Are The Oscars All White?

25 Jan

Race and the arts has been the major issue this last year. So, after a wonderfully-positive post about an outlet encouraging non-White characters and writers, it’s a shame but perhaps inevitable that this one should be a negative one concerning the Oscars furore.

Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial stone or have stumbled upon this some time after the issue has faded away, you’ll know that the issue exercising the film world is the lack of black actors and the films featuring them in the line up for the awards.

Personally, I don’t believe there is a deliberate agenda here, although it’s likely that the make-up of the Oscar committee (mostly old white men) is to blame by simple virtue of tending to prioritise certain tastes in film-making that probably don’t favour black actors and the films they most often appear in. If the promised reforms go through, that should be addressed, although whether it will make the Oscars any better at actually acknowledging good films is a totally different question. Which is the main reason why I think the issue is rather overrated – the Oscars are notoriously bad at discerning which films will have lasting appeal and seldom seem to pick the most worthy, either. Really, we should be ignoring them as arbiters of anything worthwhile at all. Yet, they retain a certain cachet that gives them an importance nonetheless.

However, as several commentators, black and white, have pointed out, it isn’t as if black actors and the films they are in actually deserve to win this year. People have been hard pressed to name any films that could even be considered and only Creed, Straight Outta Compton and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are contenders, and, of those, only Creed really seems to have garnered unqualified attention. Straight Outta Compton is criticised for starting well, but then losing focus, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is agreed to be okay, but largely derivative and by the numbers. The problem is that the dearth of good films not only means there aren’t the ‘black films’ in contention, but that the actors aren’t being put forward because, no matter how good they are, their awards success is strongly-predicated upon the strength of the film they’re in. A lack of good films for black actors means little chance of them being nominated for awards. It’s not that there aren’t the good black actors, but they’re being let down by the films they’re in.

Now, I would contend that these three films amply demonstrate why black actors are not doing well at the Oscars or in mainstream movies. Too often, we only seem to see black actors in successful films that require a black presence (those concerning slavery, most often) or in established franchises. Straight Outta Compton, dealing with the true story of the NWA, falls into the former category, while Creed (a Rocky spinoff) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the latest instalment in, well, guess) fall into the latter. A few black actors, such as Will Smith, have managed to achieve mainstream acceptability, but it does seem that when a character could be black or white it is almost inevitable that a white actor will be cast.

Generally, I doubt this is a deliberate policy, a conspiracy to keep acting white, or even a conscious decision on the past of most filmmakers. The problem is that most films are made by white men who, when picking an actor for a ‘generic’ role, will opt for what is normal for them: namely a white and probably male actor. Then, when we do see a black actor cast in a generic role, it usually involves a franchise established through white actors: whether this represents a willingness to ‘take a risk’ with a black actor in a film that is unlikely to flop or a ‘politically correct’ desire to make the franchise more fair doesn’t really matter. The problem is that black actors just aren’t being given a chance.

Even when there is the suggestion of a black actor for a high-profile role, such as calls for a black James Bond, it still involves piggy-backing them on the back of white actors. Where are the great black characters for black actors to play?

Which brings us to the real solution to ensuring black actors and their films have a fair chance of winning an award and being watched. Not boycotts or accusations of racism, but giving black actors the chance to star in good films. In particular, we need black characters with the cachet of Bond and Harry Potter in films deserving of their quality in order to demonstrate the simple fact that black actors are every bit as good as white actors. Hopefully, through the endeavours of writers, both black and white, creating a diverse cast of protagonists in their novels, comics and short stories, we may see Hollywood adapting more stories with them in the lead (and, let’s just hope they can resist the urge to turn them white when they do).

Great characters – great stories – great actors – the opportunity is there, Hollywood: Take it.


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