Column: Oscar must drop the uniform of homogeneity

By Eva Mckend

The Phoenix, Swarthmore College via UWIRE

When marginalized people lament the lack of diversity on the big screen, a common, though patronizing, retort is they need not seek validation from the entertainment industry. Hollywood is about as quintessentially American as football. It is a staple of our culture and if people of color are not represented, they might as well not exist.

Although some might have been hopeful after the Academy Awards last year when Mo’Nique took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Precious” and Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director for the “The Hurt Locker,” others were rightfully trepidatious.
While it was exciting to see Mo’Nique recognized, one must wonder why it took such a dark role for her to earn the accolade.

The problem with the Hollywood machine is that it continues to typecast people of color. This is evident in the midseason replacement “Harry’s Law” by the wildly popular David E. Kelley.
While the show has endearing qualities and witty writing, the supporting characters of color reify negative stereotypes of drug addiction, poverty and helplessness.

Kelley is a liberal and one of the best writers and producers in television. But even if he, at times, misses the sociocultural mark, the implications for less prudent storytellers are harrowing. I only wonder if the gag about “a black man falling from the roof” would have made it into the script had there been more voices of color at the table.

In an interview with “Complex” magazine, Michael B. Jordan (“The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights”), by far the most promising star of my generation, reflected on the challenges of being a young black actor in a white- dominated industry. “There are still a lot of white writers writing for black people, and there’s always going to be a lot of stuff lost in translation,” he said. The 23-year-old acknowledged he felt a responsibility to speak out against mischaracterizations especially in a business that relegates black talent to a “crab-in-a-barrel mentality.”

In response to the heavy criticism The Academy will receive throughout this award season for what many are deeming “the whitest Oscars in a decade,” we will hear the age-old excuse that there was merely not enough talent of color to chose from. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who was cited in several recent articles about the lack of diversity, recently formed the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a campaign to widen the distribution of black films. Her efforts and her mission are compulsory in a field that treats people of color as if they are invisible. However, one must wonder how long African Americans will have to rely on their own mediums. In a society where all races coexist, black people should not be limited to black media.

Alicia Niwagaba ’11 argues that people of color don’t generally receive roles that would garner them critical praise. She cites her frustration with films like “The Social Network” (nominated for eight Academy Awards) that cast a white actor to play an Indian man. “I have a hard time believing there was not one Indian actor who fit that role. It was a small part but it just exemplifies what is wrong with casting and the film industry.” Ultimately, Niwagaba maintains it is a numbers game. “Studios don’t think audiences want to see films with minorities or strong women, so films about white people (especially men) are disproportionately funded and supported.”

The few times that people of color were celebrated in the past were what DuVernay described as anomalies.“People of color do not receive awards unless we are degrading ourselves and playing downtrodden characters,” Niwagaba said. “We are always represented as the other, something to be pitied, never triumphant and never strong. It just shows you what kind of narrative Hollywood wants to maintain.”

Tanya Hamilton, a black Philadelphia director who showed her exemplary film “Night Catches Us” on Tuesday, said more black talent need the opportunity to “fill in the empty center, melding art and commerce.” There are few films with strong artistic vision that can also be profitable. More filmmakers of color should be given the chance to fill that void.

Some might ask why we should care about what is going on in the lavish likes of Hollyweird at a time when many Americans are fighting to keep their jobs. As Marie Wilson, President of the White House Project, said in the trailer for “Miss Representation,” a new documentary about the portrayal of women in the media, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” The media is the most powerful tool of dissemination in the world and America dominates the message.

It is not unusual to travel to another country and find an entire evening line up of programming of American shows, or travel to a local theater and find only American films. The diversity that we represent in America will be the diversity illustrated around the world. If The Academy continues to ostracize and marginalize certain voices, they will make themselves an irrelevant program.
We don’t have to look any further than the Miss America pageant to see that viewers can easily outgrow award ceremonies if they lose touch with reality.
However, industry power players are equally responsible. People of color and women need a platform within mainstream spaces to showcase their array of talent and when they do so they should be similarly celebrated for their work.

Eva is a senior. You can reach her at emckend1@swarthmore.edu.

Read more here: http://swarthmorephoenix.com/2011/02/03/opinions/oscar-must-drop-the-uniform-of-heterogeneity
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