Jesse Williams -Black Gold

Jesse Williams may be best known as Dr. Jackson on Grey’s Anatomy to many fans, or maybe Holden in The Cabin in The Woods or Reverend James Lawson in The Butler.

I first saw Jesse Williams as Holden and never paid much attention to his career until I was completing my Master’s. I decided that I wanted to do my major research paper on whitewashing in Hollywood, although I had yet to narrow down a specific topic. A classmate sent me this video of Jesse Williams discussing racism in America, as well as discriminatory casting in Hollywood.

 

From that point on, I followed his social media more ravenously than his fangirls. Williams embraced humour on his feed, but he isn’t afraid to tackle issues of race and racism, which are now taboo topics in this era of supposed colour-blindness. People will use the excuse of colour-blindness to defend everything from whitewashing, to hate crimes to police brutality that disproportionately affects minorities. To them, racism is dead. Therefore, higher rates of poverty, unemployment etc. can all be blamed on minority laziness. Of course, some minorities are lazy, just like some white people are. To say that this laziness explains all discrepancies in success is a grave oversimplification that ignores the impact that racist institutions have on minorities.

Williams is a former teacher and one of his initial aspirations was to be a civil rights lawyer. He says he may still write the bar exam someday and he is still heavily involved in activism. I heard about the speech he gave at the BET Awards, after receiving the humanitarian award, but didn’t get around to seeing it until yesterday. The speech was short, but poetic and powerful.

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The full Jesse Williams speech:

Thank you Debra, thank you BET. Thank you Nate Parker and Debbie Allen for participating in that. Before we get into it, I just want to say, you know, I brought my parents out. I just want to thank them for being here, for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career — they made sure I learned what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also I thank my amazing wife for changing my life.

Now — this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics.

The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.

Now, this is also in particular for the black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can, and will, do better for you.

Now: What we’ve been doing is looking at the data. And we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s gonna happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our country, or we will restructure their function, and ours.

Now I got more, y’all. Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice‘s 14th birthday. So I don’t want to hear any more about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.

The thing is, though. All of us in here getting money? That alone isn’t gonna stop this. Dedicating our lives — dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back, for someone’s brand on our body. When we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies. And now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.

There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There’s no tax they haven’t levied against us. And we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. You’re free, they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so … free.

Freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But you know what, though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.

And let’s get a couple of things straight, just a little side note: The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right? Stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance — for our resistance — then you’d better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest … If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.

We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo. And we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment, like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.

The thing is though, the thing is, that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

Thank you.

Of course, it is already being criticized all over the internet for being racist, race-baiting etc.

It is exhausting watching people get defensive when these issues are brought up: Resorting to arguments that are meant to derail the conversation instead of truly engaging in it. In order to get this off my chest, I wanted to attack the main arguments that have arisen since William’s speech. These arguments are not isolated to William’s speech either, so this gives me a chance to attack all the arguments that I’ve seen on my Youtube videos, newspaper articles and so on.

1)      Williams is saying all white people are racist.

This argument is probably the best example of a straw man argument; where an opponent exaggerates or simplifies an argument in order to make it easier to ridicule. There are plenty of statistics demonstrating blacks are more likely to go to jail (as opposed to getting fines, probation etc.) for non-violent offences, and are more likely to get longer jail terms. There is also plenty of research on lingering and housing discrimination. If you are too lazy or unwilling to research this, start off with the two sources below. If you want more, let me know.

Wegman, Jesse. (2014). The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/opinion/high-time-the-injustice-of-marijuana-arrests.html?_r=0

Brown, M.K, M. Canroy, E. Curry, D.B. Oppenheimer and T. Duster, M.M. Shultz and D. Wellman. (2003). Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color Blind Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Anyway, all of this research never tries to say all white people are racist. What it does say is that a legacy of racism still impacts institutions. An institution can be racist, or have racist policies even if everyone in it is not racist. For example, the fact that blacks are more likely to go to jail for non-violent offences does not imply every judge or juror is racist. It only means that the system as a whole supports racist practices. For an even simpler example, if a store manager tells his employees to monitor blacks as they shop, it does not mean every employee is racist. However, there is undoubtedly a racist system at work.

Acknowledging that there are racists systems and institutions does not the same thing as saying that you are a racist. Discussion of racism is not a personal attack. Too many people have this misconception and get defensive when the issue of race is brought up. This knee-jerk reaction is a fundamental part of what makes it so difficult to have a productive discussion on race.

  • Williams is half-white so how can he talk about racism?

This one actually baffles me a bit, but it is somewhat tied to the previous argument. If people think talking about racism = saying that all white people are racist, then it must be pretty confusing to see a mixed man discussing it.

