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Hollywood, the Oscars and Race

It really isn’t fair that every film involving any ethnic group besides white people is controversial at the outset. Even before the film is seen it’s controversial — just for including Black or Asian or Hispanic characters, or independent strong-willed women, it’s controversial. Our need to redefine identity through American film is vital to progress — but it can also choke the life out of artistic expression, particularly when the complaints are overblown. Kneejerk misplaced PC concerns about films like Cloud Atlas, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and now, Lincoln, will do more harm than good as they continue to foster the notion that no film can ever be “right” enough. The pressure of hypersensitive scrutiny has all but shut out serious treatment of these groups from mainstream Hollywood films and, thus, the Oscars, leaving only films by and about the white community to flourish because they are unassailable.

The early attacks (trivial, for the most part) on Cloud Atlas for its decision to have some white actors play Asian characters — black actors played white characters, and Asian actors played Latino characters too. All kinds of gloppy makeup was applied to change the surface appearance of various characters throughout the film to drive home the film’s theme — that “all boundaries are conventions.” It’s a beautiful, important film that is rough around the edges, large and lumbering but it says more about the universal human condition than any other film this year. It also features the only Korean actress in a strong leading role, Doona Bae, in any Hollywood movie this year, perhaps in the last ten (taking a wild guess, not researched) [Note: Lee Byung-hun played Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe.]

Cloud Atlas’ diversity is liberating, something I’ve never seen in a mainstream Hollywood film. And yet… it was criticized for having a white actor put on Asian makeup because of the uncomfortable history of more cruder incidents in the past — notably Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But is it really so hard to break free from those stiff-neck notions to allow for something wonderfully inventive like this?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film told in poetic verse, with a young black actress in the lead. A beautiful, deeply moving exceptional work of art — made on a shoestring budget with performers discovered outside the actors union, so it’s ineligible for SAG nominations — and yet, even still, despite taking the major artistic risk of making a film with two strong black actors in the leading roles, Benh Zeitlan and Luci Alibar are smacked down first by the liberal journalists and bloggers on the left saying it’s a “republican fantasy,” and then by some critics saying it’s “poverty porn” and exploitative. Really? It’s a work of art. But since a few people somehow confuse it with public policy, stamp it out, get rid of it, because it’s not “right” enough?

In the op-ed published in the Times on November 12, 2012, Kate Masur, writes passionately about “passive” black characters in Lincoln. I was taken aback by this criticism, given how many times Spielberg has been criticized by the black community for even attempting to tell stories about stronger black characters. When Spielberg made The Color Purple he created a firestorm, one that continues to smoulder today: the idea that white directors should not be telling the stories of black people. In the thirteen years I’ve been covering the Oscar race I have paid close attention and observed the evolution of this criticism.

The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars. The only Oscar it wasn’t nominated for? Best Director. Was this to do with lingering resentments that a white director would dare to tell this beloved story? Out of Africa, a more traditional white-centric narrative ended up winning instead. Despite the many acting nominations for the Color Purple not a single actor won. Instead, only white actors won the acting Oscars that year. Did it make the Hollywood community of black actors feel better that the film suffered so many losses? Did it make white people feel better because their guilt could be put off for a few more decades?

In 1986, one black actor was nominated for Round Midnight, Dexter Gordon. No films by or about African Americans entered the Oscar race that year.

In 1987, Denzel Washington was nominated for Cry Freedom but he lost to Sean Connery for The Untouchables.

In 1988, another film by a white director would enter the Best Picture race – Mississippi Burning. It is a wonderful movie, but criticized, once again, as Masur is doing here, with its portrayal of passive black characters. There are a variety of characters in Mississippi Burning, just as there are in Lincoln. The screenplay can’t or won’t rewrite our shameful past in a way that makes us feel better, however. Nor does the black community particularly want to be saddled with that history forever. Many would rather us to get over it and start telling more modern stories.

In 1989, Spike Lee emerged as a prominent black filmmaker. Do the Right Thing was a critical and box office success. Lee himself was a bit of a quirky upstart but there is no question that his film had an impact. Everyone was talking about Do the Right Thing except the Motion Picture Academy. Do the Right Thing received two Oscar nominations, one for one of the few prominent white actors, Danny Aiello, and one for Screenplay for Lee.  That same year Glory entered the race with five nominations, won three, including one for Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington but not Best Picture. Sure, white director, but it tells a great and true story about the Massachusetts 54th regiment. Powerful and strong performances by the predominantly black cast, and it deals with racism head on.   To add insult to injury, one of the worst films about a passive black character in the history of American film, Driving Miss Daisy, won Best Picture. It remains the only film to win Best Picture without its director having been nominated.   It was told by a white filmmaker from a white character’s point of view.

