Let's Have The "Racism In Hollywood" Conversation One More Time

Let’s have this conversation one more time. Note that I didn’t say one last time because this won’t be the last time it’s had. But because it’s that time of year (which is to say, there is a month and there is a day), let’s talk one more time about racism, the fundamentals of Hollywood and whether one can amend the other.

During the 84th Annual Academy Awards, The Artist swept a majority of the night’s biggest awards, with similarly nostalgia-obsessed Hugo nabbing most of the technical statues. It was, however, Octavia Spencer’s win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in The Help that stuck out. Not because the win wasn’t deserved, or out of any ill will towards Ms. Spencer (a tremendous actress that deserves recognition, but for what exactly we’ll discuss later). What struck me was the reaction, the standing ovation the room gave, that continued for a good 30-seconds after Ms. Spencer arrived on stage, was given the award, was given a moment to digest, and even given some time to fully take in the fact that a lot of people were standing up and all of them were clapping for her.

What a treat! What a delightful night it must have been for Ms. Spencer! Still, the question: what was everyone standing up for? It is of course wrong, impolite, questionable and probably not entirely accurate to say that it was simply because she was a black woman who won a major award, but the reality is that I do believe everyone in that room stood up because Ms. Spencer is a black woman who won a major award.

It comes down to the question of just what exactly Hollywood’s relationship with race currently is, how it is evolving, if at all, and where exactly the Academy fits in. The glass ceiling was broken in 2001 with easily the single most political night in the Academy’s history, which saw Sidney Poitier receive a much deserved lifetime achievement award in the same night as Denzel Washington and Halle Berry’s Oscar wins — the latter being the first African American female to win a leading actress Oscar. Before that fateful night, we saw an average of one Oscar handed out to a person of color every nine years. After that night we’d see four additional African Americans nab acting trophies in less than six.

These are of course abstractions — a numbers game to end all numbers games. But the Academy is a strategic bunch, and what has often been called Hollywood’s most self-congratulatory night has now begun to celebrate the importance of the celebration. The problem is that the Oscars aren’t merely a distraction, but rather emblematic of the problem.

Ms. Spencer is far from an isolated case regarding Hollywood’s still-tumultuous relationship with race. Perhaps the most recent and overt example in some time was prompted by George Lucas, who went on the talk show circuit in early January to both promote his new film, Red Tails, and lambast the industry for making it so damn hard to make. He is, after all, George Lucas. He did, after all, help shepherd the return of the studio system. And they do, after all, owe him everything from a beautiful newborn to funding any film he wants to make. His experience of racial struggle (irony actively avoided) has lead to support from all sides, including cultural intellectual Cornell West, who urged his twitter followers to “#occupyredtails on opening weekend.”

Two separate events — Spencer’s standing ovation and Lucas’ difficult production — held as prime examples of just how complex the issue of race is in Hollywood. The reality is that Hollywood has found a remarkable middle ground in being able to divert any debate regarding racism on screen by using up their quota to cover films that tackle, you guessed it, racism itself. And come time, they applaud the artists encouragingly, as if they have just successfully completed an obstacle course — which, or course, they have.

Hollywood’s reasoning is that we, the viewers, dictate just what does and doesn’t get made — all that hard work is, in the end, kindly, for us. This is what happens when an industry is built on demographic obsession. Is Hollywood racist? No. Not overtly. What Hollywood does is simply perpetrate the advantage that white people have. The fact is that it is the white male who dictates what does and doesn’t get made, or who does and doesn’t get a standing ovation — it’s Mulvey’s monster having penetrated the industry just as it did the apparatus.

Aside from the sheer horror of this reality, the real problem is the disconnect between the industry as it is and the industry as it could be. The industry views itself as a ‘response’ to the culture, as opposed to a tool used to alter it. It is built on statistical analysis: if white people see movies about other white people, they will keep making movies about white people. If white people don’t see movies about black people, they will never make movies about black people, and honestly how rude of you to ask. The Oscars, consequently, become a Band-Aid for a bullet wound, a way to momentarily ignore the strides that the industry refuses to make by congratulating the few — and the louder they clap, the more it’ll drown out the groans.

With such a decline of democracy in society and such an increase of democracy in the culture, it would be naive to understate that the culture essentially now dictates the society. The problem is that the industry need not think they can only reflect the culture; they need to acknowledge that, should they so choose, they could fundamentally alter it. We are a visual society who thrives on repetition: tell us something enough and we’ll believe it. Sell us something enough, and we’ll buy it. Everyone knows this, including the industry itself. So why, when it comes to issues of race, does cinema suddenly backtrack and see film not as something with the power to progress, but something that is merely “giving the people what they want.” Isn’t “telling the people what they want” the true barometer of corporate success?

Is the difficult production of Red Tails racist? No, it’s just bad business. Is The Help a racist film? No. But it’s telling. It’s telling about the chief audience that Hollywood cares about, and how one can only break through if they grapple with race performativity and directly, or are an actor of color so oversaturated (think Morgan Freeman, who I believe is now viewed by SAG as literally “a prop”) that the audience is not threatened or shamed, because they’re watching through the lens of someone familiar as opposed to merely a man of color (whose own rise to A-list prominence is always, in the back of ones mind, worthy of applause since “it must have been so difficult.”)

When Octavia Spencer gets a standing ovation during the Oscars for a role that was not difficult to play, in a film that was not difficult to make, it says everything you need to know. Racism implies an intended disenfranchisement: that we long for a hierarchy that puts some above others for reasons made increasingly irrelevant over time. But what we have now is the desire for equality through the perimeters of difficulty. The applause, as a result, becomes congratulatory for everyone but Ms. Spencer. Because what they are truly celebrating is momentary progress in the abstract. Things aren’t post-racial in the sense that “everything is resolved and we’re now all playing the same game.” They’re post-racial in that, “we may have a home field advantage, but not only are you guys allowed onto the field, you are commended for having made it at all.”

Now that’s progress. TC mark

image – The Help


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  • Mike B.

    Stupidest thing I’ve read in a long time. Then why didn’t Spencer get a standing ovation at the SAGS, GG, or Critics Award?

    That night Meryl Streep, and Christopher Plummer received standing ovations as well for their wins. Why can’t we just talk about the performance? Maybe the audience really liked Spencer enough to award her a standing ovation.

    Maybe they thought her journey from character actor to Oscar winner deserved to be commended. She had many friends in the room…including her Help co-stars…but to say they stood up for her because of the color of her skin is ridiculous.

    • Anonymous

      “When Octavia Spencer gets a standing ovation during the Oscars for a
      role that was not difficult to play, in a film that was not difficult to
      make, it says everything you need to know.”

      • Mike B.

        I like how you believe this as facts.

        Why doesn’t the writer just state that she also won because she was black? I mean that’s what he’s alluding too since he clearly says Minny was a role “that was not difficult to play”.

        The beautiful thing about Spencer’s performance is that she made the role her own. She made it seem effortless, and because of this, some believe it wasn’t a role difficult to play.

        Do you know HOW she even got the role? She had to persuade Steven Spielberg (who was in the audience at the Oscars) that she was right for the role. That’s not an easy thing to do for an unrecognizable face. But she eventually did persuade him, and she rightfully got the role.

        Many times the Oscars are awarded to roles that were deemed “not difficult”, but that is usually a testament to the actor, and how they made it seem easy.

        Lastly, Spencer’s journey was the reason for the standing ovation. IF YOU WATCH HER ACCEPTANCE SPEECH YOU WILL CLEARLY SEE THE HELP CAST GET UP, THEN AS SHE MAKES HER WAY TO THE STAGE THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROOM BEGINS TO STAND (As her good friends Melissa McCarthy, Nat Faxton, and Jim Rash stood for her) then it MOVES TO THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM.

        It wasn’t an instant standing ovation, but one that slowly made it’s way around the room. And that’s even MORE rare than the instant as soon as their names were called standing ovations for Streep and Plummer.

      • Anonymous

        Sparks notes please. Preferably one written in English and NOT WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS.

      • Mike B.

        You’re an idiot.

      • Anonymous


    • Mecarriere

      I think it had more to do with the fact that she was a hardly known actress who played an incredibly role in a powerful movie. She came out of nowhere and took the movie by storm. That’s what we should be recognizing. It also gave her time to compose herself, since she was obviously emotional to the point of near hyperventilation.

  • Erin

    I recently read a blog that praised Octavia Spencer as an “intelligent, strong, and talented black woman”. I wonder what the reaction would have been if they described Meryl Streep as an “intelligent, strong, and talented white woman.” My guess is that the latter would be called racist. 

    • http://baileypowell.com/ Bailey

      Thank youuu

    • equality

      the problem should not be that Meryl Streep isn’t being called white but that Octavia Spencer is being called black. Why does she have to be classified as a black woman? She is a intelligent and strong human being. Racism will end when people stop classifying each other by color. 

      • Erin

        I completely agree, well said.

      • beatrice

        Those were the exact words out of my mouth. Why on earth do we need racial denotations? No one has ever said, “Brad Pitt is a talented white actor.” Yet due to the consequences of globalisation, anybody world renowned (or mainstream) that is of a minority race in the states immediately requires a denotation. 

  • Christina

    I completely agree with your points; Hollywood is dumbed-down, focused on a demographic which is startlingly backwards and ignorant, and as a result, it’s willfully as mindless as its audience comes to want it to be. The Help seemed to me to be a bit patronizing. What happened to politicised 70’s Hollywood? :( 

  • Armin Tamzarian

    RedTails: Lucas’ way of saying, “Sorry about Jar-Jar Binks!”

  • sisterfriend

    Complex for a Monday afternoon but I’m pretty sure I agree with this … pretty sure.

  • Anonymous

    An insightful, unusually balanced article.

    “With such a decline of democracy in society and such an increase of
    democracy in the culture, it would be naive to understate that the
    culture essentially now dictates the society.” <—- yes yes yes.

  • http://underwaterbreedingapparatus.blogspot.com/ Max K

    I agree for the most part. The Oscars have become (just kidding- have always been-) a means by which self-congratulatory artists can congratulate themselves (and I didn’t have to google that to spell it right, so you know my opinion is sooper dooper valuable). To say that the entire audience was doing this is too much, but I think that’s certainly what it became at the 15 second mark. It’s not a big problem, it’s inherently a polite reaction, albeit perhaps an over-compensated one. Just something people do today, not necessarily something that is cause for an upheaval of “the system”.

  • salt salt n pepa

    It’s interesting how this is seen less in the music industry/at the Grammys, than with film and the Oscars.  Not gonna say I know why though. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VYDVROKY4PUBOKUHB3QF42FH2Y Paul S

    “Attack The Block”, an alien invasion movie set in
    the tenements of South London, has deeper, more profound things to say about
    race relations than all of “The Help”.

    • Mitchell Hundred


  • Michaelwg

    If you don’t want an issue perpetuated, don’t draw attention to it. I could care less about an awards show, actresses and accolades, this article, or george lucas. That’s post-racial. That’s progress.

    • BananaNutSlut

      No, that is apathy. That is indifference. Arguably lazy. It is just ignorant to think that if you just stop thinking about something because you don’t take interest or think it’s credible or what have you, that you are somehow creating a solution to a problem. 

    • Kendall

      Yes, because things get fixed by ignoring them.

  • RicePaperPlant

    Though its assertions are founded in conjecture, this article has a lot to like. It’s candid and timely and, more than anything else, it’s brave. 

    Its chilly reception only demonstrates how so-called progressives become livid reactionaries when their superficial status quo is challenged. We do not reside within a post-racial society. Spencer’s role was Oscar-bate (pandering, demographically targeted roles should not be rewarded by a so called “merit-based and creativity focused” award ceremony). Worse still, Spencer has no history of affecting roles– should be we elevating fluke performances or consistent  performers like Jessica Chastain?

    Sadly, contrarian viewpoints like ours will be dismissed as insensitive and the “stupidest thing […] ever” written.  

    • Henriette

      I feel like you’re missing the point. It’s not so much that the Academy is rewarding “fluke performances” to fulfill a quota system but more so that they’re using typical, characterized roles to pat itself on the back for being “progressive” when they’ve actually done nothing at all to make strides in the film industry. Like they author said, it’s “not because the win wasn’t deserved.”  For the purpose and story of The Help, certain races were needed for particular roles, of course. However, within the film industry as a whole, when do people ever take the time to use black actors in roles that aren’t stereotypical, characterizations of black people? Outside of movies explicitly about race and racism?

      • iluvkitties123

        It applies to all races, really. When have we seen Asians, Native Americans, and Hispanics win an Oscar, Golden Globe, or receive any type of recognition for a role that was not a stereotype of how society perceives them?  

  • http://twitter.com/B_Stranger103 Beautiful Stranger

    I was struck by just how racist the Academy is when Viola Davis was not given the Oscar for Best Actress.

    • Guest

      uhhhhhhh… maybe she didnt deserve it…

  • http://twitter.com/iamthe0nly Jordana Bevan

    so i know that’s not 100% related to your article, but if we take the view that the audience gave her a standing ovation for the simple fact that she won (obviously not the viewpoint of this article, though) it IS a pretty interesting thing….. i dunno..twitter.com/FilmCritHULK

  • Anonymous

    Octavia got a standing ovation because Hollywood felt guilty for the lack of Oscars given out to African-Americans, not because she won a “major award.”  A famous African-American Oscar-Winning actor named Morgan Freeman once said (I’m not quote verbatim), “The only way to stop racism is to stop talking about it.”

    The movie “The Help” was adapted from a book that wasn’t meant to give brutal details of what it was like living as an African-American woman in the South in 1950s.  The author didn’t want to write about African-Americans getting beaten by their husbands.  She didn’t plan on people over-exaggerating (as they always do) in saying that “White people always need to rescue the black people.”   Does that make the book/author and/or the movie racist? Absolutely not.

    Give it up people.  Octavia deserved to win and she deserved a standing ovation.  If there is something racist that you would like to point out – point out the fact that Viola Davis has now lost twice at the Oscars when she has been more deserving than the winner both times.

  • Andrew

    Yeah because black people arent’t talented enough to rightfully earn a standing ovation… I stopped reading this when you said something about the role not being difficult to play and the movie not difficult to make. So ignorant!

  • Ving

    Octavia Spencer got a standing ovation because the audience was happy for her win.  Meryl Streep got a standing ovation too.  Are you to imply there is sexagenerianism at play too?  Note the tepid response to The Artist wins.  To be specific, in general, the level of applause is relative to how much the audience wanted that person to win.  (Meryl Streep didn’t even think she deserved the Oscar, either.  And most people knew it.  But everyone there likes her.)

    Red Tails’ had a hard time being made probably because it was a god awful idea and movie. Lucas tried to create a movie on a premise that was already done successfully (The Tuskegee Airmen) with a premise that wouldn’t be successful (cartoonish depiction of an important historical group, especially in terms of race).  Not only was it  bad (36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it was a financial failure (budget $58 mil, box office $49 mil).  Lucas’ claims of racism were just him talking out of his ass to stir up controversy.  “It’s because its’ an all black movie.  There’s no major white roles in it at all.  It’s one of the first all black action pictures ever made.”  Because Glory was made only due to Matt Broderick?
    (Of course, it kind of worked, as there was an underground movie to support this black history film.  Which, upon its release, most people regretted.)

    Look, there might be some White Guilt behind Spencer’s ovation.  But that’s not racism.  Where’s the discrimination in supporting and applauding a relatively unknown black actor winning a “prestigious”?  There might be a racial overtone, but that doesn’t make it racist.

    This is a terrible article.  Not to say you don’t have a point (not a good one, anyway) or it’s written poorly (it isn’t), but by writing about THIS as your example of “racism” in Hollywood, you’re doing a great disservice to actual racism, in Hollywood and otherwise, that occurs all the time.  

    • Rod Bastanmehr

      Thank you for the comment, I genuinely appreciate you grappling with the subject matter, and for taking the time to respond to it accordingly. I’d like to do the same. At no point do I refer to the films, the Oscars, or the people involved as “racist.” In fact, I do the opposite. I present the possibility that these are examples of “racism,” and then quickly renounce them as such (three times).

      My point is not to say that Hollywood is racist, nor that the Oscars are racist—at least not in the way that we perceive racism to exist, which is increasingly black and white, that it “either is or isn’t.” The difficult production of “Red Tails” cannot simply be blamed on poor box office gross (a retroactive excuse), or that the film is terrible (another retroactive excuse). “Glory” is not an equivocal example, because it is historical fiction and operates within a genre that Hollywood has made clear can grapple with race in a way deemed appropriate (meaning “directly”). “Red Tails” is based on a historical group and event, but the genre that Lucas intended it for was the popcorn film—a genre that will always (always) target white males, regardless of them being far from its sole audience. 

