Are Some Industry Insiders of Color Missing the Point of #OscarsSoWhite?

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As a writer for The Mary Sue, I often have to defend my work. After all, how can I justify writing about something as trivial as pop culture through a feminist lens (or that of race or class) when there are “real problems” in the world? The thing is, if we truly believe things like “The Pen is mightier than The Sword,” or in the power of art to influence minds (remember that “propaganda” is basically just art from the side we don’t agree with – and we all get up in arms about propaganda’s influence, right?), then we can’t call the examination and criticism of art and the systems that aid in creating it “unimportant.”

And yet, that’s what several people of color in the industry are doing regarding #OscarsSoWhite. While I understand how white people in the industry might miss the point because of ingrained personal biases and blind spots, it’s interesting to me that artists of color can miss the point for entirely different reasons. Now, obviously we are not a monolith – a point we here at TMS keep feeling the need to make, though we shouldn’t have to – and so not all people of color will prioritize the same things. However, I think it’s important to note a different point of view – particularly when the people missing the point aren’t necessarily those artists of color trying to create content, but performing in it.

#SpokenSunday #Oscar #poetry #DontBeDistracted OscarDamn! Look what they did to Oscar.Nah, not another trophy rant.I’m talking Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray.Why we trust what the news say anyway?It’s blasphemous, don’t get distracted by these lottery tickets and statues. It’s just fake gold and plastic.We come from Pharaohs with no masters.What happened? We went from golden tombs to closed caskets.The Black Plague, they want us to catch it.Just ask Magic, Malcolm, Martin, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby. It’s tragic. How the enemy can tear down our community and rewrite the history by highlighting our flaws.But let he who cast the first stone, who constitutes the new laws.Nah, I ain’t never seen Empire but I serve my own throne.What I look like begging them to let royalty into they home.As for me and my house, we’ll serve the Lord!We crying for votes but how many of us is on the board.Better yet, when’s the last time you showed up and supported the NAACP Awards?I want what’s mine, not yours.Fuck getting my foot in.I’m building my own doors.Hollywood mainstream don’t validate me, yo. Like Hov say, Save the accolades, just the doe.You in this show for the business, or this business for the show?Talent and brilliance? Hands down, man we got that shit. That’s why I told Chris, man go ‘head and rock that shit.You got the Juice now. Fight the Power.Hell yeah, I’m gonna watch that ceremony where they gonna let a black man be the Master for at least two hours. So don’t waste your voice, don’t waste your prayers.Save’em for the thousands killed in Nigeria, Kenya, The Philippines, Syria or right here in our urban areas.Low America.Nah, now no one cares.What about my mother raising a son while working three jobs and still equating to less than minimum wage?What about me being placed on medication before my system could age?What about that prison industrial system turning Brothers into new slaves?Where’s the outrage? Where the complaints at?Overcoming obstacles, definition of Black.Hashtag #facts.But I guess they don’t make no awards for that.Real talk.Real Kings don’t need no pats on the back.#Dontbedistracted

Posted by Nick Cannon on Sunday, January 24, 2016

Yesterday, via his Facebook page, Nick Cannon posted this awesome spoken word piece delivering his take on #OscarsSoWhite. His basic points being 1) Why are we so caught up in the issues in Hollywood when we don’t speak out about things like #BlackLivesMatter, lives lost in civil wars, or the US’s corrupt prison system, 2) People of color shouldn’t be distracted by being accepted by the mainstream, but rather, should support their own efforts by supporting things like the NAACP awards and the work of creators of color that is produced, and 3) Rather than worrying about prizes, people of color should be concerned with getting into positions of power and gaining financial independence.

He’s not wrong. However, the thing he’s not addressing is the fact that caring about #OscarsSoWhite and caring about all the other problems he talks about are not mutually exclusive. Humans are multi-faceted creatures! We are capable of caring about more than just one thing at a time. And if there’s one area that we prioritize above something else, we should definitely focus our attentions there, as it will likely be the best use of our talents and energy. However, that doesn’t mean we need to disparage those working on another piece of the puzzle. Some people are working on this corner, other people are working on that corner, but we’re all trying to put together The Big Picture.

