This is cross-posted from my horrible Angry Zen Master blog.

There are moments of self delusion when I think that minorities have made significant progress in Hollywood, that there are non-token roles in films in which minorities play against stereotype, that American films are starting to portray the rich diversity of this country. And then I watch the Academy Awards and the homogeneous reality of Hollywood comes crashing in.

No One Looks Like Me

There were four Black presenters at last night’s Academy Awards, Morgan Freeman (who didn’t actually present anything), Jennifer Hudson, Oprah Winfrey, and Halle Berry. There was one Asian winner last night, Shaun Tan, who won for best animated short. And that’s all you get.

There was a decided lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations. And thinking back over the 2010 movie season, the big films that everyone was talking about were pretty homogeneous in terms of casting. Just the same, there were plenty of diverse films released in 2010 that featured very colorful casts. So what’s the deal, Oscar?

Something’s wrong with the major studios. I’m sick of people telling me that things aren’t that bad or that minorities just aren’t trying hard enough or just aren’t good enough to carry a major motion picture. Bull. Fucking. Shit. 83 Academy Awards and I can count the number of minority winners on both hands? Fuck that. The big studios are either ignoring minority actors or think that general audiences don’t want minority actors. Cause lord knows there are a shit ton of minority actors looking for work.

Fear, Not Racism

I will not accuse the studios of being racist because that’s unfair. The situation is more nuanced that just mere ethnocentricity. But what baffles me is that while television programming is making decent headway on minority representation, major studio films are lagging behind.

I think it really comes down to fear.

Ticket sales are down and were sliding even before the economic fuck you. Studios blame the loss of revenue on downloads or streaming or whatever else they can think of while ignoring the quality of their product. With less money coming in, they’re becoming increasingly wary of new stories. This is reflected in the sheer number of sequels, remakes, re-imaginings, comic book movies, old tv show movies, and other remixed content that continues to fill up the studio slates. And as much as we complain about sequels and the like, the sad truth is that they get asses in to seats which makes them sure fire wins for the studios.

The studios have a winning formula which almost guarantees them money. It doesn’t advance the art of film, but it keeps them afloat. A major part of that formula is the cast make up. And here’s where I think the fear of change comes in. Since the original films these sequels and remakes are base upon feature homogenous casts that lack diversity, the studios think that the new versions must reflect those old casting choices. Never mind the fact that minorities communities continue to grow as the years roll on. Never mind that the more people see actors who look like them the more likely they’ll go to see these films. If the original cast lacked diversity, so too will this new cast.

Can We Change It?

The longer the studios cannibalize their old ideas, the more ticket sales will slip. It’s going to take a major slap in the face of movies for them to take notice. Everyone jumped on the 3D bandwagon when Avatar destroyed every single box office record. Will it take an Avatar sized hit for the studios to realize that audiences are ready for diverse, non-stereotypical casts?

I certainly think a message was sent when Airbender fared so horribly at the box office and was humiliated at the Razzies. But it’s going to take more than just a statement of what we don’t want. There’s got to be a big ass movie that everyone can get behind, minorities and non-minorities alike, that will prove to the studios that minorities can carry big budget films. Slum Dog Millionaire won a bajillion Oscars and should have been that, but it didn’t really impact the next year’s offerings.

I don’t know what kind of movie it will be that will finally break this barrier down. Maybe it won’t be a single film but a number of smaller films that will add up to a major movement. Maybe it will be a giant, blockbuster that comes out of no where. But whatever it is, I feel like it’s close. It’s gotta be. Maybe we won’t even recognize it when it happens, but when Oscar looks less homogeneous, we’ll know we’ve made it.

  • Impact

    Even the “big” winner of the proceedings – The King’s Speech – is being censored to remove a few F-bombs in hopes of getting a PG-13 and thus a bigger post-Oscar payout. So much for the industry preserving the artistic integrity of even the Oscar winners, oh-so-white as they are.

