Guest Post by Jonathan Scott Chee
Looking through the nominations for this year’s Oscars, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hollywood had outsourced the entire American film industry to some parallel universe, populated almost entirely by white men.
The Oscars have long been a biting reminder of just how ubiquitously white the film industry truly is, but is the Academy itself purposefully excluding non-white artists, or are they simply taking their pick from an already white-dominated industry?
Analysis of the top grossing films of 2014 paints a troubling picture of exclusion and underrepresentation. People of colour and women make up a woefully small percentage of the principal cast, and behind the cameras white men also make up the vast majority of directors and screenwriters.
As alarming as the statistics in the infographic may be, they fail to tackle an important, yet subtle, element of the structural inequality within the film industry: the kind of roles minority actors and women get. While people of colour may only make up 16% of the total cast of 2014’s biggest blockbusters, they end up playing similar characters time and again: the sassy black sidekick, the tough-yet-warm-hearted convict, the swag drug dealer, the goofy immigrant with a hilariously poor grasp of the English language, the math nerd virgin – these are the roles our minority ethnic actors are relegated to, rarely getting to tackle a role with real depth and therefore rarely getting the opportunity to showcase their talents.
For women, too, the story is much the same – a blockbuster film led by a female protagonist is still very much an anomaly in movie theatres. Worryingly, the industry seems to be becoming even more exclusionary over time, with fewer women than ever involved both in front of, and behind, the camera.
For women of colour, the outlook gets even bleaker as they made up just 3% of all the speaking roles in 2014’s biggest blockbusters. Once again, this statistic doesn’t quite paint the full picture, as that 3% is overwhelmingly made up of black, or mixed race black/white women. If you are an East Asian woman, roles outside of the sultry, accented “dragon lady” or “comedy immigrant” are practically non-existent. South Asian actresses hunting for work in Hollywood may as well be hunting unicorns.
The effects of Hollywood white-washing go far beyond out of work actors, however. As people of colour, our children grow up in an environment where they see no reflection of themselves in mainstream culture. Personally, I don’t want my children to grow up in a society where the only representation of themselves they see on screen are as nerds, sultry objects of white male fetishism or kung-fu geniuses, because as much as art may attempt to represent reality, conversely, it’s clear that it works to shape perceptions of it as well.