For the second year in a row, every acting nominee at the Academy Awards is white, prompting a resurgence of the #OscarsSoWhite trend on Twitter. Many people responded with ire and many responded with humor, but a good number of people responded with indignation and curiosity as to why this is even a problem.
To the latter group, this is, respectfully, directed at you. If you’re of the opinion that race isn’t an issue when it comes to awarding the best and brightest, I say to you:
I’m white, so I’ve never had to worry about, or even think about, representation (…at all). If you’re white, you haven’t had to worry about representation either (at least in movies and TV), so it might be tempting to say that representation isn’t a big deal because it’s never been a big deal to you. But I think it absolutely is a big deal.
If you’ll indulge me for one minute, picture a black 7-year-old watching the Oscars from his couch on February 28. What he’ll see is that, out of everyone being honored as the Best – actors, actresses, directors, writers – none of them look like him. And a conclusion he may draw, then and there, is that filmmaking isn’t for him; it’s not something that a black person is “supposed” to be doing, based on what he’s seeing, so he’ll choose a different life for himself.
There’s a lot of troubling things about this scenario, but purely as a film lover, that would be an absolute tragedy. It’s denying the world – including me as a viewer – the chance to see thought-provoking and moving films from talented people, just because they were discouraged at a young age and never became filmmakers.
I can give you a concrete, less hypothetical example. Did you see Creed (2015) this year? I hope you did, because it’s one of the best movies of the year by far. It was written and directed (marvelously) by a young man named Ryan Coogler, who’s black. I guarantee you that no white guy is going to come up with Creed. No white guy is sitting around wondering what Apollo Creed’s son is up to all these decades after the early Rocky movies. But Coogler, who grew up watching the Rocky movies with his dad, connected with Apollo. He related to him. He looked like him. He could imagine himself as him.
Without that representation in Rocky, we’d have no Creed, and we’d be denied an incredible film. What future great movies are we denying ourselves by having two straight years of entirely Caucasian acting nominees? I’m not just talking about black representation, because there’s also a lack of Asian, Latin American, and Hispanic representation as well.
I’m not trying to claim that the Academy is overtly racist (though its demographics certainly need an update), but I do believe their nominations are indicative of an overall trend. Most of the great characters in the great movies are played by white actors because a white person is seen as the default person (Master of None and Aziz Ansari have covered this). Unless there’s something inherent to a character that they must be a certain race, they will be white. And if too many characters of a non-white race are leads in a movie, it becomes a “black movie” – or whatever race – and it will seen as niche or other. (Sidenote: This is one reason the casting of John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a great thing. Not only is there nothing inherent to his character that would require him to be black, his race is never once even mentioned in the movie. He wasn’t cast because they needed a black character, but because they needed a character.)
Please don’t take this as an advocacy of tokenism or that we should nominate people who don’t deserve it. I’m just saying that representation matters, and the lack of representation is an issue. But while I’m at it…dude, there were some people of color who deserved it this year. Idris Elba was nothing short of electric in Beasts of No Nation (2015), and his co-star, the 10-year-old first-time actor Abraham Attah, was sensational. To say nothing of Michael B. Jordan in the aforementioned Creed or Benicio del Toro in Sicario (2015). One criticism I could potentially make of the Academy: it’s not like the performances weren’t there and weren’t deserving. But, in their defense (I guess), there should be more.
In response to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, you may choose to say “So what?”, but I hope you give it more thought than that. You may choose to say “I guess all the white actors gave better performances,” but I hope you also question why that might be true (why, for two straight years, all the supposedly best characters were white: what kind of stories and characters we’re choosing to tell and choosing to praise). But if nothing else, I hope that you think about how important representation is.
Among other things, the future of film depends on it. There are billions of people who aren’t straight, white men with fascinating stories to tell. I can’t wait to go to the theater and see them.