by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
There is a scene in Peter Yates’ 1968 Bullitt, the iconic cop film starring Steve McQueen. After the witness placed under his care is shot and transferred to the hospital, where he is operated by a young surgeon, a power-hungry Robert Vaughn (playing Walter Chalmers) arrives at the scene to chew Bullitt’s head off and claim that the police was incompetent in handling the case. Suspicions on whether Chalmers’ was involved in revealing the victim’s location aside, the exchange that really stands out is the one between Chalmers and Dr. Willard, the young surgeon. Chalmers takes one dismissive look at him, asking whether the patient will be able to testify in two days before receiving a categorical no. Immediately after, and while Willard and Bullitt are in the same room, they overhear Chalmers demand that Willard be replaced. The nurse addressed by Chalmers defends Willard, affirming he is one of their best doctors, to which Chalmers responds that he is young and inexperienced. Back in the room, Willard and Bullitt exchange a meaningful glance, of mutual recognition and deep understanding. What I have omitted to state so far is that Willard is black (portrayed by Georg Stanford Brown). It is a subtle, but unmistakable moment in the film, leaving no doubt that Chalmers is really a racist prick, and not at all concerned with Willard’s ‘lack of experience’. Racism could be justified (but barely concealed) under a number of pretexts in a 1968 film, but it is heartening to see a black actor portray a doctor, instead of a gang member or street criminal.
One could argue that Hollywood has always recorded these societal tensions, whether with the explicit intention of condemning them or not. Under this light, it is interesting to consider the ongoing debate regarding the #OscarsSoWhite this year, referring to the lack of recognition for people of color in the 88th Academy Awards nominations. Picking up from last year, when films such as Selma were overlooked, this year’s debate led to a much-needed change in the Academy’s rules that will shake up the making of the voters’ body and that may, eventually, have an impact on future awards.
While many commentators have focused on the lack of nominations for people of color (this year’s could have included Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation, just to cite an example), a more productive line of criticism was voiced by director Steve McQueen, among others, who stressed that the problem is not simply the lack of inclusion come award time, but the limited participation in the process of choosing, deciding and making: “One could talk about percentages of certain people who are Academy members and the demographics and so forth, but the real issue is movies being made. Decisions being made by heads of studios, TV companies and cable companies about what is and is not being made. That is the start. That is the root of the problem.”
Indeed, the film industry is not representative, in its current state, of large segments of the society. I refrain from calling them minorities, as this often represents a white person’s point of view. Are Asians really a minority when one considers world population? Are women? Take for example Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Many have zeroed in on what is innovative about casting the characters of Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey is not a girl who is a Jedi; she is a Jedi who happens to be a girl. It is not the same thing. Her gender is not relevant anywhere in the movie, anymore than John Boyega’s color is relevant to the character of Finn. Their importance, especially given the film’s global blockbuster status, cannot be shrugged off as mere political correctness. The characters and the actors that portray them carry a symbolic weight that can hardly be underestimated as a precedent and a model.
The problem, therefore, is not one of individual merit, although the diversity conversation quickly got derailed towards that direction. It was as if the desire for equal representation (on behalf of millions of people) amounted to somehow impinging on the inalienable rights of the most deserving (white) people. While protesting around the time of the nominations may be strategic and geared towards raising awareness, the awards are the manifestation of a much larger issue. The phenomenon has been called systemic or institutional racism, but there is one caveat. It has to do with broader social inequalities that move beyond questions of race – or gender. Structural inequalities, such as poverty, that can be eliminated neither with political correctness nor affirmative action, may have more to do with who ends having access to what, and not just in the film industry. To once again turn to Walter Benn Michaels for an example, the important thing is not ensuring that rich white people do not get into Harvard because of their whiteness; the important is to realize that they do get into Harvard because they are rich. And as Nivedita Majumdar observes in her article on Bernie Sanders and the criticism he has received for his “supposed blindness to issues of racism”, the measures he proposes, such as free college education and higher minimum wage “would be enormous and weighted overwhelmingly toward working-class blacks.” As long as income inequality maintains people of color in subaltern positions, there can be no true racial equality. And the Oscars will continue to represent that.