The controversy over Spike Lee caused a big enough earthquake that Kim Basinger made a point of humiliating the voters when she came on stage to present an award. Onstage she told the world, “The best film of the year is not even nominated, and it’s Do the Right Thing.” But that didn’t change things for black filmmakers. Spike Lee was eventually labeled the “angry black man” and critics and the Academy have largely turned away from him. He even made a return with Inside Man, a box office and critical success. It was ignored by the Academy. Whether Lee’s irritation at the white-dominated film industry came first, or whether his mere presence was such a threat that it caused liberal white Hollywood to back away slowly — move along, nothing to see here — the end result was a divorce between mainstream white Hollywood, the Oscars and Spike Lee.

The following year. Whoopi Goldberg would win the Oscar for Supporting Actress in Ghost, a film mostly about white characters. In 1993 Steven Spielberg would finally win big at the Oscars, but for Schindler’s List. Being a Jew, no one could accuse him of making a film about a culture to which he didn’t belong.

In 1994, another white director who feels comfortable telling black stories burst onto the scene. Quentin Tarantino featured a black actor, Samuel Jackson, in a co-lead, though he would be relegated to a supporting nomination.

No other film about black characters would land in the Best Picture race until Taylor Hackford, another white director, made Ray, about Ray Charles. Jamie Foxx ended up winning Best Actor, though Best Picture went to Million Dollar Baby instead.

During those years, Hollywood films that the Academy ignored for Best Picture included: What’s Love Got to Do with It (Brian Gibson), Ghosts of Mississippi (Rob Reiner), The Hurricane (Norman Jewison), Ali (Michael Man), Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster), Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer), and Dreamgirls (Bill Condon).

Of the three films that have since been nominated for Best Picture, The Help and The Blind Side were both roundly criticized for their treatment of black characters. One deservedly, the other not so deservedly. Only one film since 1993 featuring all black characters has been nominated, and that was Precious, by Lee Daniels in 2010. It was the first time any film directed by a black director had been nominated for Best Picture, and only the second time a black director was nominated. When its writer, Geoffrey Fletcher won he became the first African American screenwriter to win. John Singleton was the first black director to get a nomination but no corresponding Best Picture nomination.

Spike Lee made Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, He Got Game, and Jungle Fever — all vital and interesting films, if sometimes a bit misogynistic, about the black community AND the white community from a black storyteller’s perspective. But he would only receive his second Oscar nomination in the documentary category for 4 Little Girls. Spike Lee, arguably the most influential and important African American filmmaker has received a total of two Oscar nominations.

John Singleton would never earn another Oscar nomination after Boyz in the Hood in 1992, and no film he made since would ever garner any acclaim from either the critics or the Academy, including Poetic Justice, Rosewood, or Baby Boy.

Denzel Washington would venture out into directing with Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters. Both the kind of film Oscar voters ordinarily go for; both shut out of the Oscars. The black community continually criticizes the Oscars for making films about black characters suspected to be stereotypes or portrayed in a negative light — the claim has made that black characters made trashy tend to win: Denzel Washington in Training Day, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Mo’Nique in Precious. The Help got nothing but criticism from the black and white communities — but all the same, the only film heading into last year’s race with any major black actors in it at all was nominated for 4 Oscars and won the Oscar for best supporting actress. The film’s lead, the brilliant Viola Davis, despite winning the SAG award, lost to Meryl Streep. White characters are unassailable.

It’s worth noting that when Denzel Washington made The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher he gave us films that, by all rights, should have appealed to Oscar voters AND the black community: positive role models and smart black characters. But of course, not in keeping with how the white community accepts black storytellers, which is to say, they don’t accept them at all.

It is distressing when, despite the difficulties in getting mainstream Hollywood to cast actors from different ethnic backgrounds at all and the steep uphill climb for black storytellers to break through, political correctness must then add insult to injury, thereby choking the life out of diversity in cinema. It has given black filmmakers nowhere to go, so when a few finally do break through, almost no one pays any attention. — or all the attention is spent looking for flaws. Precious is “too unflattering,” “Do the Right Thing” is too angry. Antwone Fisher is too “syrupy.” The porridge is never just right, thus progress is stopped whenever it gets going.