White scholars and activists will fight against employment discrimination that leads to resumes with white names getting more callbacks, even if the skills are identical as resumes with more ethnic names like Jamal. Don’t worry insecure people, affirmative action apparently doesn’t mean black C students are getting jobs over white A students.

Their involvement does not mean they think all white people are racist. They only recognize that they benefit from the system, but they have the fortitude to accept that and fight against the white privilege that lingers in American society.

  • With organizations like Black Lives Matter, BET and the NAACP, how will we ever get past racism?

This argument ties directly into colour-blind racism. The key assumption here:

  • Racism is dead, there is no need to acknowledge or discuss it

Organizations like BET and the NAACP were created to counteract historical (and ongoing) discrimination. BET was purchased by Viacom in 2003 so its programming has been far more commercial since. However, it originally helped to showcase films with mostly black actors that have a much harder time getting mainstream exposure. To this day, directors will still deliberately pick white actors to play characters that aren’t white, because white is “more marketable”. Many supposed colour-blind people acknowledge that this happens, but also believe racism is dead. Maybe if Hollywood and most television networks didn’t still believe that whiteness is more marketable (Stoddard, 2006), we wouldn’t need BET.

In many cases, the NAACP is one of the few organizations openly challenging racism in today’s society. It would be great if we didn’t need the NAACP or BET, but that isn’t the world we live in.

This is the same reason we have Black Lives Matter. The world already cares about white lives. Everyone knows white lives matter. However, black death is often treated with retorts that we just need to learn how to behave ourselves. People donated nearly $500,000 to Darren Wilson after he killed Mike Brown, before the trial begin. There was the assumption that Brown was guilty, and this assumption is pervasive in cases of cops killing unarmed minorities.

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Williams’s speech can either be a great opening for a debate or another speech that gets ridiculed for its racism, its “whining”, its “race-baiting”. It looks like this is another case where the majority of people pick the latter. There is praise for Williams, but it is more concentrated on outlets such as the Atlanta Black Star. Other outlets, like the LA Times are overrun by people who think Williams is only making racism in America worse. He’s the problem here according to them. How dare he speak out? How dare he try to ruin the mirage of an equal and colour-blind society?

 

Works Cited

 

Stoddard, J.D. (2006). The Burden of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom and ‘Educational’ Hollywood Film. Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, 36 (1), 26-35.

 

Updates

This marks the third day of my commitment to blog everyday, so far so good, but there are still plenty of days to go.

Although my novels are science-fiction, my blog has always explored a range of subjects. I write about movies and comics, but I also write about race and politics. I know that may dissuade some people but it is who I am. I am not diluting my interests for the people who may feel threatened by the views that I try to express in a rational manner.

When it comes to my daily post, I often write about what is on my mind. An article, a comment by a friend, anything can end up being the inspiration for an article. Since it is Friday now, I figured that a lighter blog post was in order. I’m checking out Captain America: Civil War tomorrow and I am excited. As I expected, the film has already been met with near critical acclaim. Although I love Marvel and DC I can’t help but feel somewhat apprehensive since I know the Marvel brainwashing is very powerful.

However, I’m still excited. I have dbox seats for tomorrow and will be putting up a review tomorrow night or Sunday at the latest. I am planning to do a written review as well as a YouTube video. I’ve been avoiding any promotional videos since the first trailer came out because I don’t want too much spoiled. I hear Tom Holland is amazing as Spider-Man so we’ll see what he brings to the table. I haven’t heard much about Chadwick Boseman as The Black Panther but I think he’ll kill it and hopefully build some hype for the Black Panther film.

Heteronormativity and The Last of Us

In my previous post, I reflected on how Hollywood has conditioned us to view certain things as normal, and others as unnatural. The normal things include whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality. When I wrote the previous post I indicated that one article is not enough to discuss all the issues tied to Hollywood and minority representation. I wrote my master’s paper on colour-blind racism and Hollywood but I could easily write a dissertation on this larger topic. For that reason I am thinking of including a weekly segment that looks at a specific example of a minority (racial, religious, sexual) being viewed as unwelcome or alien.

Tonight’s example is one I came across a while ago, but that still sticks with me. The Last of Us is a video game that focuses on a pair of survivors (Joel and Ellie) in a post-apocalyptic American landscape swarmed with bandits and zombies (humans infected with the cordyceps fungus). An expansion pack for the game, The Last of Us: Left Behind, focuses on Ellie and reveals more of her past.

This past included a friend named Riley, who died from the fungus. Prior to Ellie’s death, she kisses Riley. This kiss is captured on a YouTube upload of the expansion pack. After watching the second part of the video I scrolled through the comments, only to be greeted by numerous comments saying that Ellie isn’t necessarily lesbian. It was just a kiss, she could still be straight.

