White People and Black Art, Part 3: Until There Are No More Firsts, #OscarsSoWhite Remains Relevant

Ready Steady Cut

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

This is the final post in my White People and Black Art series. Post One and Post Two can be found at the attached links.

The 90th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 4th, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding them.

There’s no clear Best Picture favorite. Get Out made the cut and got 5 nominations. The Shape of Water has the most nominations but it’s still uncertain if it will sweep or go home with little to nothing.

It’s a very exciting run this year, especially in light of the 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversies, which arose when zero people of color received acting or directing nominations.

However, in light of Moonlight’s 2017 victory over La La Land and the increase in diversity among the 2018 nominees, some dare to wonder if #OscarsSoWhite is finally irrelevant.

According to April Reign, who launched the hashtag in 2015, the battle is still far from over.

“Until we are no longer lauding ‘firsts’ after a 90 year history,” Reign tweeted, “until we can no longer count a traditionally underrepresented community’s number of nominations on our fingers, #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant.”

While the list of nominations for the 2018 Oscars reflects a potential shift in films the entertainment industry recognizes, work must still be done to ensure a number of nominees and winners featuring the stories of the traditionally marginalized becomes the norm, not the exception.

This work includes recognizing and dismantling the structures that keep these communities from being well-represented in the first place.

The Academy is predominantly composed of white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, and as such, their standard for “talent” is judged through this lens. The training and education required to meet those standards is often only available to those within certain socioeconomic classes, classes which are predominantly composed of white people. Not to mention, those providing the training and education are also likely to be white.

This is why a common rebuttal to an all-white nominee list is, “The white actors are simply more talented.”

While I am not contesting the talent or ability of any previously nominated actors or actresses, it is worth confronting the truth that certain socioeconomic classes, and therefore a certain race, are better able to access the education and training required to make it into “award-worthy” films. As a result, the white talent often comes out on top, and the talent of the marginalized is often left unseen due to lack of access to these resources.

This is why the Academy continues to dish out nominations which are the “first” of their kind, or ones so rare they can be counted in the single digits, even after a 90 year history.

Among the “firsts” and rarities in the 2018 Oscar nominations are: the first female cinematographer, the fifth female and black directors, and the first black woman in 45 years to receive a screenplay nomination.

In the Best Actress category, only 1 black woman and zero Asian or Latina women have won award. The last black woman to win was Halle Berry in 2002, and she has even lamented this lack of representation, which she thought would be amended with her victory.

These standards also affect the types of stories the Academy rewards, as well as who is rewarded for telling these stories.

When women of color receive nominations, they are often nominated for playing maids, slaves, or abusive mothers instead of three-dimensional characters with autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Black directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen are nominated for films like Precious and 12 Years a Slave, which are stories of violence committed against black people, while Spike Lee’s films about both black excellence and black struggle are repeatedly snubbed.

And in 2016, when Straight Outta Compton received a Screenplay nomination, the nominees were all white. While the cast was led by black men, the ones recognized for telling the story were white.

The challenging of this predominantly white, hetero, able-bodied, male membership is a major reason why a massive overhaul of judges and Academy members occurred. The 2017 Academy year saw 800 new members join. Of those 800, 39% were female, and 30% were people of color.

This shift in judges alone had drastic results, as evident in the type of films nominated this year.

Call Me By Your Name, a love story between two men that doesn’t end in tragedy, was adapted for the screen by an 89-year old gay screenwriter. Get Out is a “horror parable about racism” directed by a black man. And Lady Bird centers around female friendship instead of a heterosexual romance and is directed by a white woman.

When people from more marginalized backgrounds are given the power to see and judge films, they seek films which embody their lived experiences. As such, they bring with them a judgment criteria different from the dominant white, straight, able-bodied, males who have traditionally held the reins.

And when the films are honored by the Academy, they can also be honored by the American culture.

This is a big step in the right direction, and it could result in major systemic change if sustained in the future.

But again, this is not yet the norm.

While the 2018 Oscar nominations show a shift in the right direction in terms of the representation of marginalized communities, there is still much work to be done. The Academy still needs to be intentional about the talent they find, produce, and recognize, and Americans who occupy realms of privilege need to be more intentional about the media they consume.

Only when it becomes the standard for traditionally marginalized populations to tell their stories can we truly say change has come, and #OscarsSoWhite can finally retire.

An Open Letter to Fanboys

Dear Fanboys,

I know you’re upset over the apparent “robbery” of “your” characters: the loss of your Doctors and Thors to women, your white Peter Parker “usurped” by Afro-Hispanic Miles Morales, your straight Hal Jordan “taken over” by queer Alan Parker, your blonde Captain Marvel flying out so Pakistani Muslim Khamala Khan can soar in.

How dare they touch your precious characters, you cry. And all in the name of something as ridiculous as “politically correct” culture.

You cry out to the geekdom gods: “Why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, my dears.

