When Octavia Spencer was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help at last year’s Oscars, she received a standing ovation. She was overwhelmed. She won an Oscar for God’s sake! Tears streamed down my face, as I watched her attempt to utter her speech. She was dumbfounded by the award. I watched from the comfort of my home, elated. But my euphoria was biased. I was happier that a black person won an Oscar than the fact that Octavia Spencer won an Oscar.
Now this is not to say that Octavia did not deserve the award, everyone nominated deserves the award. I saw The Help, Octavia’s performance was mesmerising and she deserved the recognition she received, yet I was more motivated by the colour of her skin than her undeniable talent.
But I am not alone; those of colour will know what I am taking about. We may have evolved from black and white to colour but there just isn’t enough colour on in contemporary cinema and TV.
My euphoria was biased. I was happier that a black person won an Oscar than the fact that Octavia Spencer won an Oscar.
Looking back at recent blockbusters, there is a noticeable lack of ethnicity in many of the big earners. Magic Mike for example, despite its praise had no black strippers. Not a single one! What people of colour don’t take their clothes off for money anymore? Last I checked, not all strippers were white. Black guys have six packs too! And they can gyrate their hips just as provocatively as Channing Tatum.
I’m assuming the casting call for the movie was: young, hot males with six packs who can act.
They are a handful of ethnic actors in Hollywood that could have easily played one of the characters, yet they were overlooked.
Then there’s that atrocious What to Expect When You Are Expecting. A film based on a guide book for expectant mothers. Yeah good idea Hollywood! But I digress; this is not a criticism on the film but a criticism about the lack of diversity in the film.
Each character is supposed to represent all types of mothers. There’s the young mother, the older mother, the one who loves being pregnant and finds being with child a breeze and the one who doesn’t. But the only ethnicity in the film came from Jennifer Lopez and the brief appearance by Chris Rock.
No black mother, apparently black mothers don’t need to be represented in Hollywood. The only time black mothers need to be represented on screen is when they are being portrayed as stereotypes: the drug addicted mother who speaks in broken English, the single mother who is struggling due to the fact that her ‘baby daddy’ has walked out of her and child and so on.
According to Hollywood, black mothers don’t have stable relationships, they are incapable of bringing up a child in a stable family unit, no, only a white women and a Puerto Rican woman who have been airbrushed to look white are capable of successfully doing this.
Then there’s the Emmy nominated US hit show Girls created, written by and starring Lena Durham and produced by Judd Apatow which despite its praise was criticised for the its omission of ethnicity. Durham answered criticism stating that the show and the characters were based on her experience of Brooklyn, New York.
According to Hollywood, black mothers don’t have stable relationships.
Now there’s nothing wrong with this, at least she didn’t revert to writing stereotypes but when you set a show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, perhaps one of the most cultural neighbourhoods in the world and you fail to represent this personality trait of the location in your work then yes, expect to be criticised.
Then there are the Emmy nominations which were recently revealed. Only two people of ethnic minority were nominated: Archie Panjabi for The Good Wife and Sofía Vergara for Modern Family. In a world that people claim has come a long way; the representation that ethnic minorities receive from the media begs to differ.
It seems that the more the world progresses, the whiter our colour HD TVs become. Back in the day shows like The Cosby Show, Sister, Sister, Fresh Prince of Bell Air and many more proved popular amongst audiences, black and white, but today I find myself playing the game of spot the ethnic minority when I watch TV.
If writers don’t know about cultures other than their own, surely the thing to do is research it! Research should be second nature, but researching isn’t even always necessary. They are many roles that can be played by any race, yet the likelihood of it being given to an actor of colour is growing slimmer and slimmer.
When Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor, fans of the comics were in uproar! How dare you cast a black man? In the comics Heimdall is white! Their rationale for their insensitive comments was that black people would be pissed if a white man played Martin Luther King in a biopic.
Well yes, Martin Luther King was a real person not a work of fiction! His race is integral to his story you idiots! Beside, Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra, Cleopatra was not white!
Ben Kingsley played Ghandi! A real person, who was not white! So what if a black man plays a fictional character that was white in the comic books? When the comics were created, segregation was a norm!
Today I find myself playing the game of spot the ethnic minority when I watch TV.
Then a few weeks ago, the internet nearly broke down when news spread that Louis C.K. cast a black woman to play the mother of his white children in his US hit comedy show Louie. When asked about his ‘outlandish’ casting choice Louis C.K. said: "If the character works for the show, I don't care about the racial..."
If only more and more Hollywood casting agents were like this! Who gives a fuck what colour their skin is? What matters is that they can act and that they are cast first and foremost because of their talent unless the role calls for someone of a specific race.
As a black consumer of the media, I have no problem watching white people; I do it all the time. Despite its lack of diversity, Girls is a brilliant show and deserves the praise that it has received. Racially I may not relate it but as a young arts graduate trying to make it in the city it speaks to me.
But I feel that I need to speak about this issue, because as Kimberley Seals Aller wrote in an article concerning the lack of ethnicity on Hollywood for the New York Times: “...how we come to understand the world is a function of the pictures in our heads and that the media play a crucial role in the formation of these images...”
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