Not a black-and-white issue

Posted on February 10, 2016


The racism controversy around the Oscars cannot be addressed by just nominating a few black actors.

When Mary Kom was released – actually, right from the point the film was announced – a lot was said and written about Priyanka Chopra playing a Manipuri boxer. “Why not cast someone from the North East?” was the general tone of the criticism. Similar objections were raised when Jared Leto played a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club. In Argo, another film based on a true story, Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez, a CIA officer who was half Mexican. You could go on. Elizabeth Taylor played Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Johnny Depp played a Comanche in The Lone Ranger. Peter Sellers played another kind of Indian, Hrundi V. Bakshi, in The Party. And who played Facebook co-founder Divya Narendra in The Social Network? Max Minghella. The Tamil-Muslim comic Aziz Ansari said, in a New York Times piece titled Aziz Ansari on Acting, Race and Hollywood, “I have a hard time understanding why [this] Indian-American Harvard student was played by… a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor.”

Ridley Scott, though, had no such qualms. When the question came up about casting actors like Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul as Middle Eastern characters in his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, the director simply said, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” This is a frankly shocking statement. (It’s even more startling that Scott admitted this, in these politically correct times.) It’s pure racism. But it’s also pure economics. Most movies are made for the mainstream, so that the largest numbers of people will buy tickets. And to get these numbers, you have to have a star (or an actor) who is popular with audiences across races, across nations. Unfortunately, with the exception of a Sidney Poitier here, a Denzel Washington there, most of these actors happen to be white. Priyanka Chopra , of course, isn’t white, but for a film made for an all-India audience, her “physiognomy” is to the Indian market what, say, Christian Bale’s is to the North American market. It’s… mainstream.

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None of this is to dismiss the racism controversy that surrounds this year’s Academy Awards. This is just to say that the majority of movies that end up being considered for the Oscars have mainstream actors, and due to the sheer numbers of these frontline white actors, many of them heavily promoted by their studios, it’s inevitable that some worthy performances slip through the cracks. For each “snub” of a black actor, you can find one of a non-black actor as well. If Idris Elba was snubbed for Beasts of No Nation, then so was Juliette Binoche for Clouds of Sils Maria. If Ryan Coogler was shut out for Creed, whose only Oscar nomination came for a white actor named Sylvester Stallone, then so was Danny Boyle for Steve Jobs. Let’s not get into who “deserves” it, whether your apple is better than my orange. Surely by now we know that the Oscar is as non-objective as any other award.

But it is possible to be objective about the ratio of whites to non-whites in the voting bloc of the Academy. It is possible to be objective about the number of “white” movies that are released, compared to the “black” ones. It is possible to be objective about the fact that the studios behind mainstream movies (most of which are made for, made by, and made with white people) have the most money to throw around during Oscar season, influencing voters and votes. It is possible to be objective about the fact that it’s pure economics. If mainstream audiences begin to embrace more films with black and brown actors, then more such films will be made, more such actors will make themselves visible at the box office and during awards season, more white voters will find it impossible to overlook them. All of this has to be addressed if the racism controversy is to be addressed. In other words, a deep-rooted, top-down systemic overhaul is what’s needed, not the bland tokenism of a few black actors and behind-the-camera people finding themselves nominated amidst a sea of whites.

As the Mary Kom instance proves, this isn’t just a Hollywood problem. Ask the people behind the film, and they’ll hand you the box-office statistics – the film was an above-average grosser. Translation: it may not have been a blockbuster, but at least it didn’t lose money. The people behind the movie, thus, will echo Ridley Scott and claim that had they cast a North Eastern actress, even this level of success would not have been achieved – no one would have come to theatres. They’re probably right. So the problem lies as much with them as with us. For how many films with “non-mainstream” faces have we transformed into huge hits? How many of our stars, our big box-office draws, represent anything other than the generally accepted “Indian look”?

Look at Tamil and Telugu films, which routinely shun brown-skinned heroines for fair-skinned North Indian imports, who, in these milieus, look like stranded aliens, whose spaceship took off without waiting for them. The message – fair is the only thing that’s lovely – is as bad as that in the skin-whitening cream commercials. Or even look at Hindi films. How many of them make space for a Nandita Das, for instance, who proudly advertises her duskiness? Look at our television commercials, where distinctly North Indian-looking women – or to be more precise, the market’s definition of North Indian-looking women (aka, no Nandita Das) – are routinely passed off as South Indian housewives. Should something be done about this? Absolutely. But what? And how? That requires a long, deep, inward look by everyone, from the people who make entertainment to the people who consume it. A few names on an awards roster isn’t going to change anything.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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