  • Jamie

    Oh man! That’s bullshit! The swearing is integral to that one scene. I mean, it’s no surprise that I’m a fan of curse words, but in that particular instance, it was absolutely appropriate.

  • fluffy

    I think that “the other Avatar” (The Last Airbender) sums up the situation perfectly. Here you have an amazing epic cartoon series in which pretty much everyone was non-white (Inuit! Tibetan! Mongolian! Japanese!), and then in the live-action version they turned all the protagonists white, and the only ethnic diversity was in the villains (who were at least Indian instead of the usual lazy vaguely Chinese bullshit, but…).

  • Roy Huggins

    I like the way you pinpoint what’s going on by calling out the fear aspect of this problem, but I think it should be noted that fear is a huge part of racism. In other words, I think you’re right in this post, but I still call racism. :)

    And I don’t think one big movie that changes attitudes will help much. There’ve been many successful Hollywood movies that prove the existence of capable non-White lead actors. What we need is a more systemic change in attitude. It’s frustrating that with the way our American tastes have been globalizing, execs still think Americans absolutely would never identify with non-White and/or non-Americanesque leads (Brits and Aussies seem to be okay if they’re White and portray what we like about Brits and Aussies and keep their crazy accents to a minimum.)

    Thanks for posting this. I had similar thoughts while watching the show last night.

  • Awesome Music Vids

    I’m not a movie person however this–
    “I’m sick of people telling me that things aren’t that bad or that minorities just aren’t trying hard enough or just aren’t good enough to carry a major motion picture.”
    Oh NO THEY DIDN’T. Who even says shit like that. If leading characters and settings were more diverse maybe I would actually sit through something for 2.5 hours that wasn’t a Bruins vs. Canadiens game.

  • Aenya

    Oh man don’t even get me started on The Last Airbender. It was a terrible, terrible movie. I really want to see an indie production of this or someone else to remake it in a few years time with PROPER cast. Seriously. The only production right now that seems to outline minorities as a feature is freaking GLEE and that’s saying something. Come ON movie people -_- Get off your asses and do something! We want less stereotype and less racism!

  • Drezz

    I have a couple of friends who work as writers in LA. The situation is far from being racist – if anything, they receive and write a ton of pitches for ethno-centric screenplays for TV and mid-budget films.

    A lot of the time, the idea will be shelved because its too niche for the studio. The ideas that do make it often get some approval, but are homogenized because they are too ethnic and the concepts would go way over the average viewers heads. (Face it – the majority of TV viewers come from the US and Canada, and if it isn’t North American culture, it takes a lot of spoonfeeding to get them up to speed on things that other cultures know as common knowledge.)

    This catering gets worse as the budget gets higher. Add in the investments from studio backers who put pressure on having a good return, and you end up white-washing or homogenizing to the point of drek. It may appear lovely to white people, but to people of other ethnicities, it borders on insulting.

    They key is aiming to a high paying demographic. People with disposable income looking for something trendy – it sums up the average white person’s spending habits in a nutshell. Sure you could go more niche and cater to ethnic groups and intelligent cultured people who care, but the old school business model won’t allow for it.

    This need to dumb down everything to cater to the lowest common denomination of blissfully ignorant, ADHD, Christian, white people has poisoned the entire industry. Casting calls for ethnic people force them to read lines in a manner that limits their ethnicity (or stereotypes it) changes their mannerisms, etc.

    It may be acting, but it aint natural.

    I could go on and keep ranting about the ridiculous nature of the film industry and how insulting it is to the average viewers intelligence, but I wont.

  • keysmash

    You forgot the part where they are scared to put money into a movie without a big name actor attached to it. Of course before you can be a big name you have to get roles, in order to get roles you need to be a blank canvas- generic, in order to be generic you can’t have an accent……. and so on.

  • Jamie

    Too true. It’s a self fulfilling cycle of suck.

  • Jordan

    You’d think that there would be a shift as studios start to rely on global rather than just North American sales. Clearly we’re not there yet.