I had to ask, “Wait, so for the people saying “a kiss doesn’t make her lesbian”, if she kissed a guy would you say “a kiss doesn’t make her straight”?”

This is something that any reader must seriously consider. If Ellie kissed a guy, and people vehemently argued that she could “still be lesbian”, those people would be seen as idiots. Where is there proof? What are they basing this on? Why are they so eager for the character to be lesbian? We have been conditioned to think of homosexuality as a “lifestyle”, a “choice” or a “phase”. I can’t blame Hollywood completely for this but I think that Hollywood can definitely help to cement these views when homosexual characters are not developed well. The worst offender for me was The Kids Are All Right, where Julianne Moore’s character cheats on her wife with a man- we all know she was just biding time with the woman and waiting for a man to come along.

Hollywood Brainwashing: Political Correctness and Agendas

Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most creative, entertaining and memorable films I have seen in the past few years, if not ever. The acting, writing and of course, the action and visuals were all amazing. The title character, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), has few lines and in many ways isn’t even the main character. I didn’t find this jarring or bothersome since this was similar to Mad Max 2, where the plot revolved around one of the communities Max came across in the apocalyptic landscape. Like Fury Road, Mad Max 2 also focused more on the community and the villain.

However, this fact appears to have been lost on some people. Fury Road has received widespread acclaim and was even nominated for best picture at the golden globes and the Oscars: a huge achievement for an action film that is basically a two hour car chase (albeit a beautifully crafted one). Then again, the loudest voices can often stand out best, even if they are the fewest.

When discussing the film online it seems that praise for Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is closely followed by criticism of “feminist propaganda” or a “feminist agenda”. Searching “Mad Max Fury Road Feminism” brings up numerous articles from outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Post. The presence of strong female characters is hard to ignore, but I think it is a problem when we view strong female characters as indicative of an agenda.

Any discussion of ideological messages in films is often derailed by those who proclaim “It’s just a movie”. Yet as I’ve indicated many times before in blog posts and YouTube videos, this logic does not apply when the ruling class in Hollywood (white men) is affected. We are so used to seeing strong male characters, that seeing a strong female one comes across as “forced”, or “politically correct”.

I was interested in seeing Batman: Bad Blood, one of DC’s animated films. Before I looked into it I thought I would go to IMDB and see what other users thought of the film. One conversation in particular caught my interest:

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Unfortunately the text came out blurred but I figured it would be good to have proof of this conversation. I know people always like to say that people who express discriminatory ideas online are just trolls, but I think that simplifies things far too much. There are definitely people who get amusement from inflammatory comments, but I don’t think that explains every single discriminatory comment online. The internet is an arena where people can express their true feelings anonymously or with a pseudonym.

The person who started this post seems genuinely upset at being called a troll, his words are his “honest thoughts and opinions.” Perhaps the honest opinion he would not reveal in class or at work?

Bad Blood focuses on batman’s sidekicks and their efforts to fight crime in Gotham after his disappearance. While Nightwing and Robin are in the story, Batwoman is too. According to the person who started this conversation, the film would have been better without Batwoman since her sections felt “forced” and her homosexuality felt “heavy handed” (the newest Batwoman is Lesbian) . As another poster points out, this heavy handed homosexuality plays out with one scene of Batwoman flirting with a woman at a bar.

Some people reading this may agree with the original poster, but that brings up the issue I am trying to tackle. If one scene of a woman flirting with another is a heavy-handed depiction of homosexuality, would the scenes of Nightwing flirting with another woman also be heavy-handed heterosexuality? For decades, Hollywood has fed the world a steady diet of entertainment. Most of these characters fit a certain mold: white, male and straight. Years of seeing most heroes fit this mold can then lead to this becoming normalized (Dyer, White, 1997). When whiteness and masculinity becomes normalized in film, it is then easier for women and people of colour to be viewed as subversive. People who are outright bigots can also disguise their prejudice and aversion to seeing minorities and homosexuality on screen by saying that they simply don’t like it if it’s “heavy handed”. As the example above demonstrates, it does not take much for these elements to be viewed as heavy-handed.

A recent example of this which I have discussed before is the reaction to Rey in Star Wars: Episode VII. Rey has been relentlessly criticized for being a Mary Stu, a female character who is often overly skilled and is often viewed as the worst example of “feminist influence”. While it is reasonable to look at Rey’s progression in the film as being highly unrealistic, I just wonder if fans nitpick her progression as much as they nitpick Luke’s in Star Wars: Episode V or any male character’s in pretty much any movie. Can we all say that we have never seen a film where a male character ends up being a prodigy at whatever is important to the plot? Can we honestly say that we tore that characterization apart because it seemed too unrealistic, or did we embrace it and rejoice in how badass the character is?

