The ‘White’ Oscars

oscars boycott 2016   IT’S UNAVOIDABLE TO read about boycotts by black actors of this years Oscars.
What is it going to achieve? As English comedian Ricky Gervais pointed out, asians aren’t boycotting it, neither are any other minorities.

Maybe there simply aren’t any outstanding performances by black actors this year? I haven’t seen that many new releases this year, but if anything, the responsibility falls to the film industry as a whole for the dearth of black nominees. Black lead roles are clearly less frequent than those for whites. That is both a call by directors and casting agencies and writers. Yes, those who write can choose to have black protagonists or not, it’s isn’t difficult to do. Over 75% of Hollywood films are adaptations from novels. Why are there so few black protagonists? Is it our fault as writers?

As a white person, a human being, the majority of my stories have white protagonists, although my Dog Story novel in progress, has an Iranian in the lead role. It is simply as a result of my surroundings. I live in Scotland. Most people are caucasian. That cannot help but seep into my stories, and to suddenly have lots of black characters would be disingenous and inauthentic to the majority of my fiction.
Having said that, if I feel that a black character would be perfect for a story, then that would happen without hesitation. It has to be organic though.

So what is the boycott going to gain? It raises awareness. Yep. And the average age of the Oscar voters is over sixty, in itself a bad thing, as it doesn’t reflect much of the film viewing demographic anyway. So that needs to change. But the voters don’t dictate storylines and what colour the actors are in the movies.

The boycott by Will Smith and Jada, and other prominent black media figures, just seems a bit… empty, self important even. The world is far from equal and black rights are crucial as we move forward, however, I just can’t sympathise on the Oscars veto. The Oscar nominations highlight the absence of non-white actors, but the reasons for it are numerous. Hollywood must change. And crucially fiction needs to change. Yet, you can’t force people to create minority characters just for the sake of it. Where does that leave the debate? I’m slightly stumped myself.

18 Comments

  1. Great post and some great comments by others here. Equality is of course really important but the way people go about things and the idea of quotas is nonsensical. People need to be given the opportunities for sure (starting with education so they can move into these fields in greater numbers) but with art forms, it needs to be genuine and believable…you wouldn’t have a white Othello would you? Nor would you have a black slave trader surely? History is said and done but just maybe the future can be bright (the new Star Wars film mixes races of many ethnicities very well indeed).

    1. You nailed it really. We can’t manufacture equality, it has to happen as a result of people, society at large not being racist, of prejudices being eroded to nothing, of ignorance changing to enlightenment. FIction is just such a tricky pocket in equality, because like you say a white Othello would seem ridiculous. As changeable as fiction can be, there isn’t always a character for a black person, and when there is, they can’t be nominated purely based on the colour of skin. This debates got a long way to run!

      1. I can’t help but wonder if I would feel differently if I was in a minority group myself…but as someone has pointed out, I wonder given how things are positively stacked at times against being a white, straight, able-bodied male…well…perhaps there is some experience somewhere that I am (thankfully) not aware of. Society will never move on until parents stop brainwashing their kids with the sins of people-past…but at the same time, there will always be those who seek to take advantage of others simply because of their nationality or creed (just look at how the West benefits from having clothes etc manufactured in Asia…we would object to paying higher prices if everything was equal I suspect).

  2. Ya know, I think they are doing the right thing. It doesn’t matter if no one else thinks so, at least they are doing SOMETHING. They are making their opinion known. They are making a statement. Of course, we need to have more African American writers, and we need to make their books into movies but by not showing up, to the awards ceremony, they are standing for what they believe in and I am all for that. If women boycotted because of the rolls they are given, or not given, and the lack of females in positions of power, and if minorities boycotted because of the lack of roles for them…they would be playing to an empty theater and maybe things would change. So, I am behind the boycotters 100%.

    1. Fair point. I’m all for people standing by their opinion and point of view, so I can’t fault that aspect thats for sure. It just seems the direction it has been turned in has focused on an award show, not greater, wider issues affecting black people.

  3. As an African-American woman I understand why these actors feel the need to boycott the Oscars, in form of protest to bring awareness to these issues. But as I’ve mentioned on my blog, this is not the right time for this. Right now there are people living in poverty in Flint, Michigan, with toxic water. Lives are at stake and I believe that more attention should be placed on REAL injustices instead. Compared to what is going on there, the Oscars are the least of our problems.

  4. I think it’s interesting that there’s this boycott right after people made such a stink about a black woman being cast as Hermione in that Harry Potter play. J K Rowling had to step up and say that it’s totally cool with her and the character description in the book doesn’t exclude the possibility. I’m not actually sure if that ended the debate, but some of the collections of tweets I saw in Buzzfeed got pretty nasty. Maybe this is just a general backlash against that… Not directly inspired, but possibly one of the straws that broke the camel’s back.

    1. It could be.
      When you have a rabid fanbase of Harry Potter that can’t accept a black Hermione, thats fucking sad, and its even sadder when people resort to racism on social media safe in their houses.
      In 2015 race issues were massive, so that might have influenced Smith etc in their decision, but it seems the outcry is being directed at acting alone when there are far bigger issues to deal with that people could be talking about such as the huge number of shootings of black people or any other number of issues. Just seems the energy is being wastefully directed.

  5. It would seem that the boycott points out their lack of support for their fellow thespians more than any protest. Is that the only reason to go – that you might win something? I couldn’t write black characters because I don’t know that world – I don’t have the body of experience to be believable, much like you have written here. Things need to change but, I have no idea how to go about it.

    1. Exactly. It’s a difficult thing to change. If a huge proportion of film adaptations are from white authors with white protagonists, then the only way to change representation of blacks would be to alter characters once it gets to the script writing stage, but not every story can handle that.
      I think that is the real key stage, during the novel writing itself. But people aren’t going to introduce black characters, or native american ones or whoever, just to satisfy a perceived quota and cross section of society. You can’t make fiction PC, the same way governments and companies will ensure that minorities get job positions.
      I say, white authors quit writing for ten years in an enforced global embargo…hmm

      1. If I did introduce a black or native american character, I would have to build him/her around common stereotypes, exacerbating the already existing problem.

      2. On the other hand, just decide that the character is black and write it the way you want the character to be – ignoring any race considerations. That is probably the best course

      3. Yeah true.
        In all honesty it takes no effort to change a character to black by the end of a novel, but there may be incongruencies. I’m just not a fan of artificially creating characters for the sake of it, but when a book becomes a film, it doesn’t matter really, if a book of mine was adapted i’d be ecstatic, and i wouldn’t care if characters were changed in their nationalities/ skin colour as long as the integrity of the story is still there (itself a long shot knowing the drastic changes Hollywood makes).

      4. Yes, in the end we are all just people – no differences, really. Love,loss, courage, fear, success – common to all. We don’t have to “know” how to be another, it’s all human, and I think we would be well-served to make an effort to write that way. When we “see” differences we are solidifying a separation. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve had a bit of an epiphany just conversing with you today. Thanks!

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