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.