With all of the bitterness and anger directed towards women on screen it seems that any female character who is on screen to do more than hook up with someone or be a damsel in distress is now viewed as unnatural and unwelcome. The same logic applies to minorities of any kind. If a black character is portrayed as heroic, intelligent and articulate, the movie is too politically correct. If a religious minority is represented as a fleshed out, sympathetic character then it is “propaganda”. Even better, the film is “pushing an agenda”. God forbid, if the film actually discusses discrimination of any kind openly, whether it is racism, sexism or homophobia . As another poster on IMDB said, he hopes The Revenant can win best picture since it is the movie that is a “non-agenda” movie.

Note: This post barely scratches the surfaces of all the things I want to say on this topic, so I will probably revisit the topic and get in the habit of blogging about other examples of this trend.

Works Cited

Dyer, R. (1997). White. London, UK: Routledge.

 

Star Wars: Episode VII-Not Life Changing, and a little disappointing (SPOILERS)

I took a while to start writing this post, mostly because I honestly didn’t know where to start.

Firstly, I would consider myself a pretty big star wars fan. I love the lore, the universe, the characters and I have seen all six movies. Like most, I do agree the acting and writing of the prequels is generally inferior, thanks to Hayden Christen and Jake Lloyd, but I still liked the world they created.

The Force Awakens is on track to potentially be the highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation) and it is easy to see why. Hype was unavoidable for Episode VII. Not only was it another Star Wars movie, but we were getting some of the most iconic characters back, along with their original actors. How could we not be excited?

I find that having high expectations for a movie can result in two extremes:

1) mindless praise since subjectivity becomes overshadowed by excitement

2) severe nitpicking because the movie couldn’t live up to very high expectations

This is why I always wait at least a day before truly sharing my thoughts on a film as hyped as Star Wars. After taking a day to collect my own thoughts and scour through news and comments online, I think I am finally ready to add my voice to thousands of others. Some might think, what is the point? I do this for my sanity and to quiet the debate raging in my head over the film’s merits.

1) General Thoughts

I didn’t get to see the film until Wednesday, by which time some of my friends shared their thoughts on how amazing the film was. Maybe that got my hopes up further.

Overall, I believe the film is a solid start to a new trilogy, a 7/10. In true nerd fashion I felt chills seeing the star wars logo on the big screen again, complete with the iconic music and text filling us in on what has happened since Episode VII.

Adam Driver was a standout as Kylo Ren, a character with emotional conflict and rage that truly resonated on screen. This was my first time seeing Driver and I look forward to checking out more of his work.

After Ex-Machina I was looking forward to seeing more of Oscar Isaac’s work but this role is a much smaller one in comparison. Although Isaac does well with what he has, his character does not have that much screen time and doesn’t get that much development. Here hoping that the sequels can better flesh out the ancillary and main characters.

Another Ex-Machina star, Domnhall Gleeson also appears and makes a speech at one point that truly stood out.

My biggest issues and the main reason I felt the need to write this post, were due to the two new central characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega).

I was happy to see that Abrams opted to use lesser known actors, which mimicked the casting practices of the original. Ridley’s first acting credit was in 2013, with a few episodes in different tv shows. Yet I couldn’t tell from her performance in this film. She is amazing in her role. Women will like seeing a strong female lead, while Ridley probably has a lot of new fans just due to her looks.

Next, is Finn. I loved Boyega in Attack The Block and I was very happy to hear that he got this role. When it was announced, I immediately saw this role as one that could help catapult his career. However, it looks like Ridley will benefit from it more. Her character has a bigger part in the film and her skin colour doesn’t bother some fans of the trilogy. It is a fact that Boyega was subject to hundreds of racist tweets when he was cast, and I think it is highly unlikely that every racist tweet came from online trolls who simply wanted attention. Racism is widespread online when discussing Boyega and his character. Hollywood has brainwashed audiences into seeing an all-white or mostly-white cast as a natural one. Hollywood has done this so well since its inception that inserting a black character into an intergalactic story comes across as forced. I would hate to know what the disgruntled racists think of blacks being cast in other movies.

As this movie confirms, Boyega is not meant to be a clone of Jango Fett. By this point in the story, a lot of troopers are no longer clones. So with worries of a black stormtrooper satiated, people still complain simply because they don’t like seeing a black character on screen. These are probably the same people that defend whitewashing since they are “colour-blind”. When a black actor is cast, there is no assumption that he got the role because he was the “best actor for the part”. People assume that the actor has no merit and was selected as some form of “reverse-racism” or “political correctness”.

