Hollywood so white

by Ellen Rossow

rossowel@mnstate.edu

The Internet has been a wave of backlash since the Oscar nomination list’s release in January. With nominations for major Academy Awards exclusively going to white people, it seemed the Academy had learned nothing from the contentions of past years when it comes to racial diversity.

After several high-profile celebrity boycotts and the creation of #OscarsSoWhite, which served as a public forum for many upset Americans, the Academy released a few solutions to the problem of their racism. The proposed list of changes includes altering voting membership guidelines, which they hope will limit inactive members and yield a more diverse voting pool.

While these efforts are coming from the right place and definitely won’t hurt, no amount of “fixing” on the Academy’s part will really solve the problem.

This is because the problem doesn’t lie solely in the Academy. The problem with racism lies in Hollywood as a whole.

While reading about Hollywood’s role in this issue, I stumbled upon a number of articles regarding The Bechdel Test. This test, primarily used to find issues with female representation in film, considers three factors. In order for a film to pass the test in terms of female representation, two women have to be in the film, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man. At first glance, this seems like a simple task, but the results are surprising.

Often, the only reason women are written into a script is to talk about the male protagonist or play out some stereotypical role (i.e. “hot girl at a bar”). People of color are often used in the same way, written into a script simply to be some sort of stereotypical comic relief or to talk about the white people featured in the film (i.e. “token black friend”).

The Bechdel Test can also be used to examine films when it comes to non-white representation. In order for a film to pass, two people of color must be in the film, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than white people. There are some films that pass the test, like Tyler Perry movies, but these films are still riddled with stereotypical representations of people of color. Hollywood rarely allows them to hold honest, diverse roles, like those the majority of white actors are offered daily.

So why do so many films fail the test? Why aren’t people of color (and women) offered more non-stereotypical roles? Why does Hollywood cling to it’s white stars and ignore those of color?     

Some may argue that Hollywood is producing films that portray their audience. With a majority of Americans being white, Hollywood production should showcase the nation’s citizens proportionally. Well, as of June 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of white (not hispanic or latino) Americans was 63 percent. If Hollywood was representing its audience, 63 percent of films would be written for and feature white leading characters. If this was the case, maybe people of color would have a better chance at being nominated for Oscars. Maybe.

In an interview with Variety, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson offered his solutions to the industry-wide problem. He posed questions about “Gladiator” or “Braveheart” being greenlit, but not films based on the fascinating stories that have come out of Africa’s rich history. Johnson went on to say that common industry excuses are financial issues, or “a belief in a lack of cultural interest in those stories.” The latter simply cannot be true in our diverse nation.

Many films are written in a way that actors of any race could play the parts, but are dominated by white people anyway. Lately, I have been bombarded by the trailer for the upcoming film “Hail, Ceasar.” This Coen Brothers comedy, set to come out this week, features what the trailer calls (something to the effect of) “Hollywood’s biggest stars.” Not a single person of color is featured in the trailer. Just from my 30 second exposure, it is clear that people of color could have been featured at least somewhere. There isn’t room for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of color? And if, when the movie releases on Friday, a plethora of people of color were cast, why aren’t they found in the trailer? 

Johnson’s examples included “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Pretty Women.” These films are white-dominated, but didn’t have to be. Why were they? Johnson begs, “would these films have been less creative if the characters were interracial?”

“Grey’s Anatomy,” while a TV show, is a prime example of the way interracial casting can work without a hitch. About half of the 20 or so main characters throughout the series have been people of color and these characters aren’t defined by racial stereotypes. Racial stereotypes are hardly found in the TV series, even for comedic relief. “Grey’s Anatomy” is still on the air after 12 seasons. What does that tell you about the American audience?

Besides “Grey’s Anatomy,” I’m offered hope for the industry when considering “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” John Boyega’s role as Finn, while not Oscar-worthy, is noteworthy based on its refreshingly non-stereotypical casting of a black man. More films can do this. Why aren’t they?

While I am certain the racist corruption in the film industry is embedded deeply within Hollywood, I recognize that the Academy itself is at fault for missing out on very clear opportunities to nominate people of color. This year, many #OscarsSoWhite commentators point to “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton.” Nominations for these films about black lives completely overlook the people of color involved and glorify the white writers or actors involved. There is corruption there. I’m glad the Academy is considering their biases, but it is a long time coming.

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