Chris Rock with the Black Power fist at the Oscars
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Next year’s Oscars will probably be pretty white again

Oscars 2016 is wrapped, and it was a night of surprises (both thrilling and disappointing). Of course, the topic of the night, which host Chris Rock hammered into oblivion, was the lack of diversity shown in the acting categories. In the red carpet interviews before the show, most of the black actors were asked about the issue of diversity. It’s a hot button topic.

And we’re probably going to be talking about it again next year.

Is it too early to start predicting the next Oscars? Not really. We already know what the slate for this year’s movies will be. Many of them have already wrapped filming. We know the films by the most likely suspects, and we can take some educated guesses. One guess that’s pretty solid is that we won’t see a lot of diversity at the awards simply because there won’t be that many movies with non-white lead casts.

There are a number of movies already getting some light Oscar buzz. I’m sure you haven’t heard about them yet, but they are anticipated movies with big name directors, writers, and actors. They are also pretty much all white: Sully, The Founder (Michael Keaton taking another shot at Oscar gold), War Machine, The Light Between Oceans, The BFG, Manchester By the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, La La Land, Passengers, Florence Foster Jenkins (maybe another win for Meryl), and Story of Your Life (although it has a potentially strong African-American role played by Forest Whitaker, it’s most likely not gonna set him up for another Oscar).

There are two films that are getting the most Oscar buzz at this early stage. Martin Scorsese, that giant of film, has Silence coming out this year and it’s already an Oscar favorite. It stars Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as Jesuit Portuguese Catholic priests looking for their mentor (Liam Neeson) in Japan and spreading the teachings of Christianity along the way, despite being met with violent opposition.

Although the novel the movie is based on was written by a Japanese man (who was Catholic), the lead stars of the film are all white. The “ancillary” cast of Japanese actors are mostly in roles without any character names (“Interpreter”, “Christian Villager”, “Buddhist Priest”, etc.). There’s a good chance this movie will put up a lot of Oscar candidates in multiple categories, but none of them will be Asian.

Still shot from Silence

Still shot from Silence

Oscar winner Ang Lee will have a chance to add to his collection with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a dramedy about an infantryman who recounts the final hours before he and his fellow soldiers return to Iraq. It stars Vin Diesel, taking a shot at a more serious role. Vin identifies as a person of color. His (white) mom says that through his bio-dad he has “connections to many different cultures” so…I guess we can claim him if he gets nominated? But that nomination might prove tricky; we’ve yet to see if Mr. Diesel can act at the Oscar level.

But, besides Ang Lee (who has been the lone standard bearer for Asians at the Oscars for a while) and a movie that takes place in Japan but won’t feature any prominent Japanese roles, East Asians won’t have much visibility in Oscar type films this year.

But we might have a shot at an Indian actor nom. Lion stars our Slumdog Millionaire hero Dev Patel. The movie is produced by The Weinstein Co., one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood, and also stars Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara. If Dev can break out and own this movie, it might get him some attention.

How about our Hispanic brothers and sisters? Alejandro Iñárritu has represented Mexico very well for the past couple of years but he doesn’t have a film out this year. Benicio del Toro is in Weightless (another early Oscar fave), a film chock full of white Oscar winners and nominees (Fassbender, Bale, Mara, Blanchett, Portman). But it’s not clear that his role will have any punch in an ensemble cast that noteworthy. Javier Bardem may have an outside chance at a nom with The Last Face but it’s certainly not drumming up Oscar buzz at the moment.

Oscar Isaac (yes, he’s Guatemalan! His real last name is Hernandez) stars with Christian Bale in The Promise which is a historical love triangle written and directed by an Oscar winner. All those factors could add up to Oscar bait, and perhaps the best chance we have of a Latino nomination in the acting category (Oscar is a fantastic actor who is seemingly in everything these days and he should be).

That leaves us with the African American possible nominees. Here, things get a little controversial. The early buzz is going to The Birth of a Nation, a film about the Nat Turner slave uprising. At the Sundance Film Festival, it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and Fox Searchlight bought worldwide rights to the film for $17.5 million (a Sundance record).