Some people are arguing there was no need to change the race of characters, but nothing is being changed here, something is being added. If aliens don’t bother you, then black skin shouldn’t. I was discussing the film with a friend on thursday and although I know he is not a racist, he still said something that made it clear he was brainwashed by the whiteness of the mid-century originals. In his own mind, he thought all Jedi were supposed to be white. Although the originals never said or implied this, the on-screen presence of only white Jedis crafted this image. By the time A New Hope begins Jedi are nearly all dead, with Obi-Wan and Luke being the few ones left. We see a more diverse group of Jedi in the prequels, encompassing many human and alien races. Meanwhile, the only black character we get in the original films was Lando Calrissian.

I am not disappointed or angered at seeing a black character. I am disappointed that the black character is reduced to comic-relief and sidekick for the white protagonist (Rey). Boyega is a great actor and was best in the films during his character’s serious scenes. However, those scenes feel relatively scarce. Tie-in material reveals that he is a skilled soldier and marksman, but this is downplayed (emphasis on the word downplayed, we do see some of this) in order to provide a foil for Rey and her skills with the force and mechanics. While Rey is the capable, white heroine, Finn often comes across as the bumbling black sidekick. This comes after a marketing campaign that featured Boyega holding a lightsaber and facing off against Kylo Ren, almost making it look like he would be a Jedi. He is not and I think it was the marketing’s bait and switch that leaves me more disappointed with Finn’s role. While his character is brave, he ultimately is wounded and rendered unconscious by Kylo Ren. At the end of the film, after being saved by Rey numerous times, he is unconscious and in intensive care with the rebels while Rey flies off to meet Luke and presumably train with him.

Some people may not see what the issue is, but that is probably because they lack the proper perspective. There is nothing wrong with comic relief in itself, Han Solo was beloved comic relief in the original films, but black people have a record of disproportionately being used as comic relief in films. They are also routinely used as a supporting actor for a white lead. I was hoping to get something different from Finn, the first black lead in a Star Wars film. I have no doubt that racism plays a part in some of the criticism of Finn and Boyega, but I do believe some criticism of the role he was given is warranted. Yet I still have to ask: Would Boyega’s casting and his character get as much vitriol (i.e. comparisons to Jar Jar Binks) if he was only another white male lead in star wars? Or does his skin colour already indicate to some people that he does not belong?

I also have no doubt that sexism and the manosphere mentality that “sexism is dead and feminism is the enemy” contributes heavily to the criticisms of Rey. Hollywood brainwashing is at work again. Men rarely question the merits of the male hero who is good at whatever the plot requires him to be, and who is irresistible to the opposite sex. Why would they question this hero? It is the ultimate form of wish fulfillment. In contrast, seeing a strong female character, and one who does not hook up with anyone at the end of the story, renders their fantasies null and void. While a strong male character is pretty much taken for granted these days, a strong female one is often regarded as a Mary Sue, a female character who is “usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling.” The term comes from a 1973 article by fanzine writer, Paula Smith, and is now used to refer generally to lazily-written female characters who are loved by all men and are special due to or in spite of their skills (I’m looking at you Bella Swan).

While I have to admit that Rey’s proficiency with the force seemed way advanced for a beginner, I think it is important to ask whether her character’s skill would get picked apart as much if she was a man. After all it is the fact that a woman is doing so well that leads people to criticize the character with terms like Mary Sue or “pc”. We don’t hear people venting over how much of a Marty Stu James Bond is and it seems that people are content to either justify or ignore these double standards.

Another part of this post that I initially struggled with, was how to end it. The paragraph above seemed like too abrupt an end, and I was tempted to continue with a deeper analysis of racism and sexism as it relates to film. Yet I couldn’t bother with that. I wrote my Master’s thesis on racism in film, I have written numerous blog posts and poetry pieces on racism, and have explored racism numerous times in my YouTube videos. I do not discuss the topic only for views or hits, but I still get tired of repeating the same arguments and repeatedly seeing them fall on deaf ears. For every comment that I get applauding my work, there are usually five from people whose defensiveness and anger causes them to resort to straw-man arguments and various other terrible arguments that ignore facts and help people feel more comfortable with the way they see the world. I have yet to experience someone commenting on any of my writing or videos, saying that I changed their mind and helped them see an issue in a different light. I have even had a (formerly) respected family friend accuse me of racism for using the term “my fellow blacks”, in the context of saying that it is a shame films like Joyride 2 and Barbershop 3 are expected to do well at the box office while ones like Selma face relative struggle.

If my point failed to get through to a lot of people with all the other pieces I have done I do not know if it is worth it to preach yet again. Hopefully people can understand where I am coming from.

 

 

 

Straight Outta Compton and Minorities in Lead Roles

If you have been watching my Twitter or Facebook feed you know I can’t stop talking about how awesome Straight Outta Compton was. The film wasn’t perfect by any means, it dragged slightly at points and was also brought down by O’Shea Jackson Jr, who may resemble his father well but was one of the stiffest actors in the film. With that said, Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and Corey Hawkings (Dr. Dre) and Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller) anchor the film.

