Hollywood So White

In Iron Man 3 The Mandarin, a traditionally Chinese character, was played by white Englishman Ben Kingsley (who also many years earlier played Gandhi in the movie of the same name).  Then in Doctor Strange Marvel replaced the traditionally Asian character The Ancient One with Tilda Swinton, another white person from the United Kingdom, although at least this time the replacement was a she so there was some form of minority representation.  Then, on Friday, March 31st, 2017, Ghost in the Shell was released with the main character of Major, a Japanese woman, being played by Scarlett Johansson.  These are just the most recent and most highly publicized instances of the whitewashing of Hollywood.  For other examples, we can go back to Mickey Rooney’s horribly caricatured portrayal of an Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Peter Sellers turn as a blacklisted Indian actor in The Party, nearly every portrayal of Charlie Chan by anyone in any type of media, and so on.   The list of Asian characters being played by white actors is a long one which goes back to Hollywood’s beginnings and seems to be an area in which Hollywood has had no improvement whatsoever despite the general public being very aware of the trend.

How racist is Hollywood, exactly?

There are a great many stereotypes associated with those who work in Hollywood, but one of the most prevalent and probably most true is that Hollywood is a bastion of liberalism along with everything that entails.  Sure, the Hollywood elites may be kind of kooky, a little unfocused and preachy, but they really care about social justice and taking care of the disadvantaged.  Just look at the Hollywood movies the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honor every year with awards.  If you’ve made a movie about someone socially disadvantaged (with bonus points if they are physically or mentally disadvantaged, too) and the topic is treated with any sort of maturity and empathy whatsoever then you are almost sure to be nominated for an award, and the same holds true doubly if you make a film about someone confronting and overcoming racial prejudice.  Driving Miss Daisy and Crash are two Best Picture winners that make nearly everyone raise their eyebrows in a salute to “what the hell was the Academy thinking?”, but there they are the holders of a golden statuette all the same.  So, you would think that Hollywood would have the most racially integrated workforce in all of the United States of America.  The reality is just the opposite.

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The data from the latest US Census in 2010 shows the United States has a racial makeup which is 64% White, 16% Hispanic, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and the remaining 3% including Indigenous Americans, mixed race, and the like.  The makeup of Hollywood however, does not correspond to these numbers.  If you are an actor, and you are male, then the numbers actually do line up fairly well, with the only group being seriously overrepresented being, of course, Whites and the only group underrepresented is Hispanics (from 2007-2014 of the 30,000 speaking roles portrayed in Hollywood 73.1% were White, 12.5% Black, 5.3% Asian, 4.9% Hispanic, and 4.2% Other).  However, if you work behind the scenes the statistics show a very different story.  Of the 355 people who directed a Hollywood movie in the year 2015, 5.3% were Hispanic, 5% were Black, 4% were Asian, and a mere 1% fall into that Other category, leaving 84.7% of Hollywood directors being White.

The director’s chair is actually one of the most well represented behind the scenes jobs in Hollywood jobs for minorities, too, even with those pathetic statistics.  While it’s much harder to find exact figures for racial breakdowns in jobs such as cinematographers, film editors, and the like, looking at the Academy Awards we can see that in its 89 year history only twice have black people been nominated for Best Cinematography, four times for Costume Design, twice for film editing, and so on.  Asians fare slightly better than their Black counterparts behind the scenes, though much worse for acting awards, and the pattern for Hispanics is very similar to that of Black filmmakers.

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This article is about racism but in my research, I found that sexism is an even more serious problem in Hollywood.  This chart is worth 1,000 or more words.

 Enough with numbers!  I come here to read words!

So, essentially what this means is that Asians are the only minority group in Hollywood where the ratio of those who work in Hollywood is near the same as the ratio of United States citizens.  That is assuming you’re male if you’re a woman all these stats get much, much worse, but from this point on that is going to be assumed for the rest of this article and I will put that factoid aside as a possible future article.  Another assumption I am going to make is that the ratio of those working in Hollywood being the same as the ratio of the racial makeup of U.S. citizens is a positive thing, and I recognize that this assumption is one which can definitely be argued against.  The only way we can be sure that Hollywood isn’t racially biased in its casting and hiring decisions is when no one even thinks of race as a factor, and while I am writing this article because I want that to be something we as a country and as a planet work toward, I am nowhere close to naive enough to think we are anywhere even remotely in the vicinity of reaching that ideal.

Ironically, while these statistics show that Hollywood does, in fact, have a serious problem with racism, its problems are not the ones that are largely publicized and being shouted about by the general public.  The “Oscars so White” cry of a couple years ago really isn’t true of actors as a general rule.  In fact, while Blacks make up 12.5% of the U.S. population, they have received 15% of the Academy Awards given out for acting.  Not a skew large enough that it shows favoritism, but we can definitely say that the Academy is not prejudiced against Black actors.  Behind the scenes, however, as was stated, it is a very different story.  African Americans are almost never nominated for directing, cinematography, and technical awards, let alone win them, but that wasn’t really what the “Oscars so White” cry was about, even though it probably should have been.  Hispanic and Asian people do fare far worse at the Oscars for acting awards and nominations than Black actors, do, but Asians fare far better behind the scenes while Latin Americans, once again, get screwed.