But Sundance success doesn’t often lead to Oscar Gold, and the topic of race both helps and hurts this movie. It is at times a violent film and, as a slave uprising, much of that violence is black people killing white people in some war-movie type scenes. Add to that the very purposeful link to the 1915 KKK propaganda film that has the same title, and this is a heavily political film in a heavily political time. Politics aside, there may also be some execution issues. While the movie is enjoying critical acclaim (95% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), even favorable reviews describe it as sometimes “heavy-handed” and “uneven”. Still, with all the hype (both commercial and critical) if this film doesn’t at the very least get a Best Picture nom, things will get ugly.

The 2016 Birth of a Nation will be a hot topic this year.

The 2016 Birth of a Nation will be a hot topic this year.

One wild card is Richard Pryor: Is it Something I Said?: a Richard Pryor biopic directed by Lee Daniels (executive producer of Empire and director of Precious and The Butler). It stars Oprah, Eddie Murphy, Kate Hudson, and….Mike Epps?!? Yes, Epps is taking on the heavy responsibility of bringing Richard Pryor to life in film. Mike is a capable comedian and I don’t want to doubt him, but he’ll have a lot to prove here. If he can do it, he would have earned an Oscar nom.

But it might be more likely that Eddie Murphy outshines him as Richard’s intense father, or even Oprah as Richard’s beloved grandmother. Regardless, Richard Pryor’s off color comedy and his history of abusing everything could make this another controversial film that might be too divisive.

Personally, I’m favoring two films at the other end of the spectrum: Hidden Figures and Queen of Katwe. Hidden Figures tells the true story of a group of African-American women who provided NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions. It portrays minority women owning math and putting people into space. And it’s true. It happened, but it’s in nobody’s history books. It’s a story I’m dying to see.

Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer are already slated to star, and other big names have been rumored like Viola Davis and, of course, Oprah. The script (adapted from the book of the same name) was written by a woman, and the film has a female cinematographer. It would be an amazing Oscar pick for so many reasons (assuming it’s actually good, which remains to be seen).

But there’s a problem: it’s slated for a January 2017 wide release and hasn’t even finished casting yet, let alone started filming. While the wide release can be solved with a limited release in late December (just like American Sniper pulled off), if there are any production snafus this might get pushed back and miss the Oscar eligibility period.

I also like Queen of Katwe starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. And it’s directed by an Indian woman! (Mira Nair). It tells the (true but Hollywood-ized) story of a young girl from Uganda who trains to become a national chess champion. It is the perfect underdog story and has a talented cast and crew behind it, but it is still a chess movie, and it’ll be difficult to make that interesting (we haven’t had a big chess movie since Searching for Bobby Fischer at the ’94 Oscars for Best Cinematography).

With all that said, these movies aren’t out to general audiences yet (some of them aren’t even finished yet) and their Oscar worthiness is still unknown. But hopefully you’re interested in these movies now, and you’ll look out for them and maybe even watch them, and possibly even like (or love) them and spread the word so that others can find them as well. Oscar movies tend to be small films with tiny marketing budgets so if we really want diversity in that field, we as viewers need to go seek out the films that are out there. History has repeatedly shown that nobody (especially not the Academy) is going to do that work for us.

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A writer’s take on #OscarsSoWhite

Yes, this is one more post about the lack of diversity in the Oscars. But, hopefully, this one will bring some perspective you haven’t considered before.

Last night I engaged in a spirited debate on Reddit about the merits of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. I think I changed a lot of minds, judging by the number of upvotes. So I want to put those thoughts on a broader medium, and hopefully arm others with the points they can use to win their own arguments.

As a writer myself, I create casts of characters that reflect the world at large. Diversity is one of my main themes, because that is the world I see when I go outside and live in the rich metropolis that is LA. But, sadly, many creators here fail to translate these multicultural gifts into their work.

So we know there is a deeply disappointing lack of diversity in the Oscars again. But what’s the cause? How do we fix it? Is this hashtag movement even doing anything?

Let’s try to answer those questions by responding to the most common retorts to the movement.

Don’t blame the Oscar voters; blame the industry

This ignores who the Oscar voters are; they ARE the industry. This isn’t the press or fans voting. These are people who worked (or are currently working) in the industry. Top of their field. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) membership overlaps most with the Academy’s. These are people who have the ability, resources, and influence to help get more minorities into film. They are the exact people you’d want to lobby.

And, unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly white (94%), old (62 and up), and male (74%).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an old white guy. The world needs old white guys. But when such an important body that is supposedly curating the best film contributions of all groups is overwhelmingly comprised of just one group, it leads to a lack of diverse perspective that can appreciate a film or script or actor outside the Oscar “norm”.

There weren’t enough “black” movies out there that warranted nomination

Putting aside the problem with designating a movie as “black” or “white”, this statement just isn’t true.

Just a few of the critically lauded films with majority black casts that were eligible for Oscar noms:

  • Dope
  • Tangerine
  • Chi-raq
  • Girlhood – French film, critically acclaimed (96% on RottenTomatoes), yet never made it to the conversation for best foreign language film (because France submitted Mustang, a similarly reviewed film about pale Turkish girls, unlike Girlhood which is all dark black girls. Just sayin’).

And it’s not just “black” movies here. It doesn’t have to be black movies. Latinos and Asians do make movies too.

Me, Earl, and the Dying girl – diverse cast, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize AND the Sundance Audience Award, directed by a Latino. No Oscar love.

Yeah, but those movies you mentioned didn’t make a lot of money. Nobody saw them

I hear this argument often, and it’s somewhat valid for the industry as a whole, however when it comes to the Oscars it falls apart for one simple reason:

It’s only very recently that many Oscar nominated movies did well at the box office, and even today, a lot of them don’t.

Take Birdman for instance. It was far, far from a box office smash. The only reason it did as well as it did was BECAUSE of the Oscar buzz. It was one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever.

The Artist grossed less than 50 mil in box office but it beat out The Help for Best Picture (which did very well, grossing 177.5 million, proving that black women can indeed bring in both money and award recognition if you cast them)

Children of Men? Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. Ho hum at the box office (widely considered a commercial flop).

The Hurt Locker hadn’t even cleared 15 million at the box office until the Oscar buzz started.

So it’s safe to say a lot of people didn’t see a lot of Oscar movies, or were even aware of them until they started getting Oscar buzz. And that’s okay; the Oscars aren’t supposed to be about who made the most money.

But a big part of the discrepancy that is very important in the spirit of #OscarsSoWhite is that movies without majority white casts aren’t getting the “Oscar bump” that pulls them out of obscurity, like so many other movies got (including last year’s best picture winner Birdman).

Yeah but black movies specifically don’t make money unless they’re stupid comedies and that’s why the industry doesn’t make them

Oh really?

  • Creed: 181 million box
  • Straight Outta Compton: 200 Million Box office
  • 42: 97 million
  • The Butler: 116 million domestic alone

I could go on.

Okay, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t more minorities getting roles in these movies

This is the most important question, and there are many theories. Here’s mine.

I live in LA (I can actually go outside, look up, and see the Hollywood sign), and I am dipping my toe into the screenwriting businesses. There is a strong culture of “default white”. Meaning that UNLESS you very specifically make a character a certain ethnicity, the producers and casting directors will just default to white.

And it’s not just me saying this. The ScriptNotes podcast (led by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin) is arguably the most famous and influential podcast on Hollywood filmmaking. They covered this very problem in their 180th episode where they had guest Aline Brosh Mckenna (who wrote The Devil Wears Prada).

Quote from the transcript:

John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –

Aline: Yes.

John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white.

That doesn’t mean that casting directors are racist. In fact a lot of them are quite nice, open-minded people. But they’re working in a world that has been traditionally white, largely because it was allowed to be that way for so long. Every art looks to what came before for inspiration, but in the case of Hollywood cinema the past was lily white because nobody else was allowed to play.