Not only that, but what exactly is Nick Cannon’s activism in the areas he mentions? Is he doing anything beyond tweeting, directing films, and creating posts like these? Or…is he using art to try to change minds and make a difference – which is entirely the point of all this? The entire point of #OscarsSoWhite isn’t simply who gets a statuette. It’s not about prizes. It’s about who gets to participate. It’s about who gets their projects funded to create things. It’s about who gets the opportunity to tell their stories. Nick Cannon gets to make videos like this and have people watch them because of the attention and money he’s received through the Hollywood establishment, and he’s one of too few. #OscarsSoWhite highlights a symptom of a much larger problem, and it’s a way for us to discuss the concrete steps we can take toward eradicating that problem. It’s not people of color crying sour grapes about not getting accolades. It’s about participation in the Academy Awards ceremony being indicative of participation everywhere. Or the lack thereof.

Interestingly, he claims the Oscars aren’t important while also touting the fact that Chris Rock is going to be hosting and they’re letting “a black man be the master for at least two hours.” If mainstream attention doesn’t matter, why is Chris Rock hosting this awards show so important? Answer: mainstream attention does matter. It is important. Which is precisely why #OscarsSoWhite is not a frivolous fight. Media matters, as does representation and opportunity within that media.

Lastly, I don’t think Cannon did himself any favors lumping Bill Cosby in with Magic Johnson, Malcolm X, or Muhammad Ali. There, you have three flawed men…and a rapist. In the case of Cosby, it isn’t a case of how “the enemy can tear down our community and rewrite the history by highlighting our flaws.” Raping women isn’t a “flaw” the way cheating on your girlfriend or having a radical approach to your politics can be. His inclusion dilutes the point Cannon makes, which is a good one otherwise.

demian bichir

Today over at Deadline Hollywood’s Awards Line, actor Demian Bichir (The Bridge, The Hateful Eight) wrote an essay on the current diversity conversation. He seems hesitant to find fault with the Academy of which he is a member, even as he’s highlighting the very problems it has. After beginning with, “We Academy members do not determine who gets nominated within some sort of conclave. We all vote privately,” he proceeds to talk about the fact that “There cannot and will not be African American or Mexican artists nominated in the different categories if this industry doesn’t make enough relevant, transcendental, meaningful movies with more African American and Mexicans in leading roles.” Yes. That “before making any changes, we, the members of the Academy, will have to begin by taking the responsibility of voting seriously. Voting is a privilege. Watching every film should be an obligation, especially when voting.” Yes. Exactly. This.

And yet, he still feels the need for qualifiers like, “I am not a big fan of dividing art with “Latin this” or “’Black that.’ We are artists, period.” Yes, we are but we are artists of color who aren’t being given the opportunity to share our stories with the world because of deeply ingrained racial biases. We can’t immediately jump to the idyllic future where we “don’t care about color” before doing the messy work of realizing that “not caring” is what got us to this level of inequality in the first place.

However, he’s right to clarify that it isn’t only black creators and actors that are getting shafted in the entertainment industry, though even here, his point is kinda weird in what it leaves out. He says, “guess what, no Mexican actor has ever won an Oscar in the leading role category.” This is very true. However, a Latino has won Best Actor, albeit a looooooong (too long) time ago. That would be Puerto Rican actor Jose Ferrer, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1950 for Cyrano de Bergerac. Yup, we have to go back to 1950 to get to the first, last, and only Latino ever to take home a Best Actor Oscar. And it wasn’t even for playing a Latino role. Still, it happened. Sorry he wasn’t Mexican, dude.

Long story short, Bichir’s essay points out some solutions necessary to overcome the biases the Industry deals with. I only wish that he didn’t couch those solutions in qualifiers, seemingly coming down on #OscarsSoWhite as pointless.

And then there’s this this very specific response to Jada Pinkett-Smith’s call for a boycott of the Oscars by none other than Janet Hubert, who co-starred with Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and has also worked with Pinkett-Smith.

I had sooo much trouble with this video – mostly, because as much as she talks about #OscarsSoWhite distracting people from “real” issues, her own video seems distracted by her clear feelings of anger and resentment toward the Smiths. Jada Pinkett-Smith has since responded, and Hubert has clarified her original video (basically doubling down on her original intent).

But like Cannon above, I think she’s missing the point in that caring about #OscarsSoWhite and caring about all the other issues black people both within and outside of the entertainment industry face are not mutually exclusive, nor can they be. Media affects how people think. How people think affects how people act. How people act causes all those other problems Hubert and Cannon talk about, as well as affects what media gets created, which affects how people think…it’s a vicious cycle, one that needs to be attacked on all fronts if it is to be stopped.

(Images via Nick Step/Flickr, Frank Ockenfels/FX)

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Image of Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.