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.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh; 2017)

Mildred’s (Frances McDormand’s) daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior to the events which begin Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I will from here on out abbreviate as Three Billboards).  The case is cold and Mildred has heard nothing from the police in a long time.  On her drive home one day she notices the three long abandoned billboards which sit aside a road no one uses anymore unless they are lost and gets an idea to get the local police working on the case again.  She rents out these three billboards to send out a message in 20-foot tall letters, “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  When the local morning newscast reports on the story of the meaning behind these three billboards, Mildred’s family’s tragedy not only becomes a hot topic dividing a town between those who defend local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and those who defend Mildred, but also spirals out of control seemingly contagiously spreading tragedy throughout the small town of Ebbing.

The dramedy is an art form which seems to have been gaining popularity since the late ’90’s or so and has now become so popular it is practically trite.  Three Billboards, however, despite its marketing is not a movie I would apply the term dramedy to.  I would call Three Billboards the far less often used tragicomedy.  This is a film in which horrible decisions are made and horrible things happen to people who themselves are not horrible over and over again.  It’s a story about how the way we react to the troubles in our lives can spread and spiral out of control until our own personal tragedies have now inflicted tragedies on those all around us.  Before you stop reading right here wondering why you would ever want to inflict such misery on yourself as entertainment, that is only the beginnings of this film’s wisdom.  The way it handles these tragedies can be heartbreaking or can be very funny depending on the depth of the catastrophe, but Three Billboards always handles the hurdles it throws at its characters with the film’s messages and the character’s personalities and motivations in mind.

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The movie isn’t about torturing its characters for comic or tragic effect, though.  There is a very deep, very needed message behind the suffering going on in Ebbing.  While I won’t come right out and say what that message is, I will say that it is embodied in showing the difference between how Mildred, Willoughby, and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) each handle their own grief.  While this lesson is poignant, the wisdom of the movie surpasses even the knowledge of how tragedy and grief work, beyond the central lesson of its three primary characters, but also manages to show us that writer and director McDonagh understands first and foremost that none of us can ever be perfect and therefore does everything in a completely non-judgmental, non-preachy way.  He simply gives us very realistic, three dimensional, relatable characters in a very recognizable situation and lets it all speak for itself, except with far more clever dialogue than normally comes out of the mouths of normal people.

It will be no surprise to learn that with this cast (in addition to McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson, we also have Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Zeljko Ivanek – you’ll know him if you look him up) the acting is incredible.  In a story that demands it has truly real people dealing with truly horrible situations the entire experience rides on the shoulders of the ensemble, not just their personal performances but on how well they work with each other, and they exceed expectations.  Not a single action seems forced, not a single spoken word awkward, and no one tries to steal some spotlight when it isn’t their turn to shine.  Special mention in this department needs to go to Sam Rockwell.  Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson do what they do here, and they do it well, but Sam Rockwell gives the performance of a lifetime so far above and beyond anything I’ve seen him in before, I really had no idea he was capable of this level of performance, and yes, I have seen Moon.  He has to play a character who is seemingly contradictory, who is at times the most loved and other times the most hated person in the entire story, and who for a good chunk of the climax of the film has to carry the movie’s emotional weight on his shoulders, and he not only pulls it off but he does so in a way which doesn’t draw too much attention to himself.

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The visual part of the storytelling in Three Billboards definitely does justice to the phenomenal writing and acting on display.  It’s far from the most spectacularly shot film this year, but its still quite gorgeous and enhances the mood nearly perfectly.  Perhaps even better than the cinematography is the editing.  The film does have a minimal amount of stunts and action, but the vast majority of the film relies on speech and silence for its power, and those who put together the final cut got that pacing exactly with never a moment that seemed like it was dragging, nor a scene which seemed rushed.  We linger on a moment exactly when the emotional power demands it and we move on before that emotion is lost.

Ultimately what Three Billboards does best is give us perspective.  Not all cops are bad, but neither are they saints.  Victims are not always innocent, but neither do they “deserve it”.  Three Billboards examines subjects like domestic abuse, racism, police brutality, and no matter what your political leanings and intellectual and emotional state you will see something from a new, surprising point of view which will make you sit up and realize that nothing in this world is as black and white as we would like it to be.

