Before I begin let me say that I am aware that as a white man I am not in a good position to discuss diversity. Though I would say I am a hard worker I see no alternative but to acknowledge the many privileges I have had all my life. While I do my best to expand my understanding of the world and see things through the broadest lens I can find, please remember that everything I write comes from this limited perspective, so take it with a grain of salt.
Initially, this topic came to mind when my dad, a very open-minded man, told me that he did not quite understand what the big deal was. I confess, when the 2015 Oscars rolled around with major diversity issues (though I would note the Best Director winner Alejandro Inarritu is Mexican) I was of the mind that it was merely unfortunate. Yes, it was very, very bad that there were no people of color nominated for their role in the film, and a continuous lack of women among the ranks of directors, rather than behind the camera, but it didn’t seem impossible to me.
Though minority populations (and particularly Latinos) are rapidly growing, and on pace to create a scenario where white people are either a minority or races become mixed to a point that it doesn’t matter anymore, we are still the largest portion of the United States’ population. While people of color go through their growing pains in both population and socioeconomic growth, it seemed possible that we would have one year to eventually look back on with cringing laughter in a post-racial year. Heck, the year before had been a great year for people of color with 12 Years a Slave. Maybe that day will come, but I fear it may be further off than I anticipated.
At last year’s 2016 Oscars, there was the same pale domination of every category with the same solitary exception. This in a year with both Creed and Straight Outta Compton representing compelling and quality movies with primarily African-American casts (still not perfect representation, but take the victories we can get). Unfortunately, the only actor nominated from either film was Sylvester Stallone, who is certainty a competent actor, but it seemed like a wonderful example of the absurdity of the situation.
At the root of Hollywood’s diversity problem is the seeming inability of the institution to produce good rolls for people of color. While still an issue, and most likely an issue for years to come, the situation is slowly improving. While we still get horribly white-washed rolls like those in Gods of Egypt (though that was honestly the least of their problems) we do see some progress with purposeful diversity elsewhere. But even in a movie like Creed with a talented black man at the lead, the white supporting actor was the only one nominated.
So, maybe they didn’t want to pick a character who had race as a major facet of their identity, fair enough, I’m not fond of that sort of casting anyway and there have been recent awards for characters focused on race. I (as a middle class white man) am much more fond of characters like Trenton in Mr. Robot who is definitely a woman of color and practices Islam, but all of that is just a component of her identity as a tougher-than-nails hacker who helps bring about amazing wealth redistribution. While not exactly colorblind casting, it is a template for sophisticated portrayal of race.
So the only conceivable option beyond a race issue is a strong preference for colorblind or pseudo colorblind casting. Here’s the things, there was still some good options with colorblind casting last year. In 2015/2016 I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens six times in the theater. Yes, I know that is too many.
Obviously I don’t expect Star Wars to sweep the Oscars right after the series gets a fresh face, but I think it is worth noting that two of the three new main characters are men of color. Obviously John Boyega (Finn) is of African decent, more specifically his parents are from Nigeria and didn’t know what Star Wars was when he was cast. With both a strong performance in the mega franchise and a strong acting pedigree, Boyega would make a good fit nominated as Best Actor. If I’m being honest, his snuff isn’t the one that really upsets me.
While Star Wars was barely a blip at last years awards, want to know what wasn’t? Ex Machina. The light sci-fi film got acclaim both for its core concept as well as its underlying thread about the objectification of women, particularly women of color. The film was nominated for Best Screenplay and won Best Visual Effects, but I get a bit angsty that the common actor between Ex Machina and The Force Awakens, Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron in Star Wars and Nathan in Ex Machina).
As far as mass-appeal movies went, last year was clearly the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, and sometimes the Academy gets a bit full of itself and doesn’t want to acknowledge films that aren’t artsy enough. That’s fine, they want to keep a certain amount of prestige. But Isaac was also in Ex Machina. Though he is from Guatemala, Isaac falls into the category of “racially flexible” in a roll that has nothing much to do with any race and did a damn good job, he was even anticipated by some publications to be a contender to win Best Supporting Actor. But he wasn’t even a blip on the radar.
I apologize to all of my friends in minority communities for not understanding this sooner, I could blame it on the privilege, but that doesn’t absolve the guilt. One might have been viewed as chance in a certain light, but two shows a real problem. It is partially on the industry for not producing better films, but it is also partially on the Academy, they hold real power to make and break stars and hits that they do not share enough with marginalized communities. Before anyone accuses me of being a SJW, of course I don’t want a general awards show devoid of white people, that’s stupid. I want fair and well balanced representation of all sorts of communities. Numbers and percentages will inevitably ebb and flow over the years, but the previous state of affairs was a disgrace. This year represents another step to fairness and equality, and I won’t see another white gold Oscars as anything but discriminatory. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.