I was considering doing a review and I may do one on YouTube but this piece won’t be a review. I simply want to comment on how well the film is doing, especially in a time where studios and audiences continue to justify whitewashing and disproportionate casting of whites in Hollywood films. Paul Giamatti may be a great actor, but I do not believe he is considered a highly marketable actor. This biopic became the highest August opening for an R-Rated film due to the popularity of the figures it portrayed and a great marketing campaign. Despite the popularity of the real-life figures it would not surprise me if there were people who believed the film would flop financially due to its mostly black cast: Even though the film has relatively small budget of less than $30 million. Straight Outta Compton also had the fortune of being funded partially by figures such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, which probably helped to assuage studio worries of financial loss.

What I am hoping is that the success of Straight Outta Compton goes far beyond biopics. I hope studios can realize that the set in stone rule of black (and minority actors as a whole) not being marketable is a myth and a self-fulfilling prophecy. How are new minority actors supposed to become marketable if they are not given the appropriate chances to prove themselves? With 1 in 10 roles going to minorities in 2015, it is obvious that Hollywood’s practices of whitewashing and restricting casting calls to white actors severely impacts minority representation in films. Stars such as Will Smith and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were fortunate to have established careers that made them marketable prior to their first film. Will Smith had The Fresh Prince, while The Rock had the WWE. Although these careers did not mean that both actors were taken seriously as actors it did mean that studios didn’t view them as risky investments.

Hollywood’s casting practices have demonstrated that white actors generally do not need to worry about this stigma as much. Studios will cast untested leads like Armie Hammer and Kellan Lutz in huge budget films, while hesitating to cast minority actors in roles for less expensive films. As I have discussed in my piece on double standards, people will often defend whitewashing in large numbers, using excuses such as “it’s just a movie”, “best actor for the part” and “artistic interpretation”. When a white character is turned black/Hispanic/Asian, suddenly those same excuses are not valid. I want to see studios take more calculated risks with black actors, pointing to the success of Straight Outta Compton, instead of emphasizing the failure of Red Tails.

Whitewashing and Double Standards

Some may be familiar with the term, “whitewashing”, which is used by online communities to describe instances of characters of color being portrayed by white actors in live action films. As many will be quick to point out, Hollywood is a business. A business whose largest domestic segment is middle-class white people, which is why Hollywood films are crafted to appeal to this demographic (Stoddard 27).

Studio executives also believe that crafting a film for this demographic requires white actors, since they are deemed more relatable for other white audiences. However, racially homogenous China is Hollywood’s biggest international market. This is despite the fact that Asians comprise less than 3% of Hollywood’s lead roles. Although a country like China may look past the race of actors to enjoy a film, it is assumed that American audiences cannot do the same. White actors are deemed as normal and universal.

Predictably, instances of whitewashing often result in online debate, where some argue that whitewashing is no big deal since “It is acting after all” or that any critics should just “let the movie be”. For many readers, they have either used these arguments before or heard them from someone else. In many ways these arguments echo a valid sentiment: we should be color-blind. Let’s not judge someone’s race, only their talent or marketability. However, it is a fact that Hollywood is more willing to take risks on an unknown white actor over a minority one, indicating that white is inherently viewed as more marketable (Stoddard 373). This also means it is easier for an unknown white actor to get roles that can eventually lead to them becoming a marketable box-office talent. Also, the true test of this color-blind theory is if it applies to instances of actors of color playing notable white characters.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

The most recent example of whitewashing controversy that can be used for comparison is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), where ancient Egyptians are portrayed by white actors. Like Ridley Scott said, he couldn’t get the movie made if his lead actor was “Mohammed so-and-so”. Scott previously said that Egypt was a “confluence of cultures”, which is what explains the white actors. However, the Mohammed comment makes it clear that minority actors were never considered for the part. In addition, the only roles that went to minorities were those of servants, guards or soldiers.

DF-00727R - Seti (John Turturro, background) presents the future leaders of Egypt: Ramses (Joel Edgerton, left) and Moses (Christian Bale).

Seti (John Turturro, background) presents the future leaders of Egypt: Ramses (Joel Edgerton, left) and   Moses (Christian Bale).

Although the instinct may be to argue that Exodus is a mythical tale, Scott said that he did not want to treat Exodus as a fantasy, since real historical figures like Ramses II are portrayed. The race of Ancient Egyptians is still contested and the purpose of this article is not to say that the casting is necessarily incorrect. The purpose is to study how Exodus’s casting is defended with arguments such as “best actor for the part” and “marketability”, while instances of race changing in other films are criticized when minorities are cast.