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Final verdict:  I don’t recall having ever seen a film that understands grief and tragedy quite as well as Three Billboards.  I’ve certainly never seen one that handles it in quite the same manner.  This is a film that understands both the intellectual and the emotional elements of tragedy, and how our reactions to our own tribulations can affect any and all around us.  It’s a movie about the cause and effect of being human and can be heartbreaking one moment while bringing absolute joy the next without ever being judgmental, manipulative, cloying, nor sentimental.  It uses humor not so much to make us laugh but to enable us to keep watching and to ferret out the wisdom which seeps through every element of this fantastic film.  This film may be difficult for some to watch, but even for them, I am labeling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri essential viewing.  I’m not quite ready to slap the label of masterpiece on it, yet, but it’s close enough that I am very tempted and wouldn’t be remotely surprised if I decide it is in the future.

Get Out (Peele; 2017)

Any comparison between Jordan Peele’s, yes of Key and Peele, new horror movie Get Out and The Stepford Wives is not only apt, it’s intentional.  Peele has said in interviews that he has always loved the dystopian feminist 1975 horror film, and felt that a treatment of a similar script using black and white people instead of men and women could work.  He thought of the idea in 2008, right when Barack Obama had been elected into the Presidency and many were declaring racism dead in the United States due to this fact.  Now 9 years later his vision is finally hitting the multiplexes and is possibly even more apropos now than it was then, though it certainly has a very different spin to it.

The storyline of Get Out gives us Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), an interracial couple, he’s black and she’s white, who have been together long enough that she is now taking him to meet her wealthy parents for the first time at their palatial and far from the beaten path home by spending a weekend there together.   Despite Rose’s assurances that her parents (played wonderfully by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) aren’t racist, Chris feels something is wrong from the first moment he arrives.  To say any more than that is to enter into spoiler territory, but I don’t think it’s any surprise to say that Chris’ feelings are absolutely spot on.daniel-kaluuya-as-chris-and-allison-williams-as-rose-in-get-out

Jordan Peele both wrote and directed Get Out, but he does not appear in the movie even in so much as a cameo, so you would expect this to have some humor to it.  While Get Out does definitely showcase Peele’s incredibly sharp and unflinching wit from beginning to end, there is nothing in this film which would classify it in any way as a comedy.  It has moments of levity, sure, but this is a horror thriller through and through.   The way Peele’s signature wit is displayed here is through his sly commentary on race which seems to be obvious until you realize that there are many layers and levels to his themes which have been subtly but surely making their way into your consciousness as you watch.

Peele is not condemning more conservative and overt racial hatred in the film, but rather he is pointing directly at liberal racism, and as a liberal I can say that Get Out definitely does its job well, though to say more is to, again, enter into spoiler territory.  It also interestingly speaks to an underlying fear in the black community of white people, not just distrust, but fear, and particularly of well-off white collar professional white people.  I don’t know if this was intentional on Peele’s part, as I haven’t heard him mention that element of the film in his talks on it, but I thought this added another very interesting dimension to the film well worth some thought alongside the themes of liberal racism.agetout

This is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and his second feature film length writing project after last year’s Keanu, but you would never be able to tell as every single element of the film is handled at the very least competently, and most often masterfully.  The script is Get Out‘s high point, and while it’s seriously early in the year to talk about best of anything in any way, I predict this script is one that will still be remembered at year’s end.   It’s witty, thoughtful, tense, with sharp dialogue and excellent pacing.  Perhaps the only thing it lacks is strong character development, but since it’s a story that focuses on one specific event over one weekend that can largely be forgiven.

The acting is excellent for the most part, though Allison Williams as Rose and Caleb Landry Jones as her brother Jeremy can both fall a little flat much of the time.  Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents Whitney and Dean are the highlights of the film, being charming and parental while still having a sinister air about them.  They are constantly unsettling, but despite this you still understand why people would want to be in their company, or at least would think themselves silly for finding anything less than charming about them.  Daniel Kaluuya could have been a little better as our leading man, Chris, but he does what needs to be done to show himself as a sympathetic lead.  I did find myself rooting for him and putting myself in his position most of the time throughout Get Out, but his performance was inconsistent enough that I found the spell where he was concerned broken from time to time, which is what unfortunately keeps this movie from being truly great and merely very, very good.

The cinematography in Get Out is well handled, even if it’s never awe inducing.  It serves its purpose without ever calling attention to itself.  The art direction and practical effects in the film are also handled quite well, again never really calling attention to themselves in any way outside of doing exactly what they need to do.get-out-keith-stanfield

The section below is a more in depth discussion of Get Out’s themes, and so include some pretty major spoilers.  I am going to use white text to write it, so highlight the blank area below to read this section, or just skip to the final recommendation if you don’t want any spoilers.

