be excited for the Oscars as long as our multitudes are ignored.
The sad thing is, business calculations aside, this blatant prejudice is year by year eroding the relevance of a storied film institution. On the other hand, those who will not get out of the way, who continue to exclude worthy peers from being part of America’s rich and visually artistic landscape, should have no place in Hollywood. What’s the worst that could happen? That underrepresented minorities will suddenly acquire so much attention the original system will be dismantled? Actually, that might not be such a bad idea.
Correction (Feb 22): A previous version of this post stated that the film Red Tails had been held up in release since 1942. In fact George Lucas made this assertion during an appearance on the Daily Show. He was making the point that the film had taken a long time to produce, but did not mean the statement to be taken literally.