Created in Their Image: #OscarsSoWhite is Symptomatic of Hollywood’s New Slavery

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag highlights the fact that all twenty of this year’s Oscar nominated actors were white.  However, the fact that no people of color were nominated is not solely about who was nominated.  It’s not even about who gets cast in projects (although that is a huge issue).  It’s not necessarily just about who writes the characters, although it is problematic that 95% of WGA screenwriters are white.  The problem with this year’s Oscars, which is representative of Hollywood as a whole, is really how many white people view people of color.  Just as insidious is the accompanying belief that they are either “colorblind,” or perhaps even “color brave,” and are therefore unquestionably able to speak about and for people of color in their screenplays and TV shows.  The results?  The emergence of movies like Black or White, and articles like the New York Times’ “Wrought in their Creator’s Image,” which are wrong in so many ways.

Black or White’s writer and director Mike Binder actually believes that his story will shed much needed light on the issue of race in America, when what he actually did was create another “white savior movie.”  Selma’s director Ava DuVernay’s refusal to do this very thing in her film got her blasted by Jewish clergy for not including them at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.

NYT writer Alesandra Stanley’s attempt to paint Shonda Rhimes as a woman whose characters turned stereotypes of African American women on the their heads failed.  Instead, Stanley revealed her own flawed thinking—that Rhimes and her characters were angry black women—when they were multi-faceted characters allowed to have all of their emotions, including anger.  Not only did she not “get” Rhimes’ characters; neither she nor her colleagues thought that there was anything potentially offensive about the article.  The ensuing public backlash, however, said otherwise.

Hollywood’s new slavery refers not to the enslavement of Africans in America, but to the enslavement of the minds of white people.  For in it, white minds are enslaved to the stereotypical views of blacks (as subordinates, thugs, those who need saving, etc…)  Even those who are aware of these stereotypes and aim to create art that combats them often perpetuate them, unknowingly. 

This new slavery is steeped in the assumption that white artists can write and direct stories about people of color with the same lens, clarity, and sensitivity as ethnic writers.  This is a fallacy.  This new slavery imagines a post-racial world where color no longer matters, and white people are qualified to write about the experiences of the everyone, including those who have suffered at the hands of white racism.  Their flawed art, however, proves otherwise.

In response to this year’s Oscar nominees, Selma actor David Oyelowo put it best when he said, "Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or in the center of our own narrative driving it forward.  We have been slaves, we have been criminals . . . but we've been leaders, we've been kings, we've been those who change the world.”

Does this explain why Denzel Washington received the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for his portrayal of a criminal cop in Training Day, but failed to receive it for his work in The Hurricane and Malcolm X?  Does this explain why Mo’Nique (Precious), Ocatvia Spencer (The Help), and Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), received their Best Actress in a Supporting Role wins—because their characters fit into a too familiar, pervasive stereotype?  Yes, their performances were worthy of the Academy’s nod of approval; I seek to take no shine away from them.  The point is that these films—even if they had either a black director, writer, or neither—were welcomed in part because they supported already existing beliefs about black folk in this country.  And in giving out Hollywood’s most coveted crown, the Academy gave these films its gold statue of approval, which will ensure that they get watched throughout history, further cementing their images into our hearts and minds.

Sure, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences can claim that that it values diversity, citing its African American female president and the recent Oscar wins of several black actors as “proof.”  It can present itself as a progressive organization that is working to save Hollywood from its racist past.  But the numbers don’t lie.  In its eighty-seven year history, only thirteen black men have been nominated in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category, and only ten black women have been nominated in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category.  The men have captured four wins, while the women have captured only one, with Halle Berry winning for her bare-it-all role in Monster’s Ball.  In the Supporting Role categories, fourteen black men have received nominations, capturing four wins, and black women have received nineteen nominations, and six wins.

These numbers highlight race and gender dynamics.  If you’re a black actor, you’re more likely to be nominated for a supporting role than a leading role, (perhaps because you're more likely to star in a supporting role than a leading role).  If you’re a black man, you’re more likely to be nominated for a leading role than a supporting role.  If you’re a black woman, you’re more likely to get nominated for a supporting role than a leading role, and you’re more likely to win for a supporting role than a black man.  Also, you’re less likely to ever be nominated again, because out all of the black women ever nominated for any acting Oscar, no one has been nominated a second time in the same category.  (Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis have each received one nomination in the leading and supporting role categories.)  However, four black men have been nominated twice, one has been nominated five times (Morgan Freeman), while one (Denzel Washington) has been nominated six times.

If we were to examine the numbers for other groups: Latinos, Asians, Indians, and others, the numbers would be more appalling.

The more white writers, casting directors, directors and producers allow themselves to imagine minorities anew, the more we will see an increase in the diversity of actors shown onscreen.  Art often imitates "reality", and maybe their "reality" doesn’t include black people who are in positions in power.  Maybe their maids and cooks are African American and Latina.  If they are a part of the 75% of White Americans who don’t have a black friend, their reality differs from mine.  They don’t have two black women best friends who are medical doctors from Ivy League schools who both married black doctors—a M.D. and a Ph.D.  Maybe when they visit New York City, they don’t catch up with some of their closest friends from college:  a black male history professor at CUNY, and a young black lawyer turned entrepreneur who has been featured in several business magazines.  As a result, the worlds they write about are not only limited, but are not reflective of reality.

White creatives must realize their limitations and biases—in experiences, perspective, and ability.  If this happens, then other perspectives will be invited in, not because of diversity clauses, but because they are recognized as essential to authentic storytelling.  If anyone can speak to the experiences of ethnic minorities and the majority culture, it is black folk and other people of color, for we are the ones who have been forced to live in two worlds.  We are the ones doubly blessed and cursed to live with what W.E.B. DuBois refers to as a “double-consciousness.”  Most white folk haven’t lived through this experience, so they ought not raise their pens as if they had, and they ought neither believe that their faces can justly represent the diversity of our global society.  

When we get a diversity of storytellers, we get diversity—not only in terms of the actors—but in terms of the types of stories being told, as well as the ways in which those stories are being told. In Selma, for example, DuVernay was the first filmmaker to craft a full-length feature film about the slain Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Refusing to create another “white savior movie,” she crafted a film that showed the personal side of an immortalized leader, while positioning the contributions of women at the forefront of the film.

#OscarsSoWhite emerges from the vestiges of white supremacist thought that declares that #WhiteIsSoRight.  Hollywood’s new slavery is vocally anti-racist, yet believes and behaves as if#WhiteIsSoRight and that white creatives can represent everyone: on paper, behind the camera, and in front of it.  If Hollywood demolishes slavery once and for all, a new hashtag, #OscarsSoDiverse, will no doubt sweep social media.