Category Archives: film

The Academy Awards: A Reflection of Race in the Film Industry

The Academy Awards have recently come under attack again for a lack of diversity in its nominations. For the second year in a row, none of the 20 acting nominees were people of color. On top of this, there were no Best Picture nominations for a film focusing on characters of color. In response, many actors and celebrities involved in the film industry have called for boycotts of the awards, and for more diverse nominations in the future.

The critics of the Academy are right to do so. There were a number of performances by people of color that deserved a nomination, most notably that of Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. The criticisms were further exacerbated by the fact that the white writers of Straight Outta Compton were worthy of nomination, while none of its largely black acting ensemble, its director, or the movie as a whole were apparently deserving.

In response, the Academy’s president Cheryl Boone Isaacs recently announced changes to the voting structure that would aim at improving the diversity of eligible voters, with the goal of doubling the number of female and minority voters by 2020, saying, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”

Within President Isaacs’ quote, however, lies the more systemic issue of racism in the film industry. While the Academy’s critics are right, the lack of diverse nominations is not only the result of old, white Hollywood big-wigs with a prejudice towards actors and directors of color. In determining its nominations, the Academy pulls from the previous year’s pool of major films, very few of which contain actors, actresses, or directors of color. Considering the fact that very few major films in general receive a nomination, the likelihood of a film starring a person of color being nominated dwindles when there are only a handful of such films each year, if any.

Perhaps surprisingly, America’s film industry does tend to be more diverse than that of Europe. Idris Elba (currently one of the most fantastically under-appreciated actors of our time), left England for this reason, eventually landing his role on “The Wire” that would catapult his career from general obscurity to its current state of obscurity among those who don’t know what the BBC is. But, look at his IMDB page, and the films he is apparently “known for” are not those that showcase the depth of his character acting, such as “Luther” or Beasts of No Nation. Rather, they are largely roles in action blockbusters in which his character has relatively little screen time compared to the white star-heroes.

The all-white nominations are thus more a reflection of the film industry, rather than a contained, isolated incident of racism. They are a year’s summation of film companies and producers denying lead roles to people of color, and instead casting them as comic relief embodiments of their racial stereotypes or as the film’s villain. The calls for boycotts, along with the changes the Academy is making, are steps in the right direction. If we want the Oscar nominations to become more diverse, however, there are more steps we need to take, or rather, stop taking.

We perpetuate the superiority of white actors over those of color when we say that James Bond cannot be black, using the weak purist’s argument that Bond was not black in the original Ian Fleming novels, while choosing to ignore that neither was he originally ScottishWelsh, or Irish, and nor did he have blonde hair and blue eyes. We perpetuate the superiority of white actors when we complain about a stormtrooper being black, or when we are relatively complacent in the face of a producer explicitly saying that Spider-Man cannot be black or gay. We also perpetuate it when we allow blatant whitewashing, especially when we turn around and express outrage at a black actor being cast in a traditionally white role.

The film industry is a business like any other, and its lack of color is a reflection of our willingness to support films that whitewash its characters, or deny lead roles to people of color in acting and directing. If we truly want to see a change in the diversity of next year’s Oscar nominees, we must put our money where our mouths are, and go see films starring people of color as well as not supporting those that take away from such goals. In this way, perhaps next year’s voters will have a larger pool of diverse films and performances to choose from than the two or three to which we’ve become accustomed.

For better perspective, here’s a great speech Idris Elba gave in the British Parliament last week (18 January) on diversity in media and film.

Note: Most of this article is about the lack of actors and directors of color. However, the lack of diversity in terms of sexual orientation, gender, physical ability, and other categories, are equally as important. The disparity faced by people of color was emphasized in reference to the recent criticisms of the Academy, which have mostly been on these grounds.