      So when I’m talking about the standing ovation that Octavia Spencer gets, for a film that tackles race in a way thats more easily digestible (meaning, “neat and tidy”), it’s less a reflection on the ovation in a literal sense—it’s not as if the thought going through everyone’s mind at that moment was to “stand up and honor this black woman who somehow managed to win an award that we usually give to white people.” The ovation is itself a symbol for the larger ills in Hollywood when it comes to awarding and casting actors of color in films. When films like “Red Tails,” good or not, have trouble getting made, it’s because the industry views it as a risk. Thus, celebrating the win of an actress, who has been awarded for tackling her race as the focal point of her performance, becomes problematic for me. 

      This is not “my example of racism in Hollywood,” because I don’t view Hollywood to only be capable of intentional marginalization or something systematic. In fact, as stated, I think Hollywood could play a large role in altering the discourse surround race as it exists now. But they haven’t, so it hasn’t. Of course it’s silly to view and refer to Ms. Spencer as a “black actress” instead of just an “actress,” but it’s sillier to pretend that the industry does anything otherwise.

  • Akelseyh

    I have to agree with the following comments. Octavia deserved to win, and she deserved the standing ovation, not because she was a person of color, but because it was a phenomenal performance.

  • beatrice

    ” The industry views itself as a ‘response’ to the culture, as opposed to a tool used to alter it. ” This is an insightful line, but unfortunately, the only line I liked about the article.

  • sls1234

    We do not live in a post-racial society; rather, racism is engrained in our society. It’s a system on which our society was founded and on which it continues to operate. Just because Hollywood produces movies with actors and actresses of color does not mean it isn’t racist, or that we’ve moved beyond racism. 

    • Henriette

      I agree. Just because we’ve “moved past” the typical notion of racism doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist. It’s almost become socially unacceptable to be explicitly racist (name calling, etc), but that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t still operate on an implicit, structural kind of level. Racism still exists, it’s just easier to get away with because it’s not outright. (This isn’t to say that the traditional view of racism has been eradicated either).

  • Vvv

    wait what i thought racism ended in 1964

  • Otto

    No one says Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, etc, should fight
    the “privilege” of their own race in government and private sectors in
    their own countries. 

    “Anti-racists” only combat this kind of “privilege” in White nations. 

    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White.

    • SLS1234

      This article is focusing on race in America, not race in other countries.

      Anti-racist is NOT a code for anti-white. It’s a belief that the system of racism in America is wrong and should be changed. It’s a belief that white privilege is wrong, and that we should strive for equity among all races. We should all have a fair shot at life.

      • Otto

         What exactly is this “system of racism”?
        No one is flooding Black or Brown countries with non-Blacks or non-Browns.

        White countries and only White countries are being flooded with non-Whites.

        But anyone who notices this fact is called a Naziwhowantstokillsixmillionje­ws!

        “anti-racism” is really code for anti-White: the “change of the system of racism” is White genocide.

      • SSL

        The countries or groups of people that you mentioned on your first comment are mostly homogeneous in terms of national identity and ethnic background. What you’re trying to do is transfer the same context into America, which actually has an extremely interwoven history with people of color, foreign relations, and racism. If you are implying that America is a “white country”, then you should really study up on some American history. Those who are considered “white” now would not have made the cut in the early 19th century such as the Jews or the Irish.

      • adfkj

        late 19th century/ early 20th century, you mean.

      • Braj

        why are you acknowledging retarded white supremacist bullshit

      • SLS1234

        The “system of racism” that I mentioned is how racism in this country is played out. It’s not just an interpersonal thing (i.e., someone calling a person of color a derogatory name). Instead, racism is institutional, and it’s the very foundations that our country was built upon and how our country continues to function. Regardless of whether it’s obvious or not, there are policies in place that keep people of color down, thereby raising white people up, and giving white people privileges over people of color.

        The United States has a racial history very different from that of those countries, so we cannot compare ourselves with other countries.

        White genocide? No. It’s white people scared of losing their privileges when (or if) this country ever achieves equality among the races. When people of color gain rights and achieve equality with white people, white people will lose their white privilege. 

        By the way, did I mention that I’m white? It would be pretty hard for me to be anti-white. I am, however, anti-racist.

      • Lilym

        when the FUCK has america been a White country, this country was founded off the spilt blood of native americans and built on the skin and labor of unpaid black slaves. whites have never been the indigenous nor the majority. just the dominant.

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