Does this mean people should shut up about it? I don’t think so. But I do think we all need to exhale a little, loosen our belts a little, and all the storytellers a little more freedom.  How about we give artists the flexibility to explore varying characters?  As long as they aren’t deliberately racist, sexist, homophobic or hateful why would anyone complain about a great film like Lincoln arriving in theaters? Can the white-dominated film critics try to broaden their own definition of what makes a great film by perhaps questioning their own perceptions of culture-based narratives?

As far as Masur’s complaints, well, wouldn’t it be nice if we could sprinkle fairy dust on our history and change how things were in 1865? Like wouldn’t it be fantastic if a self-freed slave burst through the doors of Congress and made a powerful speech too?  I’m sure we might have liked it if a butler stepped out of line back then, or the silent servants in the background suddenly interrupted the white conversations and started chatting along, unfettered in outspoken participation. If Steven Spielberg would only have painted a more palatable portrait of the black people in Lincoln, it would help us sleep better at night knowing that despite centuries of whipping them into submission, selling off their babies, raping them and fathering children with them that we didn’t subsequently acknowledge.  I’m sure that would make a lot of us feel a lot better.

It is absolutely true that there are always passive black characters in films about the Civil War and the South. But in Lincoln, Spielberg singles out three pivotal moments that turn not on the white characters but on the black characters. One is the film’s opener, which Masur points out. But she says it’s all downhill from there. It is absolutely not.

When Lincoln’s son Tad asks the character played by Gloria Reuben if she was whipped, LIncoln tells him it’s not an appropriate question to ask, yet Reuben’s character defies him and answers the boy anyway, “I was whipped when I was younger than you,” she answers back. Reuben has a more important scene with the president later in the film when she tells him that her son died wearing the Union blue. They have a conversation that stretches through history and time and drops them right back on our doorstep. How does Masur miss acknowledging a scene like that?

The third scene is a spoiler and I won’t ruin it for you except to say that the film quite pointedly notes that what we see on the surface maybe wasn’t the whole story of what was going on. Again, complex thought frees up the artist’s ability to express many different ideas about our culture.

If we unshackle our storytellers, we will start to see more diversity in Hollywood. Movies won’t only be about white characters and someday maybe even the Academy will recognize black filmmakers.

Now entering the Oscar race against all odds is Ava DuVernay, who quite unexpectedly won Best Director at Sundance in February — the first female African American storyteller ever to do so. DuVernay is passionately involved in community outreach to get black audiences to see her film Middle of Nowhere. It is a movie that dares to treat its heroine as a thinking person, a working woman who is trying to figure out the rest of her life. She has one foot in the black stereotypical expectaions of who she should be: the girlfriend of a jailed man just waiting for him to get out, and one foot in the reality of DuVernay’s world — one not dictated by white filmmakers or by cultural stereotypes — a thoughtful woman undefined by anyone except herself. It is a film full of great acting and brilliant writing. The critics did not rave the way they did for Beasts of the Southern Wild, or even for Precious. Roger Ebert gave Precious four stars yet only gave Middle of Nowhere three. Ava DuVernay might have kicked down the door but the new wave of myth-making has yet to begin. A few critics really did seem to connect and time will likely sort out the rest.

White directors are harshly condemned for making films about any other ethnic group but themselves. Black filmmakers are ignored. We are complex human beings capable of complex thought — this way around the dilemma doesn’t have to be so black and white, does it? When you win Oscars you gain industry cred. Maybe you go nowhere with that cred. Maybe Hollywood still isn’t open to you. Maybe things will never change — but circumtstances sure as hell will never change if we keep putting restrictions on art that don’t need to be there. Save your fights for the fights that matter.

Most Oscar watchers are tired of having this discussion already.   It would be nice if we didn’t have to have it every year but alas, we do because so little has changed despite the many Oscars handed out for actors and actresses in recent years.  The films in the Oscar race for 2012 that feature diverse casting include Lincoln, Flight, Cloud Atlas, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Middle of Nowhere. We don’t yet know how the Best Picture race will play out, whether it will be an all-white affair as it usually is or whether it won’t be.  But I’ll leave you with this: only two Oscar nominations for Spike Lee. Think about that one and get back to me.