The Oscars have come and gone, however the controversy the Awards stirred up this year is still very present. For the second year in a row, no actor, actress, or director of African-American descent was nominated. In 2014, the brilliant movie, Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, with its extraordinary cast including David Oyelowo as MLK, Jr., was shut out. This year, Straight out of Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, was snubbed for the three most popular Oscars mentioned above, although it was given Best Original Screenplay.
The first reason for the paucity of awards to people of color is the demographics of the members of the Academy. The awards of course are selected by “members of the academy,” a group still notoriously white and male. And on top of this, they are a self-selected group, meaning the lack of diversity is not accidental. Luckily, this means the diversity problem can be rectified. Movies made by women and movies made by non-white directors, male or female, are not given the same respect.
A second reason, and one as insidious as the first, is the choices made when casting movies. Let us first point out that in other countries parts do not depend on race or ethnicity. Othello is not the only part open for a Black Shakespearean actor in England or Scandinavia – any actor whose nature and talent fits the character has a chance.
However, in Hollywood, there are fewer parts available for those who are not white. Moreover, white actors often fill those roles written specifically as non-white characters.
The hope was that the Oscars would bring to light this issue and fix casting choices for not only African-Americans, but also all non-white actors. Sadly, with the actors featured in the release of Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and the new all-female Ghostbusterstrailer, it seems nothing has changed.
“Hollywood Whitewashing” is a term referring to the casting of white actors in principally ethnic roles. It goes as far back as the dawn of cinema and minstrel shows when white actors would put on black face paint to portray African-Americans. This practice was famously called “blackface.” In the now infamous 1915 film, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, blackface is used extensively to show African-Americans as savages. Railed by critics for its appalling racism and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, this movie featured many African-American characters, but didn’t have any actual African-American actors.
The same practice of Hollywood Whitewashing continues. In Dick Powell’s 1965 film, The Conqueror, all-American cowboy John Wayne was cast to play Mongolian emperor Genghis Khan. In Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mickey Rooney plays the Asian neighbor Mr. Yunioshi.
Even incredibly recent movies employ this tactics. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the Prince of Persia in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Christian Bale plays Egyptian-born Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Emma Stone plays a half-Hawaiian, half-Asian tour guide in Aloha. The most recent movie to employ these practices is Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, a movie in which the principal villain is an Egyptian god (Set), played by a Scottish actor (Gerard Butler). who faces off against another Egyptian god (Horus), played by a Danish actor (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), for control of Egypt. The only one who can stand up for mortals is Egyptian citizen Bek, who is played by Australian actor Ben Thwaites. This $140 million movie couldn’t find a single Middle-Easterner to play any of its lead roles. Really?
On the flipside of whitewashing the cast though, is the purposeful diversifying of the cast. Sometimes great characters come out of this. Sometimes, like what appears in the new Ghostbusters trailer, you get a token black character. The dynamic of the newGhostbusters is currently three scientists and one street-smart and purposefully not book-smart character who forcibly inserts herself into the group. Guess which group the character of color belongs too. While there is nothing inherently wrong having an African-American public transportation employee be part of the Ghostbusters, this part of the reboot seems just a little too like the original. Because in Hollywood’s mind, it is okay for actors to play different ethnicities, as long as it is a white person playing another ethnicity, but people of color have to play their stereotypes. Hence the African American actress is not a scientist but a public transportation employee with attitude. Whether its Iranian-Americans always playing terrorists, Latin-Americans always playing gangsters, or African-Americans playing any one of the multiple stereotypes about their race, there is still a gross problem in Hollywood that must still be resolved.
Movies impact the national consciousness to a great extent. They are one of the leading industries in entertainment and affect the social hierarchy more than a lot of people realize. If they continue to unequally represent races, the race problem faced by real people in the real world may never change.