Race and Hollywood

oscars so whiteHollywood has a race problem…

At least that’s what we are led to believe. Leading up to the 2016 Academy Awards, anyone who was paying attention knew that one of the hottest topics would be the race issue in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It seemed strategic that Chris Rock was chosen to be the host and everyone expected (if not knew) that his opening monologue would address the race issue.

Rock did not disappoint. He confronted the issue with his own brand of humor and brought light to the situation. In the process, though, he exposed the fact that while Hollywood seems to have a race issue, the race issue is not limited to only African Americans. There are still issues with other ethnicities not being recognized and cast as well.

Hearing all of this discussion, I wanted to do a little research though. As a straight, white man, it’s easy for me to see that my rose-colored lenses have a tendency of distorting my view of the world. I don’t know the difficulties that many of my African American friends have suffered other than by hearing them tell their stories.

A few years ago, I consulted a respected seminary professor of mine who is African American. I realized that I could gain some valuable insight from this man whom I respected and loved regarding his own experiences. As we talked on the phone, I was astounded at the experiences he recounted of those in the church who had shown themselves to be less than Christ-like in their dealings with their African American brothers and sisters. I could see and hear the strength in my friend and mentor’s voice, having endured hardships to achieve the level that he had, but I could also hear the hint of pain. My respect for him had been significant before this conversation, but it immediately rose as I now had a better understanding of just what he had faced.

My eyes were opened that day. I realized just how important it was for me to build relationships outside of my own homogeneous group in order to better understand the world around me. I realized that just because I couldn’t see something did not necessarily mean that it wasn’t there.

As I heard the criticisms hurled at the Academy, I secretly wished for an African American friend within the industry who could lend me some perspective. Not having one immediately come to mind, I began to think of all of the African American actors and actresses that I could think of. Denzel Washington. Will Smith. Djimon Hounsou. Morgan Freeman. Oprah Winfrey. Viola Davis. Whoopi Goldberg. The list could go on.

All of them had at least been nominated for Academy Awards, some of them had won as well. Were their accomplishments and achievements insignificant? What did those accomplishments say? How did they speak to this issue of race?

But a deeper look reveals how many overlooks there have been. Sure, there have been the Halle Berrys and the Denzel Washingtons, the Morgan Freemans and the Forest Whitakers, but how about “Selma” and “Do the Right Thing, how about “The Help”? The list could go on and on. A cursory exploration of past nominees reveals that more than once has a film depicting African Americans, starring African Americans, and directed by African Americans been snubbed, this year being no exception. Ironic considering how liberal Hollywood considers itself.

But what are we looking for? What should the situation be? Nadia and Leila Latif writing for The Guardian wrote, “What do we want? Change. But who has to do the changing? As Viola Davis said, the only thing that separates actors of colour from everyone else is opportunity. So casting directors need to diversify their thinking. Directors need to demand to see different types of actors. Writers should be making more of an effort to write interesting parts for actors of colour that defy stereotypes, or implementing a Geena Davis type solution (simply change any character in a script into a woman) for race.”

What’s the answer? What kind of change would be acceptable? I’ve heard it said by at least one person that they would rather achieve success because of their talents rather than because of the color of their skin. I have to admit, if I found myself in a situation where the color of my skin had the potential for helping me accomplish something rather than my hard work, I would struggle mightily with it. If there was any question at all in my mind, I think that question would haunt me all of my days. Had I achieved something because I was deserving of it or was it given to me to avoid conflict?

Here’s what I continually come back to though, it’s too easy for those who have never walked a mile in a pair of shoes to immediately pass off the voicing of concerns as whining. If it sounds like whining, it would seem that it might be a good idea to at least get another perspective, especially if your perspective is severely limited. Just because your perspective tells you that something seems overdramatized and sensationalized doesn’t necessarily make it true.

While I don’t agree with his politics, I have to say that Spike Lee is doing his best to affect change, he’s making movies, he’s writing scripts, he’s making a difference and providing opportunities. The list of African American actors and actresses above are an example of those who are working to make a difference. But what can others do to make a difference?

This problem didn’t emerge overnight, it’s been a process in the making. The solution won’t miraculously happen either. If there are films that deserve recognition, be the one to recognize them. If there are actors to be recognized, be the one to recognize them. The old adage applies, be part of the problem or part of the solution.

When I first started hearing about this, I honestly didn’t think there was as big of an issue as people were making it to be. Then I started digging deeper, only to find that there was more to it than my limited perspective had allowed me to see. Judging a book by its cover results in shallow and limited results. Do your research. Dig a little deeper. You might be surprised at just what you find.

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