Seeing in Black and White: Hollywood’s Race Problem

Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Film.

Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

It seems society has finally begun to notice and appreciate the work of all races in society. But why has it taken so long for us to get to this point? Have we actually moved beyond race as a determining factor for greatness at all? To be blunt – apparently not.

Everything from literature to politics is riddled to the core by our white past. In March of this year, the Royal Society of Literature released a report on ‘Literature in Britain Today’ – “Out of 400 writers named by the public as writers of literature, half are living, 69% are novelists, 31% are female, and 7% are Black, Asian or Mixed Race.”

‘Under-represented’ is a slight understatement. When we think of authors who have works in the literary canon, the obvious names come to mind. Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte sisters… the list goes on. It’s quite frankly populated by caucasian writers. But why is it that we know so much about Shakespeare but so little about Phillis Wheatley, Maya Angelou or Alex Haley, all of which are notable black writers from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries? The Royal Society of Literature has the answer:  Readers of literature are more likely than others to be white, to be female, to come from higher socio-economic groups.

Literature is not the only art form subject to white traditions. As of the past two years, black directors and casts were a rarity in Hollywood. Often low-budget and never hitting box office records, films about the struggle for rights of ethnic minorities were never truly noticed, nor in the media spotlight. Such an effect can be seen particularly through actors and casting roles. One of the most ongoing and controversial is the debate surrounding the next James Bond actor. Suggestions of Idris Elba supposedly taking the role were met with outrage; “James Bond cannot be black because he has always been white.”  Just because something has ‘ALWAYS BEEN’ does not mean it ‘ALWAYS NEEDS TO BE.’ Similarly, the Harry Potter fan world exploded when a black actress was cat as Hermione Granger for the stage show of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The decision was first met with backlash – as is expected. Yet J.K. Rowling was able to shut down racist criticism.

Whilst Rowling was praised for hiring a quality actress, regardless of race, a more recent case of casting in the cinema had a very different outcome. The Great Wall was met with hostility when it emerged that Matt Damon would be playing a role in the film set in China. There was outrage over the fact that Damon is not, in fact, Chinese. Whilst this shows promise of society being able to move away from the traditions of cinema dominated by white men, this case still appears no closer to greater race acceptance.

Literature and film are only a portion of society impacted by a ‘whitewashed’ tradition. Take politics for example, America have only every had one black president and there UK has never had a non-white prime minister. We are still getting over the fact that we have a woman in office. What century are we living in?! In 2008, Obama made history and was the figurehead for a future of racial acceptance and was deemed the healer of America’s racial divide. Yet in 2017, Donald Trump represents an atavistic turn towards racial segregation and discrimination akin to that of the 60’s. His famous phrase, Make America Great Again is evident enough of the white dominated past that we used to live in and that Trump is threatening to bring back. It is for this reason alone that events such as Moonlight winning the Oscars stand for huge achievements; they are battling in a world where the white past is no longer the past, but an increasingly threatening future.

We like to think we are a society that promotes cultural and racial diversity, but surely the epitome of such a society would be indifferent towards the race of a new political leader or the cast and director of an award-winning film? If they’re black, cool. If they’re white, that’s cool too, right? The truth remains that the whole world is still stuck in a traditional past that was dictated by white domination. It’s time to start living in a world which celebrates different races. Let’s stop living in a world of white-wash. What’s wrong with multi-coloured anyway?

Originally published in Quench Magazine, Issue 163, pp. 18-19

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