For many who grow tired of online debate about these issues it is easy to become defensive and fall back on the “just a movie” argument. However, it is also interesting to compare the reaction that a film receives when a minority actor portrays a white character. In the case of films like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four (2016)and Star Wars Episode VII (2016), there is even greater excuse for changing the race of actors since the stories are not inspired by any historical figures or conflicts. Yet instances of black actors getting roles in these films resulted in a flurry of online racist remarks. Along with the aforementioned films I will also be referencing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) to study how audiences react differently to whitewashing, than they do to instances of minorities playing white characters or inhabiting roles that they deem more appropriate for white people.

For many who grow tired of online debate about these issues it is easy to become defensive and fall back on the “just a movie” argument. However, it is also interesting to compare the reaction that a film receives when a minority actor portrays a white character. In the case of films like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four (2016)and Star Wars Episode VII (2016), there is even greater excuse for changing the race of actors since the stories are not inspired by any historical figures or conflicts. Yet instances of black actors getting roles in these films resulted in a flurry of online racist remarks. Along with the aforementioned films I will also be referencing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) to study how audiences react differently to whitewashing, than they do to instances of minorities playing white characters or inhabiting roles that they deem more appropriate for white people.

The Hunger Games

Rue, from The Hunger Games, was described as having “dark brown skin and eyes” in the book. The author also said that Rue, and the character Thresh, are “African-American.” However, Twitter provided a refuge for hundreds of angry fans after they either heard about the casting of a black actress (Amandla Stenberg) for the part. A Canadian fan began identifying racist tweets about the casting by using “#hungergames”, and he eventually compiled hundreds of tweets and posted them on his Tumblr, Hunger Games Tweets. If audiences were truly color-blind, would they write tweets like “Why is Rue black?!?!” Or “I was pumped about The Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue.”

 

rue-hunger-games

Racist Twitter

Another defense mechanism is probably to argue that these are just a few idiots online. Why bother analyzing them and thinking they represent anything significant? The problem is that hypothetically, these people who criticize this casting could be the same ones denying any discussion of casting discrimination when a character gets whitewashed. This isn’t just one troll, these are hundreds of people from only one case study. As the website’s anonymous creator, “Adam” says, “That tweet was very telling in terms of a mentality that is probably very widespread.” It is important to acknowledge and understand the double standard present in audience reactions to race-changing.

Color-Blind Racism and The Fantastic Four

MichaelB.Jordan

Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch

Although the increased discourse of color-blindness is ideal in theory, groups such as the American Psychological Association have denounced it because they realize that people who claim to be color-blind are more likely to support racism. As a result, scholars have coined the term “color-blind racism” to describe this new, superficially post-racial mindset.

Color-blind racists view racism as an issue of the past, which leads to a denial of racism and a belief that all races receive equal treatment. With this mentality it is easy to ignore any alleged whitewashing, since color-blind people don’t acknowledge discriminatory casting. For a colour-blind racist, race should be a taboo topic since they believe acknowledging race perpetuates racism. The discussion of racism is only relevant to a color-blind person if the act of alleged racism is deemed damaging to whites, which demonstrates the racial bias of this colour-blind veil. To colour-blind racists, whiteness is normal, while color is seen as threatening or subversive.

To color-blind racists, the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four can then be interpreted as an example of minority privilege. Instead of seeing Jordan’s casting as a selection of the best actor, color-blind racists see this casting as an example of minorities getting special treatment. The belief in minority privilege then frames whites as the targets of “reverse discrimination”.

Although there are numerous examples of whites playing people of color over the past ten years, color-blind people will ignore or rationalize these changes and then focus on the fewer examples of minorities playing white actors. While 30 Days of Night (2007), Dragonball: Evolution (2009), Prince of Persia (2010), The Last Airbender (2010), The Lone Ranger (2013), Pan (2015), Aloha (2015) and others are defended for various reasons, The Fantastic Four becomes an easy target for colour-blind racists.

Like Rue and The Hunger Games, Twitter provided a refuge for racist comments when the casting was announced. The Fantastic Four casting is incorrect; Johnny Storm has always been depicted as white. However, if audiences were truly color-blind then Michael B. Jordan’s race would not be a problem for the casting. Online comments would not say the casting is an example of “political correctness”, or that it is “racist”. Shouldn’t there be more comments arguing that race doesn’t matter, and that studios simply pick the “best actor for the part?” Even if his sister is white in the film, that should not bother someone who is truly color-blind, since they do not see color. Jordan is already familiar with the complaints. As he said in May, “Some people may look at my casting as political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota, or as part of the year of ‘Black Film.’