One thing that is somewhat misleading about these statistics, though, is that it doesn’t mention the quality of the roles.  Asians would seem to be treated perfectly fairly in every way in Hollywood, for instance, if you just look at the percentage of citizenship versus percentage working in the film industry, but when you look at movies headlined by Asians the numbers get far worse.  They are so bad, in fact, that the numbers can’t even be listed as a percentage.  In Hollywood’s history, looking at both film and television, there are only two or three years in which more than two films and television shows combined had an Asian lead actor.  So, while the percentage of Asians working in Hollywood aligns with the population, the high profile jobs don’t come even close.

And, then, there’s the fact that no matter which stats you look at, Latinos in Hollywood are just outright screwed.

Demonstrators March In National Day Of Action On Immigrant Rights

 Why does Hollywood hate so much?

Now we get to the purely speculative and opinion based part of this article as I have no real inside information to speak of, but I’ve been researching Hollywood for long enough that I can make some very educated guesses as to what is going on in the industry. Hollywood is one of the most liberal bastions in the United States.  Heck, even their conservatives are liberal when it comes to social issues, for the most part, so you would think that if there is anywhere in the entirety of the U.S.A. that would make sure races are fairly represented, it would be Hollywood.   But, Hollywood is still a business first and foremost, and their goal is to sell their product to as many as possible.  That means in the United States that they are catering to an audience which until very recently has been primarily white and male.  Sure, they have made niche films for minorities so they can be proud of themselves and give themselves a pat on the back every now and then, but the films which allow them to keep the doors open have primarily been aimed at the white male audience because that is the audience which has the money to pay for the movies.

That’s been the longtime assumption Hollywood executives have held, but recent trends have to make one wonder if those assumptions are close to reality or are just another form of racism couched in practicality.  As televisions get larger and less expensive with the same holding true for home theater sound systems, the internet allowing us to stream and outright steal films so we don’t have to pay theater prices and not even leave our homes, and as economic realities are making the middle class in the United States less able to afford family night’s out at the movie theater, Hollywood studios are having to make more and more of their income from the International Market.  This has meant changing who they cast and how they market their films.  The major stars don’t change much because they are still worldwide box office draws, but slowly casting has become more and more diverse for all but lead roles, and we’re finding that not only does it not change box office numbers much at all, it shows that films like Girls Trip with an almost entirely African American cast, and the four headliners women at that, can be one of the 10 biggest summer box office draws in the United States.  Not only is diversity not chasing away the customers, broadened representation is bringing in new ones.

Hopefully, I’m not giving Hollywood too much credit and based on recent evidence like the ever-diversifying line up of The Avengers films, the aforementioned Girls Trip, the wide release of films like Get Out, and the tentpole action film Black Panther having a nearly entirely black cast when it’s not even a “black issues” film I don’t think I am.  With Coco having the biggest box office in Mexican history, Black Panther about to shatter the February box office records set by Deadpool (that is my prediction, and I don’t think I’m stepping out too far on a limb in making it), and the attention so many movies with diverse casts but without niche subject matter are getting that I believe Hollywood may finally get over its fear and start representing a more diverse audience in its films.

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But, that just addresses the problems with actors.  What can be done behind the scenes?

That, I honestly have no answer to.  I imagine Hollywood’s racism in the crews as opposed to the casts of its film comes in large part from a bit of nepotism, a bit of centuries of racism making the education needed to get these jobs out of the reach and attention of way too many minorities, and a bit of good old-fashioned “I’d prefer to hire white but Asians are okay, too” racism.  That’s a problem that unfortunately will probably have to be resolved in the same way our national racism problem will be solved, which is “I don’t know for sure, but education and protest seem like good places to start”.

To Sum Up

Hollywood is absolutely racist, but arguably not in the ways that are getting the most attention.  Whitewashing doesn’t seem like a big deal outside of the United States and it can avoid studios making bad racial stereotypes in their films, but it does take away choice parts from minority actors.  Black men are well represented at the Oscars, and in their roles in films in general, but their roles in genre films have been hard to come by until recently and black women do not enjoy the representation their male counterparts do.  Aside from leading roles, Asian men are represented proportionally to their overall population in the United States.

However, if you are Hispanic, you are woefully underrepresented in every single way in Hollywood circles, Black men have nearly no representation behind the scenes, White guys get 64% of the good leading roles, and if you are a woman of any race then none of this applies to you and you are woefully underrepresented in every way, too.  So, yeah, Hollywood is racist and it’s even more sexist.