Additionally, a lot of these people grew up in WASPy environments with not a lot of diversity. So they stick to what they know, and everything ends up default white, until you challenge them on it.

Perhaps the best example I can think of here is the casting of Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. Marion Dougherty, legendary casting director who blazed trails in her own right as a woman, read the Lethal Weapon script and talked with director Richard Donner. And the convo went something like this:

Marion: “What about Danny Glover?”

Donner: “But he’s black!”

Marion: “So what, he’s black. He can act. The script doesn’t say anything about Murtaugh’s race.”

To his credit, Donner had an epiphany, questioned his own prejudices, and cast Glover (and became good friends with him). Donner talks about this in a speech he gave awarding Glover some award (I can’t find it now, but it’s in the great movie Casting By).

Moral of the story: nothing changes if we don’t call it out consistently and vocally. Many times people aren’t even really aware of what they’re doing, or they’re working off of outdated beliefs about what can work in the industry.

As long as we keep calling the industry out on it, things will change. We need more Marion Dougherty’s.

*header image courtesy of Lee and Low books (blog.leeandlow.com)

K-Pop appropriation of African American culture
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Cultural Appropriation vs. Celebration

Recently Twitter has been abuzz with the beef between white rapper Iggy Azalia and black hip hop artists Azealia Banks, who accuses Iggy of being oblivious of hip hop’s roots and exploiting black culture. Others have come to Iggy’s defense and said that culture can’t be “owned” by any one group. This particular argument is an old one, going all the way back to the Elvis days, but it got me thinking about what people don’t think about before they wrap themselves in a cultural cloth they weren’t cut from. I won’t take a side in this, because both sides have valid points and it’s more enlightening for us to find ground we can agree on instead of dispute. I think a key way to do that is to discuss cultural celebration vs. appropriation. Celebration is inclusive; appropriation is exploitative. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which, and sometimes it’s hard.

Is Wu-Tang Clan paying homage to Chinese cultural history, or appropriating it?

When RZA, a black man, stars in Man with the Iron Fists, which is full of Asian themes, is that appropriation or celebration of culture?

When Hollywood remakes Asian movies/TV series with all white casts, is that exploitation or celebration?

When Americans get Chinese/Japanese tattoos of characters they don’t even understand, is that appropriation or idolatry?

When Nicki Minaj wears a kimono in a video full of Asian themes (“Your Love”), is that appropriation or homage?

When Japanese manga/anime creators make a franchise called Afro Samurai, starring a black lead character (who much later ended up being voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in the English dub) inclusive or exploitative?

When Korean hip-pop and dance is basically just a copy of African American music, is that a cultural movement helping young people to defuse South Korea’s racism against blacks, or just appropriation to help Korea’s otherwise bland music scene?

In all of these cases I specifically used Asian examples because it’s important to realize this is not just a Black-White thing, and it doesn’t just happen in America. As the world has become more globalized, we all borrow from each other. But “borrow” is the key word. When you borrow, you give something back. When you steal, however, you’re just taking and you’re not giving back. We should all be happy when a culture has elements borrowed and they get benefit from it. We should all feel the injustice when culture is stolen. When a people’s culture is used by others and then those same people are excluded from the benefits of that use, that is a horrible thing.

Case in point: Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original cartoon was created by two white guys, but it is deeply rooted in Asian culture and history, and most of the cast is portrayed with darker skin. It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of the cast are meant to be non-white. The cartoon was a celebration of Chinese history, culture, and martial arts, even including Asian voice actors. The animated series exposed American children to wonderful themes rooted in another culture, and even though the creators didn’t come from that culture they respected and portrayed it genuinely. The series gave back by showing that yes, you can have a non-European cast and setting and still sell to American kids. The movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, however, was a tragic whitewashing of the lead cast (except the bad guys) and insult to all the good will and education the cartoon brought. It was not inclusive, it was not fair, and it was not done in good spirit. The cartoon was a celebration, the movie was appropriation. One borrowed, one stole. In all of these cases that raise questions, simply ask a basic question: What are they giving back?

