Like many film buffs disadvantaged by time differences and a lack of cable TV, I spent the early hours of Monday 23rd trawling through the Internet for my yearly Oscars fix. From ‘Top 10 Red Carpet Looks’ to a run-down of the winners, I wanted it all. However, it wasn’t long until horrifying details of the night’s processions began to emerge. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t naïve enough to fill myself with the hope of Selma winning big or Ava DuVernay winning best director, because sadly, that’s not the way the Academy works. What came as an unpleasant surprise however, was the flagrant disrespect and disregard shown to the filmmakers and actors of colour on the night.
There has always been heated discussion surrounding the lack of equal representation at the Academy Awards, not only in the films that are in the running annually, but also in the selection of people who choose these films. And rightly so – it seems outrageous to me that in 2015 it should be a constant chore to ensure that anyone who isn’t a white male should have their work appreciated. However, it was the “gags” and comments seeped in racist undertones that really pulled the Academy Awards down to a new low this Sunday. In what was clearly a distasteful, but rather telling joke, the host of the night, Neil Patrick Harris, let slip that the event was designed to celebrate Hollywood’s “best and whitest”. As if we didn’t already know. What this comment reveals is the fact that inequality and racism in Hollywood plays on the mind of many, including whoever wrote this (rather bad) joke, but instead of trying to do something useful about it, it made its way into a jab that made quite a few people uncomfortable on the night.
What was probably more outrageous, and certainly more notable, was the deplorable way in which Sean Penn made reference to Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu when his film Birdman won best picture. Just before he announced the winner, Penn said: “Who gave this sonofabitch his green card?”, completely dishonouring a moment that should have been reserved for the happiness of the director and those involved in the movie. Although Iñárritu took the joke in stride and used his time on the podium to thoughtfully comment on the hostility shown towards Mexican immigrants in the United States, the simple fact that such a comment was made so nonchalantly is of grave concern. Hollywood made it crystal clear that even when people of colour produce excellent material that is deserving of the highest accolades presented in the film industry, they are reduced to racist stereotypes and made into the butt of the joke.
It was only two years ago that Hollywood made a spectacle of pronouncing the name of Quvenzhané Wallis, rather than congratulating her for her stunning performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild and for becoming the youngest ever best actress nominee at the age of nine. Well, I guess it isn’t the Oscars if they’re not butchering names, as the mispronunciation of British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name was made into a weak punch line this year. Although at first glance it seems to be all in good nature, it is revealing that time and time again, the identities of women and people of colour in Hollywood become a part of some twisted running joke. Being frustrated at the constant snubs of films made by females and/or people of colour is one thing, but when these same people are made to endure four hours of being trivialised, it becomes plain disgusting.
There is no silver lining to this discussion when the statistics show that in the 87 years of Academy Awards, only eight actors of colour have won best actor and actress, and only one woman – Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 – has won best director. The Academy voters are comprised of 93% white and 76% male voters with an average age of 63*. When the latter numbers are taken into account, it becomes explicit why well-deserving films and filmmakers are never given the platform to succeed, and unsurprisingly, it is often women and people of colour who are overlooked. In many ways, Hollywood serves as a small and shiny microcosm of the way that society at large operates, and many people, including myself, have become numb to the disappointment. However, apathy has never been a disposition that promotes action or change, so until enough people get vocal about these injustices, we’ll all be stuck in a culture that brushes people under the carpet.
Also, I wonder whose name they’ll run a car over next year.
*Statistics taken from this infographic: