Race-Talk: Putting this Year of “Firsts” in Perspective
I know the Oscars happened a week ago, but I’m still nagged by some of the larger implications of the event. The general controversy has been covered here and elsewhere. What I would like to do is highlight the limited scope of people of color throughout the history of the Academy Awards. My intent is not to bash the Academy. It is simply projecting (on the big screen for millions to see) the stereotypes, assumptions and caricatures we have created about each other.
I took a look at the films that have won the category currently known as “best picture.” I pulled those who had a major character who was of color or dealt directly with race. What I came up with is below. Let me preface this to say that I do not think that all of these films exhibit blatant racism; however, I do see patterns that are problematic related to race.
- Gone with the Wind (1939)
- West Side Story (1961)
- In the Heat of the Night (1967)
- Gandhi (1982)
- Out of Africa (1985)
- Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
- Schindler’s List (1993)
- Forrest Gum (1994)
- Crash (2005)
- Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
I see these films in several categories. You have those that are problematic for their stereotypical characters (e.g., “Gone with the Wind,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “West Side Story”). There are others who fall victim to the whitewashing of a place or people, focusing on the White characters (e.g., “Out of Africa,” “Schindler’s List”). Others still, are more innocuous (e.g., “In the Heat of the Night,” “Gandhi”).
Looking at the most recent wins, I think that what stands out is the problematic premise of Crash and the skewed depictions in “Slumdog Millionaire.” “Crash” makes the classic mistake of ignoring systemic dynamics and seems to suggest all “crashes” are created equal. What it fails to acknowledge is that some assumptions and prejudices have institutional backing, which adds an important layer of complexity. Slumdog has been criticized for its narrow portrayal of Indian poverty to the point of being considered poverty porn.
You could say I am being “too sensitive” and that there are plenty of examples where people of color are not portrayed in line with stereotypes. I would agree wholeheartedly that not all depictions of people of color are negative. In fact, not all of the examples listed here are negative. However, there is a common theme in the films that are held up as the best of the best. The analysis could be expanded to examine which films are simply nominated and actors/actresses as well. The take home message remains that the portrayal of people of color is narrow.
This year was a year of firsts. That is why the awards have stuck with me, nagging at me to dig a little deeper to understand the historical context of the portrayal of people of color.
“Precious” was the first film directed by an African American to be nominated for best picture. Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win best director in the 82-year history of the awards. What I like most about her win is that it was for a war movie, “Hurt Locker,” which runs counter to snap-judgments of what women can direct. My hope is that as more diverse perspectives continue to direct and produce, the representation of people of color will also broaden.