Just stop.

Seriously.

 

This is exactly what you sound like. Do you really want to be Dudley Dursley?

 

Enough with the cries of “P.C. culture is ruining geekdom” and “the canon says this character has to be THIS way,” as if those characters don’t already break accepted laws of physics and science.

 

If a time-traveling, regenerating alien hanging out with their past form makes more sense to you than that same alien regenerating into a woman, you’re being a little choosy with how you apply your logic.

You’re not being persecuted. You’re not losing your stories.

What you’re experiencing is a thing called “change.”

The world and culture are shifting around you. And as such, the representation of that world is going to change.

Straight, cis, able-bodied, white men aren’t the only people calling all of the shots anymore. Not only are more women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled people finally getting the right to tell their stories; they have also been reading, watching, and loving the same characters and worlds you have.

All we are asking is that those heroes look like us once in a while.

But why not make an original character, though, you ask. Why must you “steal” one of ours? Go get your own, you demand!

Ah, yes, why didn’t we think of that? It’s easy, right? After all, your characters seemed to spring up out of nowhere with such frequency, we should be able to do the same.

If only it were the case that movies and shows with diverse casts of characters made by people who aren’t straight, male, or white didn’t take longer to make because producers don’t trust the characters will be likeable or even “articulate.” If only these projects weren’t desperately underfunded to the point that the production companies attempt to bribe their creators with more money if they just cast a white lead. 

Not to mention the frequency with which these beloved, well-rounded shows with this type of casting are dropped.

 

I guess they gotta make way for more episodes of Iron Fist, The Ranch, and whatever else Adam Sandler can cough up.

 

Why aren’t more women and people of color trying to tell their own stories, you ask. Why aren’t they working hard to get in the director’s seat or behind the writing desk?

Here’s the short answer: They are.

They’re working their asses off.

They’re also being met with microagressions like “I’m pleasantly surprised you knew what you were doing,” are blamed for a variety of minor issues for the sake of being a “minority,” and fearing that if they drop any “ethnic” dialogue or bring up too many “issues,” they’ll lose the project for good.

 

Not to mention the legitimate and very threatening harassment they receive online for critiquing video games while having vaginas and posting selfies with their fellow artists. 

These add up real quick and make pursuing a passion that much more exhausting and even dangerous. And it takes a special kind of strength to be willing to pursue what you love when all of that is coming at you every day.

When we get excited over a female Doctor, a woman of color being the main character in the new Star Trek, and actual Muslim women writing the story of an actual Muslim superhero, it’s not because we want to “steal” your characters for the sake of being “P.C.” We are excited, because just like you got David Tennant and 11 other men as the Doctor, and you had Captains Kirk and Picard (take your pick), we get Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and First Officer Burnham. We get people who are like us telling stories about heroes who are like us. We have icons to admire and exonerate, whom we aspire to be one day, just as you always have.

 

It looks like a sun is collapsing behind her, and she’s still taking time to pose all stoically for the camera. How badass is that?!

 

When only one-third of speaking characters are female, despite the fact that women represent just over half the population in America, when just 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue are from non-white racial/ethnic groups, though such groups are nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, and when only two percent of speaking characters are identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, we will line up in huge numbers for Wonder Woman’s release and binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, and Transparent.

When negative mass media portrayals of black men shape public views of and attitudes toward men of color, which can result in self-demoralization and a reduction of self-esteem for people of color and enable judges to hand out harsher sentences and the police to shoot indiscriminately, we will rejoice when Idris Elba heads The Dark Tower, John Boyega is a lead in Star Wars, and A Wrinkle in Time is driven by Storm Reid with Ava Duvernay at the helm.

So instead of complaining, please support us. We have good stories to tell. Heck, we even have universal stories to share, believe it or not.

Support us because you want more people to love fandom and geek culture.

Support us because stories are sacred and affect all of us in sacred ways.

Support us because we’re all a bunch of geeks who are into some crazy, weird, phenomenal stories, so we might as well enjoy them together while the rest of the world casts their judgmental looks upon our weirdness.

For the Literal Love of Christ, Stop Making Jesus White

 

Superstar

Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar

I was browsing Buzzfeed the other day when I found an article about the Mary Magdalene film starring Rooney Mara (as Mary) and Joaquin Phoenix (as Jesus).

To be honest, at first I thought it was great that a film about Mary Magdalene would be coming to theaters soon, especially because of the issues many in the Church might have with her story being portrayed well on screen (she wasn’t a prostitute?!).

Then I saw the casting, and I got frustrated at the fact that once again, two white actors are portraying religious and historical figures of color.

MaryMovie

Daily Mail

I quickly went to IMBD to check out the rest of the cast, and I discovered that black, Israeli, and Algerian actors will be playing Jesus’ disciples.

Which is…better than having them all be white, too, I suppose. At least this casting is a bit more accurate.

Starting from top left: Australian actor Ryan Corr as Joseph, Israeli actor Tawfeek Barhom as James, Matthew Moshonov as Matthew, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, and French actor Tahar Rahim

This being said, Hollywood is not off the hook. The fact that in most biblical films, Jesus is cast as a white man while the people of color are relegated to the supporting cast is a greater symptom of the American white savior complex.

 

The simplest way to define the white savior as an entertainment trope is a white character rescuing people of color from their plight. While many well-meaning people defend these characters as benign and even admirable (perhaps citing that they learn a lesson about themselves and “those people” and become “better” in the end), they are actually rather harmful.

The danger of the white savior mentality is that it enables the savior to look down on the ones they try to “save.” It allows the savior to say, “You are only worthy of my time, attention, and compassion as long as you are beneath me. Never equal to me, and definitely not above me.”

The white savior complex “racializes morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems.”

This racialization of morality frames white people as the good guys, and the people of color as either the bad guys or the ones needing saved.

White savior mentality does not embolden people on the “receiving” end to take agency over their own lives.

One of the primary results of the white savior/one needing saved relationship is enmeshment, which can occur “in any relationship where there is a power imbalance due to structural inequality, and ensures that the power imbalance stays firmly in place, resulting in frustration and resentment for the oppressed group.” This ensures that the person or people being saved become fully dependent on their saviors to survive and thrive, while the saviors get a nice dose of purpose and goodwill from having saved someone. They are dependent on each other for the wrong reasons.

The white savior mentality does not allow people of color, or those being “rescued” or “saved,” to voice their own concerns or opinions about their own lives. Instead, the saved remain subservient to their saviors, who tell them to trust in the savior’s goodness and logic above their own needs.

This is prevalent in reality, as seen in the accusations of TV personalities and news anchors concerning black culture and black individuals. There seem to be zero forms of protest that a person of color can participate in which white leaders will not criticize. This is why Black Lives Matter can be deemed “the new KKK” with little to no mainstream backlash. It’s why any criticism about white supremacy and privilege is clapped back against with cries of “reverse racism” and accusations of “not letting the past be past.”

Feminists are not exempt from this.

Rafia Zakaria writes in Al Jazeera, “Nonwhites are expected to approbate and modify their own lives or positions to participate in this [white feminist] narrative. The parameters of this paradigm ignore differences in privilege that separate the white and nonwhite feminisms. White women dominate the mainstream American feminism because they can still draw on white privilege and occupy the entire category.”

If left ignored, women of color will continue to be ostracized by a movement which claims to seek liberation for all.

This is why, for the literal love of Jesus, we need to drop the white savior complex, from our media and from our lives.

Jesus regarded everyone with whom he interacted as inherently worthy of his love and attention. But white savior mentality does not acknowledge the inherent dignity within every human being as a child of God.

If we continue to call ourselves the Body of Christ on earth, yet continue to ignore our siblings’ cries for justice, then we are attempting to cast off our hands and feet, destroying the Body from the inside out.

We will also damage our testimony as Christ’s body on earth to those who are not in the Church.

A personal case in point: I have a Middle Eastern, Muslim father, but I did not grow up with him. I grew up with my white mother and white family, so I learned about Arabic culture from them and the media.

And they didn’t exactly paint the best picture. Especially post 9-11.

Post 9/11, I thought all Arabs were terrorists, because that’s all I saw in the news, in TV shows, and in movies. I thought they were oppressive to women and democracy and all the other things Americans claim to hold dear (but they really don’t).

I know how this affected me, and I know how it could affect my younger siblings, and the people with whom they interact, especially in an era of proposed “Muslim bans” and chants to “Build the Wall.”

I worry about representation because of what it will tell the world about my family.

So what do we, the white Americans wrestling with our white savior complexes, need to do?

A small way to break this oppressive cycle is to consume more media with better representations of people of color, in which they, not us, are the predominant actors, writers, producers, and directors.

Love comics? Check out Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, and America Chavez.

Looking for a new show to binge-watch on Netflix? Check out Luke Cage, The Get Down, or 3%.

Want a Redbox night? Rent Moonlight or Get Out.

If you don’t consume media with predominantly POC casts and production because you think it’s “too harsh” on white people, or you wonder why you’re not in the lead role like you’re used to, you might be feeling a trace of what black, Latinx, Arab, and other “minority” communities have felt for years.

We often have the audacity to ask, in a culture we dominate, “What about me?”

I asked that question as a four year old when I was dyeing Easter eggs with my cousins because I didn’t want to share the Easter egg dye with them. As a child, I acted like a child, as do we all. Now, it’s time to leave our childish ways behind.

Will watching and reading more stories in which people of color are the heroes and heroines change the world overnight?

Of course not.

It can, however, begin to change our mentality, break stereotypes, and empower people of color.

And for the literal love of Christ, we can do that much.