Jordan Peele’s condemnation of liberal America is the most fascinating element of the film, and one I will have to think on a lot more before I truly come to any conclusion, and the fact that I can and want to really is the sign of a fantastic script.  Peele seems to be saying here that liberal America’s fascination with black culture, while it doesn’t have the outright hostility, anger, and hatred contained in conservative America, is just as insidious.  He seems to be saying that liberals don’t understand black culture any more than conservatives do, but that they still seek to control it with incorporation with white culture rather than through forceful dominance.

This also explains why I feel the movie has a, perhaps intended, perhaps not, subtext of black fear of whites, well more than just a subtext since this is a horror movie about whites trying to capture and control black people, but I’m not sure that’s what Peele intended thematically rather than just as a necessary plot element.  Is it a reasonable fear?  Absolutely.  There is no doubt that even the most well-intentioned of liberals would still feel more comfortable if everyone acted just like they do, it’s human nature to feel that way, and to say white culture is the dominant culture in the United States is so obvious a statement as to be insulting.

Final recommendation:  Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror and into directing is everything a horror movie should be.  It uses its plot and tension as a mirror into very real world cultural issues and insecurities.  It isn’t perfect, but it is incredibly thoughtful.  The acting isn’t always the best, and the horror is more creepy than scary, but I guarantee this film will leave you thinking about it for days on end afterward and could very well change or solidify your personal views on some very important subjects surrounding race and culture.

Zootopia (Howard, Moore, Bush; 2016)

First off, let’s address the fact that some people are calling Zootopia the best animated Disney movie since The Lion King.  These people are wrong.  Zootopia is the best animated film put out by Disney since Pinnocchio.  I realize that I’m out on a limb saying that, but it’s a limb I’m comfortable going out on.  The Lion King, and for that matter, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, were all stories depicting already existing works, while Zootopia is its own fresh material that is just as well told as any of those 80’s and 90’s era classics and it also uses its medium to explore dense themes in a way too many Hollywood writers and directors are too cowardly to do in live action, and it does so in a very mature manner that still won’t go over most kid’s heads.  In fact, it’s more likely to go over the heads of the adults.

I pride myself in writing spoiler free reviews, and I intend to keep this review plot spoiler free, as well, but there is no way I can talk about this film without spoiling what made this the best surprise for me in many years.  So, if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to see it no matter what I say I recommend you stop reading right now.   In fact, stop reading, put down your phone or computer, drive to the theater, and see Zootopia immediately.

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But, when you’re done watching my movie, I expect to see you right back here.  Got that!

It’s no secret that animated productions can often get away with saying things much more directly than their live action counterparts, for some reason I admit I don’t entirely understand.  This is much of the secret to The Simpsons success, and pretty much the entirety of the success of South Park.  Zootopia pulls off much the same trick, but not in a vulgar way like those television based works often do.  It remains entirely kid friendly but manages to say things about our society that only the bravest or most crass will bring up in public.  That topic specifically in the case of Zootopia is race.  An animated film by Disney is the most direct, open, and cutting commentary on race that I’ve seen outside of a Spike Lee joint, and yes I remember films like Crash and American History X.

Ironically enough, I think the major messages about racial relations are aimed primarily at the adults taking their children to see the film, since most preteen children aren’t yet racist enough to need these lessons (though, it’s never too early to start teaching them).  The reason to take the kids, is this is an honest to goodness really fun buddy cop story aimed at the younger set, but still complex and interesting enough to keep the adults enthralled, too.  It’s no Usual Suspects in the complexity of its crime story, but that’s a good thing here, the writers manage to perfectly keep the story complex and original enough to make it engrossing for everyone, but still simple enough that it won’t go over the heads of even the youngest audience members.

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Nothing goes over our heads.

The animation in the film is very well done, as well.  I personally tend to prefer hand drawn to computer generated animation, but I do understand the move to computer artwork in Hollywood studios due to the amount of time hand drawn pieces take, and they truly do some stunning work here particularly with the feeling of motion which is present a lot in a plot about a rabbit cop chasing a lot of criminal suspects.  It does tend to lose some quality in a few of the slower paced scenes as not a lot was being done with backgrounds much of the time, but that really is a minor gripe that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film in any way.

The kids get a hilarious and fast paced film with a lot of funny animals in it.  The adults get all that, plus an surprisingly astute look at politics, religion, friendships, careers, and particularly racial relations and fear.  Zootopia is  truly the greatest pleasant surprise I’ve had in the theater in a really long time.  Finding Dory, the bar has been raised really high.  If you manage to match Zootopia‘s quality, this will be a year lovers of animation will remember for the rest of their lives.

Rating:  8.8 out of 10

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I absolutely deserve to look this smug.