But, recent events show that things may be changing.  I hope so, and I really look forward to seeing what that change can bring.  But, if I’m wrong, it’s up to us to show Hollywood what we want in a film.  When they release a cast made up of minorities, make sure you get out there and see it to send a message, and when they pull another live-action The Last Airbender and cast what should be a cast full of minorities as almost entirely white, send them a message by staying home.  Even if unlike The Last Airbender that movie happens to be good.

 

Wind River (Sheridan; 2017)

The Western as a film genre pokes its head out every now and then every few years, but it’s been done as a regular Hollywood staple for roughly half a century.  For the past three years, however, Taylor Sheridan has been slyly bringing the genre back with a modern twist.  The Western takes on many forms, but it always takes place in the American West, of course, and it focuses on white men taming a frontier they are new to.  Once white civilization has taken over a territory, the film focusing on that place can no longer be called a Western.  Taylor Sheridan’s films all take place in rural Western communities, the twist being that these communities are in areas which have long since been tamed, but they are now largely overlooked.  In his film debut as a writer (Sheridan has been an actor for a long time) he gave us Sicario, the modern take on the Federales vs Banditos Western.  The next year he gave us Hell or High Water which is the modern retelling of the sheriff vs outlaws story.  Now, he writes and directs the classic cowboys and Indians Western, Wind River.

Wind River‘s central character is a Department of Fish, Game, and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert played (Jeremy Renner).  He describes his job as hunting predators, and while doing his job hunting down a trio of mountain lions who killed one of his father-in-law’s cattle he comes across the body of a young girl from the nearby Wind River Reservation where his father-in-law lives.  After notifying the authorities, Cory finds himself working with the reservation’s Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, which means, yes, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are the two main characters in the film).  Jane is new enough to the FBI that she doesn’t really know how to handle the situation, but smart and self aware enough to realize this and convinces Cory to work the case with her by asking him to help her by doing his job and hunt down a predator.  It seems Cory has personal reasons to help, as well, and solving the murder mystery becomes the driving force of Wind River‘s plot, if not really the heart of its story.

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In Sicario Sheridan tells a story in which the law are just as corrupt as the criminals they are hunting, and the only difference between the two is who is pulling the organizational strings.  Hell or High Water shows us the banks being robbed are far more immoral and dangerous than the criminals doing the robbery, and even those on the side of the law are aware of this.  Wind River gives us a brutal metaphor which barely even counts as metaphor due to its lack of subtlety of how white civilization has treated the Native Americans since they were conquered and forced onto reservations.  He is intelligent enough to not make matters so black and white (no pun intended) than one side is completely sympathetic and the other completely despicable, but this modern cowboy and Indians story shows what affect 100 years plus of brutality and neglect by one group to another can have on the group on the receiving end of said neglect.

Sheridan’s script is up to his normal insanely high standards.  In addition to a plot which is gripping and meaningful he also serves up authentic but still engaging dialogue.  His metaphors will be a bit too much on the nose for some tastes, however, I don’t think the thematic elements of a story have to be subtle to be effective, and here Sheridan makes sure you can’t ignore his message.  The characters he creates are never stereotypes nor generalities, and that is still the case here as he gives us real three dimensional people with pasts which resonate strongly through their goals and actions, and he makes sure we understand why even the most despicable among them, and he gives us some of his most despicable characters to date in Wind River, act the way they do.

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The direction, however, is not up to the usual near perfection of a Taylor Sheridan film as Sheridan himself decided to direct this one and not hand off the reins to someone else, and while he is an excellent apparently natural talent, his lack of experience does show in a few areas.  The pacing is a bit off at times, showing that Sheridan most likely had a hard time editing himself, a very common mistake made by writer/directors.  The camera work, too, is on the basic side as conversations between people tend to devolve into scenes where the camera shoots whichever character is speaking at a mid-distance, then switches to the other person when they speak, and back and forth until the conversation ends.  Some of his shots of nature, however, can be quite spectacular, and the contrast between functional but dull and beautiful can actually add to the pacing problems felt from the not perfect editing.

The acting is also excellent for the most part, with most of the actors doing justice to the excellent script.  The minor roles, however, can be performed amateurishly breaking the story’s flow at times when a performance not quite up to the same snuff as the others stands out.  Still, if a character has a name, then the actor portraying that character is excellent, and this may in fact be the best performances of both Renner’s and Olsen’s careers.

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Final verdict:  Taylor Sheridan gave us one of the best films of 2015 and of 2016. and so far Wind River is absolutely one of the best films of 2017, though it is just a bit more flawed than his previous two efforts.  Sheridan has proven himself that he is one of the greatest working screen writers, and while it is only a matter of time before he wins an Oscar if he keeps going at this rate, this year will not be the one.  Wind River does not quite reach the must see status of Sicario and Hell or High Water, but it is still absolutely fantastic, and I will bump it up to must see status if you, like me, find great writing to be the best element of film making.  No matter your general tastes or inclinations, though, Wind River is an amazing film that should be seen, it just may be worth waiting until you can rent it to do so.