An edited, shorter version of this appeared in the Deccan Chronicle:
In both 2015 and 2016, Oscar nominations had no ethnic minorities or actors of colour. In its 89-year history, just 14 African-American actors have received the Oscar. Only one Latino actor, José Ferrer, has ever won best actor, and no Latina actress has ever won best actress. In 2015 Ava DuVernay’s absence from the best director film category for her film Selma was a glaring omission. DuVernay, if nominated, would have been the first African-American woman ever to be nominated for best director. Similarly, 2016, saw an extensive repertoire of stellar performances by actors of colour – Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Benicio Del Toro, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and the cast of Straight Outta Compton to name a few. Despite these performances, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the second year straight nominated white actors and actresses. In 2015, April Reign, managing editor at the Broadway Black started the #OscarSoWhite hashtag, which was revived again in 2016 to offer a scathing critique of both the Academy and Hollywood at large. After the controversies of the past two years, this year record six black actors were nominated.
Last year, actor Wendell Pierce when asked about the “Oscars controversy” said that Hollywood is filled with “an insidious” form of racism. Pierce was on “The Wire” for six seasons playing the character Bunk Moreland. The Wire was a path-breaking drama with a mostly black cast. The Chicago Tribune said that the show’s “rewards not unlike those won by readers who conquer Joyce, Faulkner or Henry James.” Despite critical acclaim, none of its cast members, including Pierce was nominated for an Emmy. The series won just two awards over the course of six seasons, both for writing.
When a society’s values are constituted by patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, there are real incentives to engage in these beliefs, and expand their existing structures of racism. Awards represent but a small aspect of the insidious nature of racism. Racism is endemic, structural, and widespread. Its genealogies are the tortured histories of slavery, genocide, mass incarceration and oppression. Racism manifests itself in many ways — in stereotyping of black Americans and other minorities, in the rendering of “black face” worn by white actors, the toxic distortion of non-European history and culture, and in silencing the voices of black actors and actresses.
In 2015, Anthony Horowitz, the most recent author of the James Bond novels while talking to The Daily Mail declared that Idris Elba is “too street” to play James Bond. Here Elba’s blackness is both an indictment of who he is and by implication what roles he is suited to play as a black man. The hedonistic 007, from the rendering of Ian Fleming to Anthony Horowitz, is upper class, debonair, and enigmatic. James Bond is a celebration of empire and whiteness. 007 clears the ground for 21st centuries capitalism, justifies cold war proxy conflicts, and undertakes civilising mission, all the while championing the West’s culpability in the wars, poverty and destruction of the rest. James Bond embodies an aggressive whiteness, a posh, more acceptable veneer of white nationalism, where race, class and hierarchy come together to both express and consolidate white privilege. Idris Elba, born of Sierra Leonean father, and a Ghanaian Mother in Hackney and raised in East Ham is the embodiment of the post-colonial world that burst into life as the Empire withered. Elba, his blackness, working-class background and his accent stand opposed to Horowitz’s vision of the world. While Horowitz can continue to imagine the superiority of an empire, and conjure a world of whiteness that has ceased to exists, he cannot imagine an actor, as talented as Idris Elba to play Bond. Racism ends imagination; it also negates of certain bodies from ever transgressing those boundaries.
Writing in 1991, Richard Dyer in his book White argues that, “White people create the dominant images of the world and don’t quite see that they thus construct the world in their image”. Another example of how whiteness creates the world in its image is this year’s Jazz movie La La Land. In the words of basketball legend, writer and activist Karim Abdul Jaber, “Jazz is a uniquely African-American music form born in New Orleans and raised in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance…But I’m also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum. The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout? This could be a deliberate ironic twist, but if it is, it’s a distasteful one for African-Americans. One legitimate complaint that marginalised people (women, people of colour, Muslims, the LGBT community, etc.) have had about Hollywood in the past is that when they were portrayed, it was done in a negative way.”
Movies are conversations about inclusion and exclusion, realities of the other, and the battered existence of beauty all built into the medium of cinema. The narrative existence or the need to have your stories, experience and histories reflected on screen is not just insincere expressions of diversity; it is also imperative to how people constitute their social worlds. In ‘Modernity and Ambivalence’, Zygmunt Bauman notes: ‘There are friends and enemies. And there are strangers’. Racism is a murderer of truth, ideas and beauty. It not only makes friends out of enemies it also makes it impossible for us to understand the strangers through the celluloid. If we turn the mirror back on ourselves and ask similar questions about religion, caste, class and belongings, what would we find? In mainstream Indian cinema, anyone, not upper class, wealthy or male is rendered a stranger. In 2015, the Hindu published its analysis of Bollywood Movies. In their finding, “Just six of the lead characters in the nearly 300 Bollywood movies released over the last two years belonged to a backwards caste”. It also concluded that “Upper caste heroes still hold sway” and roles “Lack of diversity”. But perhaps the most telling line from the findings came towards the end. “Several directors and writers whom The Hindu contacted declined to speak because of the “sensitivity” of the topic.” Cinema, a medium born out of rebellion, a desire to transgress that should be at the forefront battling homogenising tendencies now remains strictly handcuffed to the propriety of the most insidious kind: silence when faced with difficult questions.