Star Wars and the Current State of Art


To be honest, I was pretty disappointed by the new Star Wars film. The first time I saw it, I didn’t want to admit it to myself. However, after discussing it with a friend and seeing it two more times, I concluded that it was quite simply Episode IV repackaged with original characters and “retro” tropes to make the audience feel as if it is on the same field as the original trilogy. In terms of creativity and authenticity, The Force Awakens is nowhere near theoriginal as an art form. There are moments that recall the Lucas films. There are glimmers of hope (particularly in the final scene) that the next installments will be good. However, the movie is altogether a commercialized algorithm made to sell tickets at the box office and Chewbacca dog toys at Petco.

This is not a review of The Force Awakens. Rather, I think the most recent Star Wars film can be used to explain the current state of the movie industry and more generally of art. Film studios are rebooting blockbusters from decades ago. They have put a Hollywood spin on other stories we’ve known since childhood: Jurassic WorldIndiana JonesStar Trek, and more recently, The Jungle Book(Why? My childhood is crying!) Biblical movies have also seen a revival.However, the differences between these and a Marvel movie set in ancient Mesopotamia or Rome seem to be minute.

The reasoning behind these reboots is mostly financial. Films are expensive to make and even a large company like Disney can struggle to rebound from a bust, while smaller companies run the risk of being wiped out. Funding can also be hard to obtain: the most recent James Bond movie filmed an extensive (and fantastic) opening sequence in Mexico City. This occurred after the Mexican government offered large subsidies to the production company, which was struggling to finance the movie.

The result of the accountants’ takeover of Hollywood is that movie companies are less willing to risk new stories, and instead bank on the guaranteed revenue of reboots with a large fan base. The other result is that film studios have released nothing innovative recently, at least as far as blockbuster films. I struggle to believe that George Lucas would be successful in proposing Star Wars to today’s investors with its extremely high-effects budget and its radically different story (other than the hero’s journey) from almost anything before it.

This isn’t just a trend in the film industry. Risk-averse companies have also been a detriment to music and literature. When was the last time the best-selling novel was also one of the best literary works of fiction? When did we last see a best-seller’s list topped by books on the same intellectual level as those of Hemingway or Joyce? Granted, there has always been a disparity between the success of authors writing what might as well be screenplays for action movies and rom coms and of those trying to create art. However, with the squeezed margins due tocompetition with e-books and pirated books, publishing companies have been less willing to take a chance on a novel that is not feel-good movie material.

The same has been true in the music industry. An unfortunate consequence of the Internet is that music labels have also seen their margins fall. As such, touring has become the only way for musicians and their labels to make a great deal of money. This has always been a large source of musicians’ income. However, the sole dependence on shows has pushed labels to promote artists who can sell out stadiumsrather than small bars and cafes. Bob Dylan would not have survived in the current musical climate. The Beatles would also have struggled during their later years (which many agree were their most artistically substantial), as they stopped touring about midway through their career.

Artists themselves have often felt pressure to focus on producing “sellable” goods, rather than books and songs with intrinsic artistic value. Artists have always struggled financially more so than their business and engineering counterparts. However, adding to the rising cost of living in most large cities is exorbitant student debt for attending college. First-year graduates of Julliard or Berklee simply cannot afford to play jazz part-time in Manhattan bars and write their own music, living in a normal Queens apartment with other musicians. Many like to poke fun at music and theater majors as being overly idealistic. However, I admire them for having the confidence to pursue their passions in the face of so much societal and financial pressure to become a corporate bean counter.

There’s not much we can do to counter this trend. Many will always choose a Marvel movie over an abstract foreign film because Marvel movies are easy, fun, and allow us to turn our minds off for two hours. Alternative and innovative music will never dominate the radio for roughly the same reasons. However, there are some things we can do.

1. Stop watching Marvel movies.
2. Support normal, local musicians.

Oftentimes, the work of local musicians’ isn’t necessarily great, but it’s different. In addition, supporting artists in their formative years can help them grow into something better. Pay the $5 cover fee to see their show, stay off your cell phone while watching, and buy their album. They’re not really making any money. They’re simply artists trying to survive.

Some musicians do still want to change the way we think about music. Some authors do still try to write about the inner human struggle. Art is a reflection of our society. It’s what elevates us above clever animals in a way that technological advancement alone does not. Help art evolve out of commercialism, and in doing so, help the world evolve as well.