Diversity (or Lack Thereof) at the Movies

20 Feb
La Bamba

La Bamba

I like to say that what the Super Bowl is to men (especially the men in my family), the Academy Awards are to me. A Sunday afternoon spent eating popcorn, glued to the TV, while enjoying a once a year spectacle at times predictable and at times thrillingly unpredictable (Bjork’s original black swan, anyone?). Yet I can’t help but notice that this year’s Academy Award nominated films are a little on the homogenous side. I’m not the only one who’s noticed.

Just a few days ago, New York Times movie critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott (the latter is one of my favorite critics, along with the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane and the always great Roger Ebert) discussed the dearth of faces of color in the movies of 2010, on the occasion of the Oscars. I would agree with their premise that the stories being told and celebrated by Hollywood reflect an unbearable whiteness of being, but while the writers focus on the history of African Americans in Hollywood, I would say that the issue of diversity onscreen is not only a black and white issue. We are not seeing stories by and about people of color, period.

When it comes to the portrayal of Latinos onscreen, there is reason to believe that we will see more- but will these movies be any good? Pantelion films is a new film studio dedicated to making movies specifically for the U.S. Latino market. And yet its first feature, “From Prada to Nada”, has received both poor reviews and low box office.  This movie (which I haven’t seen) is proof that even with Latinos behind the camera, stereotypes can abound. One need look no further than the films of Tyler Perry to see that, as much as critics (including Spike Lee) may decry the depiction of African-Americans in his movies (see: men in drag), audiences love his middlebrow fare.  So does it matter if filmmakers of color are at the helm if they are just rehashing the same old Latino boxer/African-American thug stereotypes? Does quantity (number of roles for minority actors) matter more than quality? And what’s quality?

Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker

Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker

In recent years, there have been Oscar-nominated movies featuring diverse casts- “Babel”, “Children of Men”, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (and those are just the Mexican directors); most recently, last year Mo’nique won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Precious”, and only two years ago, the 2009 Best Picture went to “Slumdog Millionaire”, which has an all-Indian cast (further proof that it doesn’t take a director of color to helm a good movie with a minority cast).  Last year’s Best Picture winner, “The Hurt Locker”, centers around a hotheaded bomb defuser, played by Jeremy Renner, and his more levelheaded sergeant, played by Anthony Mackie.

So perhaps it is an anomaly that this year’s Best Picture nominees are about the British royal family, a band of Old West gunslingers, Bawston working class folks, Harvard tech geeks, New York City Ballet dancers…a real variety in terms of setting and tone and theme. But all really, really white (with the exception of the Asian girlfriend in “The Social Network”).  I am reminded of the controversy surrounding Vanity Fair’s Young Hollywood 2010 issue, when 9 up and coming actresses were on the cover…not a non-WASP among them. I believe it’s not that the young actresses of color aren’t out there (hello, Zoe Saldana), but the Hollywood arbiters of who’s in, who’s out, and who’s worthy of a gold statuette are a little behind the times.  Maybe this year, a lot behind the times. I will be watching the Oscars on February 27th, and in the coming months, this movie fan will be watching and hoping to see good movies that don’t look like they were cast at Andover Academy. A little less Kate Hudson, a little more Queen Latifah, please.

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One Response to “Diversity (or Lack Thereof) at the Movies”

  1. Chantilly Patino March 7, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    Really great points. When we do see films that “include” Latinos or African Americans (or any race other than White)…they are often thrown in for “comical” relief with exaggerated stereotypes. Love your thoughts on this.

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