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Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

YouTube/Dylan Marron
Hollywood, is this really the best you can do?
I SEE WHITE PEOPLE

What it looks like when you edit out all the white people from big Hollywood hits

Noah Berlatsky
By Noah Berlatsky

American movies only care about white people.

That sounds like a controversial statement, but it’s hard to argue with when you start making your way through actor, writer, and director Dylan Marron’s Tumblr Every Single Word Spoken By a Person of Color in [mainstream film title.] As the name indicates, Marron has created videos showing every single word spoken by people of color in various Hollywood movies, like The Fault Is In Our Stars or Moonrise Kingdom.

Most of Marron’s edited videos are around 40 seconds long—because people of color only talk for 40 seconds in many Hollywood films. Some are even shorter. The Into the Wood clip is… well, it’s basically non-existent. There are no people of color who speak (or sing) in Into the Woods. Marron’s video is just a title clip.

Marron told Quartz he’d tried to choose films that “tell universal stories with human themes.” These movies, he insisted, “are not about whiteness.” Into the Woods, for example, “had no need to be all white.”

In fact, Marron argued, Into the Woods is a perfect venue for including people of color.”In fantasy and sci-fi there’s such a beautiful suspension of disbelief. Oh look, there’s a giant following them through the woods. That giant came from a beanstalk. Why are they in the woods? Oh, a witch asked them to go fetch a number of magical objects from various famous fairy tale characters. If you want me to suspend my disbelief that much I can absolutely believe there’s a whole spectrum of races in those woods as well. ”

Marron made similar points about other films. “Her is a story about love and isolation in the digital age,” he noted. “It is a brilliant suggestion of what the future of relationships might look like. But it has nothing to do with white people. Why are white bodies chosen as the avatars through which we can experience universal stories?”

Indeed, Into the Woods and Her both present white people as defaults. But at the same time, I don’t know that it’s quite accurate to say that the films have nothing to do with whiteness. When you excise people of color from your world, you change the face of the world. One way or another, a film with only white people in it is about being white.

Her is a good example. The film, as Dylan says, is focused on the future of relationships—but it’s also focused on unconventional relationships. The main character Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) dates a computer AI, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson.) Their love occurs in a milieu of overarching, gentle tweeness—Theodore is a nebbishy empathic introvert, a character type stereotypically coded white and male. Samantha is his manic pixie dream girl, pulling him out of his shell—another role often coded white, even if the white Johansson’s skin is never shown on screen.

Her, then, is a fantasy about love that transcends difference. But that difference is carefully, emphatically, contained within whiteness. White people can be sweet and charming and accepting of difference, as long as, somehow, all the people of color are carefully removed. Whiteness isn’t just the default here; it’s a safety net.

As another example, take American Hustle. The film has about a minute of dialogue by people of color, all in marginal roles. But when you watch the entire movie, people of color, as symbols, are central. The two main characters, Irving Rosenfeld (Chrisitan Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) begin their romantic relationship when they discover a shared love of Duke Ellington. This enthusiasm for classic jazz shows Irving and Sydney are sophisticated, deep, intelligent, likable—they may be white but they have soul.

The connection between blackness and virtue is further emphasized by the character of Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whose love for his black constituents (and black adopted son) is meant to demonstrate the purity of his motivations. But while he’s surrounded by black people, those black people are always silent. White people are most sympathetic when they appropriate blackness for themselves. And for white people to appropriate blackness, black people and people of color need to be sidelined. Otherwise, the scam artists’ “soulfulness” might be revealed as humbug.

“Every time you put someone on screen you’re putting a mirror up there,” Marron said. “But, as these videos show, there are whole groups of people who are given such limited mirrors, or none at all, in which they can catch a glimmer of hope that they belong.”

Marron’s project demonstrates that Hollywood’s deep-seated obsession with whiteness affects the content and themes of the films, as well as the viewers. Her and American Hustle aren’t accidentally filled with white people. They’re quietly, but definitively, mired in racist tropes, white anxiety, and white supremacy. American movies, in 2015, still only care about white people.