Arts and Culture

Racism and the Oscars Race

This year's critics' choices in film reveal a big, white blind spot.

By Dorothy Woodend 18 Jan 2013 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee twice a month. Find her previous articles here.

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Oscar may be gold, but almost all film critics are of a whitish hue.

Christmas is over. Trees lie discarded in alleyways all over town bleeding thin rivulets of tinsel. Presents bought and paid for have almost been forgotten. The weather is bitter and mean.

What is there to distract the people? To keep them swaddled in their houses, yammering on about stuff and nonsense, while Australia blooms with heat so intense that it melts people's shoes?

An endless parade of awards shows is just the right thing.

The Awards Season, as it is now termed, kicked off early with the Film Critics awards, before moving onwards to the tiggle bitties (AKA the Golden Globes). Then it's wagons ho to the Oscars telecast. The orgy of self-congratulatory Onanism stretches long into February. It's a veritable Saturnalia of dresses, shoes, bags, speeches and predictions. And what is at the centre of all this fury, but some truly awful films. Les Miserables? Really? ArgoDjango Unchained, a film so violent that it gave my sister post-traumatic stress disorder?

In multiple conversations with ordinary folk about the crop of nominated films, the general consensus is that, other than a few notable exceptions, there is a whole lot of crap up for the big prizes.

But something else popped up the other day, while I was reading some film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. If you take a spin through the gallery of top critics, what you will see is a sea of faces mostly white, mostly male. Ever since African-American Elvis Mitchell left the building at the New York Times, I can't think of another film critic of colour in a major publication.

False consciousness

The fact that film critics are largely white men shouldn't be a shocker. Who else in the world feels it is their right and privilege to pass judgment on all things? They've been doing it for a mighty long time. But I would argue that this privileged position makes for a certain form of obliviousness.

If you were sitting in a movie theatre watching Argo for example, and, if you were of Iranian descent, how would you actually feel about film's depiction of Iranians as villains and fools? Argo made a number of critics' top ten lists, as well as picked up a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. To be perfectly blunt, I don't think the film merits all the accolades it has received. It is, at best, a few steps above a TV movie of the week.

The real story is so much more interesting than the tired old story of American exceptionalism that is trotted out by Mr. Affleck. The Iranian hostage crisis was solved largely by the Canadians, with help from the British and the New Zealanders, and even a Thai cook named Somchai "Sam" Sriweawnetr. The general consensus is that CIA was a junior partner in the entire operation, and not its progenitor. Even the fact that Ben Affleck's character Tony Mendez was of Mexican heritage was excised from the filmic retelling. Instead of this multi-ethnic story of men and women of different nationalities, we get the great white dope Ben Affleck, trying to channel John Wayne in a beard. 

This is who the audience is invited to identify with, the old cowboy prototype, strong and silent, white as the driven snow, and dull as ditchwater. The Iranians, like the First Nations folk in Westerns of old, get to hoot and holler and carry on. The endless shots of Iranian protestors brandishing signs and yelling like kooks is supposed to add local colour, I suppose.

Things go from bad to worse in the film's ultimate dramatic moment when the fleeing Americans board their plane to freedom and are given chase by the Iranian military. The scene looks like it borrowed heavily from a Mel Brooks movie, as the various bearded men, howling and brandishing machine guns, race after the fleeing Americans as if in a Keystone cops routine, hanging off the truck, swerving all over the road.

If this was an isolated example of making anyone of colour essentially look like an ass on film, that would be one thing, but, of course, it's not. Take a look at the rest of the Oscar contenders.

Big 'Zero'

Despite Argo's insistence that CIA operatives are the good guys, history, and I mean the real factual material, not the "based on actual events" type stuff, says otherwise. The controversy over Zero Dark Thirty makes it clear that the Central Intelligence Agency has committed some of the most morally compromised actions ever undertaken in the name of American security. The New Yorker article tells you everything you ought to know.

As much as I like Kathryn Bigelow's previous work, everything from Near Dark to Strange Days to The Hurt Locker, I don't want to see this film, no matter how many accolades it is awarded. I am not interested in seeing torture on screen in the name of God and Country, as was the film's original title. 

What do all of these films, subtly or not so, say? That if you're a person of colour, it's somehow okay if you're subjected to torture, water-boarded, or worse depicted as a quaint little folk, adrift in a land of fairies and elves. Witness the magical poor folks of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Being poor and black in Louisiana is lots of fun apparently. Poor folks like being poor; it is their natural state, after all. Beasts has been cited as a work of wonder and beauty, despite what some a few noteworthy critics, namely Dana Stevens in Slate, have called it "anthropological voyeurism." 

Let's throw that snake on the table then.

Enslaved by stereotypes

Two films that lead the Oscar pack are about slavery. One (Lincoln) takes itself with stentorian seriousness, while the other (Django Unchained) uses it as an excuse for bloody mayhem. But both treat slavery like a relic of the past when actually, in the U.S. it is not. Slavery just changed shape a little. If you have any doubts about that notion, I can cite about a dozen or so documentaries (everything from Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In to Alex Gibney's Park Avenue that sketch out just how stacked the deck is in the U.S. against the black population in everything from the war on drugs to urban gentrification to education. A side note: if you want to want to watch some of these films, the Why Poverty site has made them available here.

Meanwhile slavery gets boiled down to cartoon violence, or a bunch of old white men debating what was once termed "The peculiar institution." As a friend of mine remarked recently about Lincoln, "It is a film about slavery in which everyone of colour is completely marginalized."

The best insight I've found on Mr. Tarantino's film was written by New York writer/editor Rebecca Carroll on I quote her at length because I think she hits the nail on the head:

"I was fully prepared to hate Django Unchained. Or at the very least, be mildly offended, as I have been by Tarantino's previous films for one reason or another. It is in part, I am sure, because of a brief conversation I had with him many years ago, shortly after Jackie Brown came out. I was working as a producer for the Charlie Rose show at the time, and he was a guest. I was charged with seeing him out when the interview was over, and as we rode down in the elevator to the lobby and his waiting car, I couldn't resist asking him about what appeared to me as his borderline obsession with black culture. He was both earnest and glib in his response -- in the way that a video clerk film geek, who makes it big as an auteur filmmaker can now do and say whatever the hell he pleases. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it definitely had the word "awesome" in it, something to the effect of: "Well, yeah! Black people are awesome!" My fellow Django viewer responded in precisely the way Tarantino wants his audiences to respond to the black characters in his films, and that is by viewing black culture in the same way that he interprets and perceives it to be: exotic, violently entertaining, alluring, and almost entirely objectified."

Stand up and shout

I watched a film about Anne Braden the other day, whose work as an anti-racism activist centered around white people taking a good hard look at their own innate and often unexamined prejudice. In the film she tells a story about working as a journalist with the Louisville Times. One morning she is served breakfast and the waitress asks what's the day's events contain? "Just another coloured murder," she answers. To her inestimable credit, Ms. Braden not only catches herself and is immediately apologetic, and then catches herself further and realizes that she did in fact mean exactly what she said. Racism goes deep, and it takes a hardy soul to realize this ugly fact, and struggle very hard to do something about it.

Film is not a benign artifact when everything up on the big screen is telling you, explicitly or not, that it's okay to torture, maim, mock and kill people of colour. Film critics, and I count myself in here, bear a responsibility to not give such films a free pass. (And no, this is not just Tarantino being funny.)

Who amongst us will stand up and proclaim: "Hey, everybody, Django Unchained is a giant piece of shit!"  [Tyee]

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