In his latest column for Exepose Features, Zak Mahinfar takes a look at the Oscars, specifically regarding the controversy surrounding this years nominations.
Ever since the announcement of The Oscar nominations on January 15th, the exclusion of ethnic minorities from its list of nominees has sparked controversy; a controversy which continues to renew itself year on year.
This year provoked particular outrage due to every single actor and actress nominated being white. For perspective, most of the other categories were also dominated by white (and male) candidates: 129 of the 142 nominees were white. However, the acting categories tend to be the ones that mainstream audiences care most about, and so this attracted the most attention. In comparison to the nominees in the acting categories last year, there was one black actor in each category (still underrepresented), and the year before that; only two across the four categories.
The most frequently regurgitated statistic when it comes to The Oscar’s and race, is that the Academy’s voters are 93 per cent white, and 77 per cent male, with an average age of 63. This does of course suggest an overt racial (and gender) prejudice. And it is worrying that such a prejudice can exist for the most prestigious and recognised accolade in film. The lack of ethnic diversity is obviously very visually imposing when 20 white actors have their headshots placed side by side in a list. Many commentators have hypothesised about what is at the root of this homogeneity; the main suggestion being that the narrow voting demographic. Some have argued that it is simply because the best performances this year just happened to be by white individuals, which obviously invites a warranted scepticism. And yet, this last statement isn’t so outrageous if you consider the general lack of ethnic diversity within mainstream film, highlighting an underlying racial bias which underpins the entire film industry. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is racist, then that’s because it reflects a racist industry. So how can it be that the film industry is so racially prejudiced in this day and age?
First of all, there’s an economic incentive at play. When it comes to casting, a ‘stick-to-what-you-know’ culture seems to have evolved which inevitably leads to previously commercially successful white males taking the lead roles in the biggest films. When Forbes releases its annual list of the highest paid actors in the film industry there are very few appearances from non-white actors, usually just two token spots. Whilst it’s shocking to think that the only black actress to have ever won an Oscar for a leading role is Halle Berry. The industry seems to be lagging behind society’s progress; society itself still having a long way to go (as demonstrated most recently by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner). The media and the film industry should be playing a pivotal part in positive progression.
The most recent example of ethnic prejudice in casting was emphasized in Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt (Exodus: Gods and Kings), in which white actors were cast in the lead roles of Hebrew and ancient Egyptian characters: Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Ramses II, Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya, and Aaron Paul as Joshua. Many may accept that a world-renowned actor such as Christian Bale was chosen to play Moses to pull in audiences but the same reasoning cannot be applied to justify the ‘whitewashing’ of the rest of the cast. You could make an argument for ‘visual consistency’ but frankly casting directors, production companies and distributors should be willing to take necessary ‘risks’ from the outset and cast new talent of the appropriate ethnicity if needs must. Should artistic merit and talent not be enough to make a film a commercial success? The only way we will develop a more racially diverse film industry is if we provide people of different races the opportunity to establish themselves.
Another major issue within the industry is that many black roles, specifically those that go on to garner critical acclaim and mainstream coverage, are those charting the overcoming of historical racial atrocities, recent examples of which include 12 Years A Slave, The Long Walk to Freedom, and The Help. Though it’s important to draw attention to these hardships, it also suggests that the defining element of actors who belong to ethnic minorities is their race rather than their talent. An effort should be made to cast actors of different ethnicities in roles which have not been dictated by their race.
Recently, I stumbled across a thread on the lack of Disney princesses from ethnic minorities; whilst some argued this was because the stories that accompanied ‘traditional’ Disney narratives originated in Caucasian cultures, even so, it begs the question: why aren’t narratives from a wide variety of cultural background’s being adapted for the screen? Would this not help to promote racial tolerance from an early age?
In the comment section a women said that when she asked her daughter what colours the different Disney princesses were she listed the colours of their dresses rather than their skin. Similarly, I saw an interview with Mila Kunis in which she described the experience of moving to America from Ukraine and the first time she saw a black person. She explained that she was initially frightened, having never been exposed to that visual difference, but that the man explained to her that there were people of different colours in this world; to which she innocently responded ‘does that mean there are purple people in this world?’ A child’s innocence highlights how racism is a learnt set of ideas, and that simple exposure can be enough to combat it. This is why the film industry needs to be making a concerted effort to represent ethnic minorities; we have an ugly problem, and one we need to do something about.
Zak Mahinfar, Online Features Columnistbookmark me