Quick Comparison: The Hobbit and The Last Airbender

Avatar:The Last Airbender (ATLA), set in a fictional world, was a particularly interesting case of whitewashing since the casting was sometimes defended by arguing that the fictional world makes the intended race of the characters irrelevant. Even though the creators have described the series as a “fictional Asian world” and said that they wanted to create a fictional world like Lord of The Rings, but use their love for Asian cinema to take it in a different direction. The show and its depiction of Asians was also a source of confusion for some since Asian characters were not depicted with the stereotypical markers audiences are used to in Western TV and cinema, such as slanted eyes and yellow skin. Since the show was influenced by Korean animation, ATLA’s animation style reflects the practice of avoiding these markers.

1/2006

ATLA’s Asian character. Aang (front) and the Inuit characters Katara(middle) and Sokka (Back)

Some audiences may see the characters depicted in anime and assume that they are not meant to be Asian since they lack these markers as well, but these characters are judged by Western standards. Another way to think of it is by using the example of a stick drawing. If we draw a stick person in a country that is mostly white, such as America, England, France etc. we will assume the stick person represents a white person unless we give the figure stereotypical markings e.g. brown skin, curly hair.

In Asian countries, such as Korea or Japan, where the population is over 90% homogenous, they will assume the stick figure represents an Asian person. This principle also applies to their animation. The confusion only arises when their animation is exported to other countries, where audiences get hung up on the appearance and ignore any other signs of an Asian world, or an Asian-inspired one.

People will decry the presence of black extras in The Hobbit, a world inspired by European mythology. Yet people will also defend the casting of white actors in The Last Airbender, a world inspired by Asian and Inuit architecture, clothing, mythology and philosophies.

The Last Airbender

Pictures displaying the whitewashing of the Inuit characters, Sokka and Katara.

(Some may be quick to get defensive, ignore the brown skin and point to the blue eyes as a sign of whiteness. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, there are individuals who have the ability to manipulate the element of their tribes or groups: earth, water, air and fire. The eye colour serves as an indicator of a character’s element. In the show the Air Nomads have grey eyes, the earth nation members have green eyes, water tribe members have blue eyes and the Fire Nation have orange eyes.)

These blatant double standards cannot be ignored. Double standards where criticism of whitewashing is ridiculed as the work of “unemployed” people with nothing better to do, while minority casting generates rants about the negative influence of political correctness.

 

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The last example I will use from this article, and the second one from this year alone, is John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars: Episode VII. When the first trailer for the film debuted Boyega was briefly glimpsed in a stormtrooper costume.

Black stormtrooper

At this point, we could not be sure whether his character used it as a disguise, like Luke and Han did in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. However, many disgruntled fans believed he was meant to be a clone of Jango Fett, like the soldiers from the prequel trilogy. The only time Jango Fett was pictured without a face-concealing helmet was in the prequels, where he was portrayed by Maori actor Temuera Morrison.

jango

However, the producer of the television show, Star Wars: Rebels, indicated that the last of the clones would be “old and grey” by Episode IV. Any stormtroopers pictured in Episode VII will be people recruited from the general population. This means that Boyega’s character is not meant to be a clone of any previous character. However, the damage control came too late for Boyega, who also witnessed a flurry of online racism that led him to tell critics to “Get used to it.”

According to a 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, 1 in 10 films have a minority lead. This is despite the fact that America is becoming more diverse and despite the fact that Latinos comprise the largest portion (over 25%) of American moviegoers, even though they are only 16% of the population. Additionally, only 7% of Latinos identify as white as of 2010. This demonstrates that the out-dated notion of needing a white actor to draw in a bigger audience is overstated and only serves as an excuse to limit the roles available to minority actors, and in some cases, take those roles away and give them to a more “marketable” white actor. This only creates a cycle of unemployment where minority actors are not given the same opportunity to display their talent, since they are not seen as marketable or relatable enough.

Directors and actors who are involved in whitewashing rarely voice a critical opinion of the casting, with director Cameron Crowe being one of the few to openly criticize his own casting choice. While Joel Edgerton said he empathized with those who opposed the Exodus casting he also added, “it’s not my job to make those decisions…I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.”Additionally, few actors speak out against instances of whitewashing, possibly because they fear backlash from potential employers.

Meanwhile, the few instances of minority actors receiving a role that could go to a white person are met with an onslaught of racist comments. From The Hobbit, to the The Fantastic Four and Star Wars, people will throw out the same arguments about representation and racial accuracy that they would ignore if a character was whitewashed. With this warped mindset, it becomes easy to see “reverse-racism” as the real problem in the film industry, and even America as a whole (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 192).

Is race-changing ever a right thing to do? That is not the question of this article. The question is do we react in a consistent, logical way to instances of race changing. Or are their obvious preferences in what we choose to care about?

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