Persons of Color in Comic Book Movies

I had an interesting chat on GoodReads recently, and figured I’d make an extended version of my comments on the blog. The topic started in the Multiculturalism in YA,Fantasy, Sci FI,Paranormal and fun books group, and the issue at hand was the news that the next Fantastic Four movie might have a black actor (Michael B. Jordan) as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch (a character who has always been white in the past). The news spurred some very disturbing but not-very-surprising Internet conversation about race. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, and we will no doubt see it again. But I think it’s important to look at the issue from multiple perspectives, and to constantly revisit it as American society shifts and evolves.

As an African-American author, and life-long comic book fan, I actually don’t like it when Hollywood changes the races of well-established characters. This is partially because I’m kind of a comic book purist/nerd, and partially because I just don’t think it’s necessary. Comic books are already full of interesting, popular characters of color (who have always been that way). We don’t need revisionist heroes.

John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971
John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971

 

People who read comics know that Marvel, Image, and DC comics have been introducing characters of many races since the ’70s, and there was an explosion of multiculturalism in the ’90s. Characters like Bishop, Jubilee, ShadowHawk, War Machine, DeathLok, Luke Cage, Spawn, Blade, Cloak from Cloak and Dagger, Sunspot, and Forge emerged in the most popular comics of their time. In some cases a hero is more of an icon than a particular person, and over the years their personas were passed on to new characters of different races, like black John Stewart joining the Green Lantern corps waaaaay back in 1971 or Steel joining the Superman corps in the ’90s or Miguel O’Hara becoming the first latino Spider Man in the early ’90s during the “Spider Man 2099” series. These characters were also prominently featured on TV (Bishop and Jubilee had major roles in the beloved ’90s X-Men cartoon, and John Stewart has been a major character in the Justice League cartoons). There are plenty of non-white characters in comic book lore who are very popular and have been so for many many years. Hollywood just needs to invest in them.

Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years
Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years

 

New Line Cinema has been the most forward-thinking studio in promoting non-white lead comic characters, having distributed both the Blade series and Spawn. Those were both fairly successful franchises financially, even though they weren’t exactly the best movies. But then we had Halle Berry as Catwoman, and things haven’t been the same since :-). Right now all we have is Nick Fury (who had a race-change in the comics long ago), but I have hopes things will change soon. The latest rumor is that Black Panther will FINALLY start shooting in 2014 after years of various actors/producers (including Wesley Snipes) trying to get it out of development hell, Bishop and Warpath are in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Zoe Seldana is confirmed to co-star in Guardians of the Galaxy, and if there is a Green Lantern reboot I would not be surprised if they went with a black actor because there’s strong precedent for that already in the Justice League cartoons.

Still, certain people in Hollywood will still opt for changing the race of old minor characters; creating “hand-me-down heroes” in an effort to bring something new to a franchise without too much risk. For lesser-known characters, race changes usually work out just fine (see Michael Clark Duncan as The Kingpin or Jamie Foxx as Electro in the upcoming Spider Man film). There wasn’t much complaint about either decision, probably because no one really had an attachment to either character (they’re not well-known among general audiences). It’s only when people start messing with the beloved “iconic” characters that the nerd-rage comes out. I do like the idea of opening up fiction to different interpretations and possibilities, and adding an actor that doesn’t fit the traditional race of the character is one way to do that, but it has to be done at the right time and with the right stories, and too often when it happens in Hollywood it feels forced and disingenuous.

If you’re interested in learning more about persons of color in comics, here are a few suggestions:

  • The Black Panther. Not only is he like an African Batman, he’s the head of a whole country!
  • The Spawn comics from the 90s were incredible.
  • Shadowhawk from Image Comics (who also tackled the topic of HIV when Shadowhawk contracted the disease in the 90s).
  • If you like Iron Man, War Machine did have his own comic for many years and Rhodey is quite a different character than Tony Stark.
  • Anything with Jubilee and Wolverine. They’re an odd couple, but that makes them all the more entertaining

You can find collections for all these on Amazon, or visit your local comic book store.