I know it’s a horse that’s been beaten for years but it’s always worth bringing up…with examples. The status of minorities getting valued works in Hollywood is lower than I’ve seen in years. Black actors are regulated to the yearly Tyler Perry rom-com and black filmmakers are rarer than meteor heading towards Earth, at least in terms of getting green lit by studio executives. This year, we have a substantial amount of minorities in the Oscar conversation, some that will result in nominations like Oprah Winfrey, but we will be in store for an unspeakable snub down the line. It happens all the time.
Forest Whitaker, once in the conversation for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, will likely sit out on the sidelines for Best Actor, through no real fault of his own other than a stacked Lead Actor race. Idris Elba holds on to a wing and a prayer for his work as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, for the moment, look assured for citations for 12 Years a Slave. Michael B. Jordan has come and gone for his towering work in Fruitvale Station along with co-star Octavia Spencer who might be a long shot at best. Barkhad Abdi has made his rounds and could find a payoff for his work opposite Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Chadwick Boseman is getting a campaign for his performances as Jackie Robinson in 42. Those are a record number of names that have been in the Oscar conversation at the same time. But does anyone see anything in common with all those names? All of them are in films that are either based or inspired by true events. Their roles CAN’T be played by the elder white statesman that their studios would have loved them to play. Can’t really get Leonardo DiCaprio to play Solomon Northup or Meryl Streep to play Patsey and have it be acceptable to audiences.
The real win is that three of the films mentioned are directed by a black filmmaker. Ryan Coogler, Lee Daniels, and Steve McQueen have all shown their abilities behind the camera with their works and hopefully will continue to be offered substantial works to helm over the next few years. In terms of acting performances, I don’t see too many wins there. I would praise Hollywood if they were original works that had a black lead but we’re not seeing that evolution in screenwriting yet. This isn’t to say they aren’t out there. I’m sure we can go out and find a dozen screenwriters around the streets of Los Angeles, aching for a chance to have their visions realized but the studios aren’t giving them that chance. Last year, Ava DuVarney rallied a lot of support for her film Middle of Nowhere, an effective original work that probably had support among a certain group in the Academy. The film opened in limited release October last year and has YET to be released on DVD.
I haven’t even touched on the discrimination of Hispanics and Asians who continue to get passed over for works constantly. Benicio Del Toro, a deserved Oscar-winner for Traffic, and then nominated again for 21 Grams, gets semi-consistent work. He’ll be seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming Inherent Vice and will play The Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy. But can we name a more acclaimed or consistent Puerto Rican actor at the moment? I’d argue one of the reasons Del Toro is offered these roles is his lighter skin doesn’t lend itself to TOO MUCH questioning from audiences members as they watch him make love to Melissa Leo in 21 Grams but that doesn’t stop the studio from making him the stereotypical Latin villain in films like Savages.
This year, we had a good half-dozen opportunities to insert minority actors in roles that are being acclaimed and I’m confident, would have translated just the same, if not better in some cases. Let’s discuss a few: