White Actors Playing Characters Of Colour Shows Just How Racist Hollywood Is

Posted on January 31, 2016 in Culture-Vulture, Racism

By Jason Jayology:

FotorCreatedHollywood is showing its true colours, or perhaps, true colour or lack thereof. To discuss the alabaster Anglo-Saxon-Christian-Judean-his-story of Hollywood’s oppression of colour, especially the colour embodied melanin in women would require a very long historical analysis through the genesis of the Hollywood canon. The abridged version would begin with white actors in ‘blackface’ displaying their white supremacy over people with black faces in silver screen minstrel shows.

It would be The Birth of a Nation that mirrors the birth of a nation scripted in lies, of a nation that was a self-proclaimed democracy where Black bodies are cast into a caste inhuman, with no contract for their bonded bodies that labored far removed from the words “all ‘men’ are created equal.” Still, there is more to Hollywood than just white men playing black men as hyper-sexualized, unintelligent manifestations of white dysfunction.

There are Asians in Hollywood played by whites too, in what is colloquially termed ‘yellowface’. There was the Charlie Chan series which commenced with an Asian actor but was then misappropriated by a white actor. Anna May Wong, who broke through the barrier of misogyny and fled to Europe, tired of being subjugated to white male orientalist exoticized villains. Early silver or white screen Asians were notoriously overlooked and under-booked for roles appropriated to typescripts of psychological imperialism to justify the physical imperialist policies of the United States and domestic attitudes about assimilation and nationalism. What is assimilation but playing a role of internalized subjugation until the weight of imposition is realised through the psyche?

Still, just in case you were white and you didn’t have enough on screen opportunities, there were ‘brownface’ roles. You could play the sexy hyper-sexualized ‘Chicano’ or ‘Chicana’ lover as portrayed by Italian actors. Alternatively, there is the ‘bandito’. No, not the Spanish word bandido meaning bandit, but the Italian word for bandit, bandito, in which indigenous or Mexican actors were portrayed as greasy criminals to varnish U.S. imperialist wars of expansion in Mexico. If you are lost and need a frame of reference, check out the Charlie Hebdo drawing of Arab men as hyper-sexualized criminal monkeys. Picture Mexican men buried up to the neck in the dirt while cowboys trample around on horseback kicking dirt in their faces.

It doesn’t stop there. Biblical on-screen adaptations of Egyptians were played by whites as well. The diverse intersections of culture arranged under the colonial lexicon of the ‘Middle East’ were all played by whites. South Asian people, though few and far between like today…played by whites. If you were a woman, you played the love interest of the man. If you were a Chicana woman, you played the hyper-sexualized woman chasing the white man, or the damsel in distress who was saved by the white man, unless the role called for a white woman being saved from the white man in brownface, or the bandito, I mean bandido. If you were South Asian, or Middle Eastern…you didn’t exist. The point is, that Hollywood, white people, the United States, have come a long, long way from those early days of jingoistic racist xenophobic, misappropriated, imperialistic days of erasure. As I sit here writing this, Joseph Fiennes, a white actor, is gearing up to play a black man named Michael Jackson. Wait, what? That’s just one bad example of the gloomy shadow of the past creeping into the present. Right now, as I write this, a white actress, Tilda—in defense of a white director who raped a minor, Roman Polanski—Swinton, is gearing up to play a Tibetan…Tibet is in Asia, right? Okay, enough.

It is obvious not only by the lack of nominees for the Oscars but mirrored in history as catalogued in the lack of roles, directors, screenwriters, wardrobe designers, producers, that Hollywood is now what it has always been: a patriarchal racist institution of xenophobia and imperialist jingoism. It is not a rebirth of hate reminiscent of yesteryear, and cannot be deflected by invoking the name Trump. It is an interwoven tacit and overt superstructure of hate that has evolved to sustain itself in the changing broad attitudes held by whites about themselves, their history, and lack of knowledge or understanding of history that combine with the machinations of contemporary cultural attitudes. Hollywood doesn’t operate in a bubble. It is the bubble.

By now, you are probably aware of #OscarsSoWhite, which took off when Jada Pinkett Smith declared she wasn’t attending the awards, thus prompting Spike Lee to officially call for a boycott of the Oscars.

It didn’t take long before this became a hot topic with numerous publications, and tweets galore. I mean, how does it look if a respected black woman and artist points out the total lack of representation, and everyone on the hill remains silent? Subsequently, this is exactly what it’s about—How does it look? How does it look if those who have made a living presenting an on-screen image as fixers—activists, rebels, and iconoclasts—comment on things they have no clue how to fix.

Janet Hubert, who played Aunt Viv opposite Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, whose conflict with Will and Jada sometimes went public, quickly fired back at Jada calling the boycott superficial given the reality of the world. Where was Jada for the past decade? Why now? Does the fact that the Academy snubbed Will Smith for his role in Concussion have anything to do with Jada’s recent activism? Then, Jada fired back with a video. Will fired back with a video. Charlotte Rampling entered the fray insulting ‘Black’ people everywhere with the exception of Stacy Dash, and Whoopi Goldberg. Stacy Dash, a regular Black utility for deflection at Fox Klan, said that not only should there not be a boycott, but that Black History Month and Black Entertainment Television (BET) were racist to the very people who omitted black history from textbooks, and the culture of black people from society, while co-opting black culture.

Subsequently, Charlotte Rampling published another article in which she clarified that her racist comments weren’t actually racist (Thank you, Charlotte, for clearing it up from your position of privilege a continent away). Julie Delpy got in her comments before the sunset by pressing that Hollywood treats women worse (wait till she finds out that there are Black, Latinx, South Asian, Middle Eastern and Trans women). Whoopi—the rape apologist, domestic violence apologist—Goldberg said she is “pissed” about the lack of diversity, but doesn’t think the Academy is at fault. Must be the fault of all those marginalized people of colour for not representing themselves from their position off screen. Matt Damon says there should be more diversity, and George Clooney rallied that call. Another article was written echoing Daniel Radcliffe’s contention that the boycott seems to be getting support. Subsequently, actress Gabrielle Union dismantled Stacy Dash’s comments calling Black History Month racist. This boycott has been the best thing to happen to Hollywood, and the white establishment maybe ever.

The good news is, in the middle of this storm that has generated more articles than Syrian children washing up on beaches or black women being murdered in police custody, is that the academy has voted to diversify. There will be more representation of Black, and people of colour in films. Which is great, right? The institution survives. Everyone wins.

The institution that has brought you racism, xenophobia, imperialism, rewriting entire histories while selling you beauty standards of fair and clear skin, body standards that speak to about 0.5% of the human population, and placements for products that are killing you and the planet, made by women slowly being killed in sweat shops, walks away unscathed. All the secondary markets that depend on white bodies, white Hollywood standards to sell products, can breathe. Even Saturday Night Live did a hilarious skit about the lack of diversity, and it was almost as funny as a show that has had ten black women hosts over the course of forty years doing a skit about the lack of diversity. That means, in all the Saturday nights for forty years ten black women have hosted the show. How many Asian Americans, or Asians in general, have appeared on Saturday Night Live you ask? Zero. I can’t even find a reference to how many Latinx women did, or probably didn’t appear on the show.

Even when the Jennifer Lawrence pay disparity was revealed, no one bothered to scale the disparity by identity. Oh, that’s right, we did. Latinx, and Asian women are even more disproportionately monetarily devalued, under- and misrepresented than Black women, and I don’t even know how that is possible. Trans representation in this golden age of awakening—scatters of white sand. Did all of this only become recognizable during the Oscars? No one noticed that all year long? No. Did no one notice all decade-long? No…Has anyone noticed that for the last hundred years of Hollywood the number of women from Latinx, Black, the diverse representation of Asians—East, South, South East, Central, Western—the diverse regions and cultures of Africa, the indigenous, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Muslims, Trans, LGBTQIA+, GQNB have had almost no representation in the film industry whatsoever? So, is it good news that a system of oppression, that perpetuates narcissism, celebrates colonialism, manufactures consent, while upholding and celebrating white hyper-masculine misogyny, remains unscathed?

The notion that this academy, with a canon of hate and greed, actually needed to vote to “diversify” given that the last ten years reflect the first fifty years is a joke in and of itself.

Women of colour around the world are defining independent films and circuits. We are seeing exciting breaths of oxygen about real subject matter, individualistic lens focused on narratives that view the world through the soul of organic characters, from all over the world. We see it at the Kolkata and Mumbai film festivals. We are seeing it emerge, because of new technology connecting the world, out of Ghana, Nigeria (Not just Nollywood), Uganda, and Kenya in cinematic representations. We are seeing it in Bangladesh’s long history of cinematic masterpieces. We see cinematic masterpieces coming out of the occupation in Palestine. We see women leaving Saudi Arabia and expressing their voices in expositions of cinematic innovations that show us forgotten ways of feeling. Egypt and Iran have a long tradition of cinema.

Why are we not uniting to shatter the cultural imposition of Hollywood? Oh, that’s right, it sponsors the deflection of material happiness sold by its beneficiaries—the military, cosmetic companies, fashion brands, tech firms, and cultural ideas about the world around us abridged to fit the gaze, and pursuits of those who have benefited most from it, those who sponsor the media and create the message. Now the media is the message. Marketing and public relations are the new activism. Controlling hearts and minds is the oldest propaganda. It’s time we send a message back to those who control the message about the hearts and minds we hold in trust for the future beyond the Hollywood anti-intellectual dystopia. We are sick of the way these women are treated. We are sick of the media. We are sick of the lack of ideas. Intuitions are not meant to last forever. It’s time for a new message, it’s time for a new media, it’s time for new institutions, it’s time for Hollywood to end its cultural monopoly. The only way we can secure the end of Hollywood, shattering the cellophane insulation marketing the message, is to unite behind women of colour cutting across the spectrum of gradations of melanin and cultures in a new message.