Not unlike other sectors of American industry, Hollywood is notorious for its blatant racial discrimination. A half century ago, the wholesale exclusion of actors of color from the big and small screen alike was the norm.
Not only was there a dearth of storylines involving people of color but when the story specifically called for a non-white character, Hollywood regularly cast the part with white actors sometimes using heavy makeup to render the depiction more believable – think Burt Lancaster as an Apache or Katherine Hepburn as Japanese.
Then there were times when the character's racial identity was simply whitewashed, foregoing any attempt to disguise the actor's race – think Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. So pervasive was Hollywood's history of racial exclusionary hiring practices that when a person of color was actually hired, it was ground breaking.
Hollywood, which has long had a reputation for being politically liberal has never been racially liberal. It often condoned America's deeply entrenched racially discriminatory practices both on and off the screen.
When the blockbuster hit Gone With the Wind debuted in Atlanta, the producers learned that two of its stars, Hattie McDaniel (the Oscar winner who also happens to be the daughter of two former slaves) and Butterfly McQueen wouldn't be granted entry to the theater for the premier because they were black. Instead of standing in solidarity with the black actors and choosing to premier the film elsewhere, the studio execs told the two stars to stay at home. An interesting retelling of this story can be found here in a piece by Ronald E. Franklin.
Racial discrimination and exclusion has continued almost unabated to current times - think Kerry Washington, the star of ABC's hit “Scandal”, she was the first female black lead on a network television program in the United States for almost 40 years. And Lucy Liu, remains the go-to Asian American actress for both the large and small screen. Seeing an Asian American on screen is so rare that it was recently remarked that viewers were hard-pressed to even spot an Asian face in the audience at the most recent Golden Globe awards, let alone an Asian name among the nominees. Latinos don't fare much better. And the indigenous people of our land hardly ever make it into the racial discrimination discussion at all.
We've seen the harm caused by racial discrimination and segregation in housing, education, healthcare, and employment and we've enacted laws to mitigate those harms. Most can look back on the history of the United States and clearly see the wrongdoings. But why is it that we can so readily see it when we're looking in the review mirror? Why can't we seem to discern or address racial discrimination and the harm it produces when it's in the here and now? Aren't we just as capable of spotting it and taking action when it's right under our noses? I wonder.
Case in point – the movie, “Noah,” a film that received good reviews from several mainstream publications, including The Wall Street Journal and Variety, but notably was intentionally cast without any actors of color. Noting that the film shows a lot of diversity in the animal kingdom but no racial diversity in the cast, Christine A. Scheller asked Noah's co-screenwriter Aron Handle about the decision to use only white actors. In an interview carried by The High Calling, Handel responded that when casting Noah, race was considered. But, he went on to say,
“...this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise. You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, “Let’s make that not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman.”
If Handel had simply responded that it is mythical to say that the race of the individuals doesn’t matter, I wouldn't have written this piece. The first part of his quote was not problematic. But he should have stopped after that first sentence. The more he spoke, the more obvious it was that he was racially illiterate.
Lots of people don't have a problem with Handel's answer. Some have said that it was an inelegant but benign response to a question he probably wasn't prepared to answer - (given that whiteness is the norm in Hollywood, it's probably not a stretch to assume that Handel was caught off guard when the question was posed especially since the publication conducting the interview isn't one that caters to communities of color).
While his response may have seemed awkward but harmless to some, to people of color, Handel's remarks were anything but benign, especially to folks of color looking for jobs in Hollywood. It's widely accepted that Hollywood mirrors the mores of the greater society but it also helps to shape and re-enforce antiquated and harmful ways of viewing race. So for those of us -- inside and outside of Hollywood -- who have been on the receiving end of racial discrimination, Handel's words speak volumes. These are the words of a decision maker with power and influence, who is clueless when it comes to diversity. Sadly, he is not alone.
Four glaring issues immediately jumped out at me as I read Handel's interview. First was his statement that, the “race of the individuals doesn't matter”; second, the idea that white actors can be a “stand-in” for all people; third, the notion that by excluding actors-of-color race then becomes a non-issue as he said "Let's make that not a factor”; and, finally his remark that if you put "everything" in there you call attention to "it". The glaring contradictions will be addressed below but before I address those I'd like to talk about the unspoken beliefs that Handel laid bare.
Perhaps without being aware of it Handel articulated a way of thinking that is usually left unspoken. But judging from the appalling lack of diversity on the big and small screen, these beliefs are widely held. And while it is unsettling that we still battle with this problem in Hollywood, it bears mentioning that Hollywood simply reflects the broader society -- In other words, these beliefs extend way beyond the entertainment industry.
In my experience, it is these oft unspoken notions that separate most whites I've known from people of color and particularly from black people. These thought systems serve as an almost invisible wedge that sustains the racial divide mostly without the awareness of those who unconsciously espouse them. The notions that race doesn't matter, that white people can serve as the universal “people,” and that removing people-of-color from the equation or simply not discussing "it" makes race a non-issue -- all stem from a belief system that racializes everyone except white people.
Thirty years ago I doubt I would have known the word racialize. So allow me to go back a bit and explain, especially to those who are unfamiliar with the term and its meaning.
As much as we try to gloss over this, racial segregation and the harms it causes remains a constant in the United States. The truth is that most Americans live among people whose racial background is much like their own. As an African American woman whose formative years were spent within a black family immersed in a black community, I had little to no connections within the “white community”.
Except for what I saw on television or read in books, the lives of white people were separate from mine. However, that changed after reaching adulthood, launching a career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, getting married, going to law school, becoming politically and socially engaged in civic life and progressive activism – most of which has been done within the white community. And with the change, I began to see subtle and some not-so-subtle differences in the ways that the members of the community of my youth interacted with each other and the ways in which the people of my adult life interact with each other.
One difference, I spotted early on, may shed light and bring meaning to the word racialize. Within the black community, freedom to openly discuss race – and a lot of other things, was the norm. But when I became immersed in the white world I noticed that discussions of race seemed to be absent or, if discussed at all, was often done in hushed tones-- there seemed to be a discomfort around this issue that was new to me. One might assume that my being African American could have had a chilling affect on my white friends' freedom to talk about race in my presence. I don't dismiss this as a factor. But there was more to it.
First, to be clear, I'm not talking about full-blown racial discourse or race centered debates. Critical race theory is not what I'm talking about here. What I observed was very obvious outward displays of discomfort among white people when race is simply mentioned in mixed company. I've even seen this discomfort when someone has used the word white to characterize someone who is actually white. I've observed many white acquaintances dance around the word "white" when describing themselves or another white person -- they'll mention gender, hair color, eye color, height, profession or occupation, level of education, socio-economic status, manner of dress, age – any and everything except race when describing a white person. In fact, I came to understand that the absence of race in their description of someone usually meant that the person they were describing was almost certainly white.
In stark contrast, these same people, when describing a non-white person, would consistently list race first – often not mentioning any other attribute. So it was common that when describing a non-white person, race was the only description they'd use – as in, “do you know the black guy who ...” . If there was ever any hesitation in saying the word “black” it was usually because there was a fear of using the wrong word. I've had many a white acquaintance ask me which they should use - African American or black.
Coming from the black community, this business of describing someone by their race when referring to people of color but avoiding race when the person is white struck me as odd. Almost as if being white is being non-racial.
This became particularly striking whenever my husband (who is white) and I would attend social events with mostly white people. He'd be included in conversations on all sorts of topics. I wasn't invited into these conversations -- I'd have to inject myself. But if, by chance, a conversation somehow led to race, the room would quiet and I'd be the one everyone would look to. Sort of like that old E.F. Hutton commercial. It happened with such regularity I would jokingly tell my husband that of the two of us, I was the one who belonged to a race.
At the time I didn't have a word for “it”. The word racialize hadn't been incorporated into my vocabulary. But these observations informed me that the white people in my world were clearly able to see the multidimensional nature of white people but didn't seem to be able to include race as one of those dimensions while the converse seemed to be true with respect to white people's view of people of color. It appeared that they were challenged at being able to see the multidimensional nature of people of color and frequently would reduce them to nothing more than a race.
I took these observations to their logical conclusion - "racing" people of color while avoiding race when discussing whites – leads to the conflation of "race" with "people of color". Following this same train of thought, I began to understand why issues of race are generally thought of as not being a "white" issue. I'm no sociologist but I see racism and discrimination as social ills and believe they should be handled that way. The greater society had a hand in creating these ills and should be responsible for providing a remedy. More often than I can count, I've observed white people step away from discussions of racial discrimination as if to say "that is not my domain". These issues are typically left for people of color to solve.
Aron Handel apparently felt comfortable admitting to the use of racial discrimination when hiring the cast of "Noah". Perhaps he was able to disconnect that decision from anything involving racism or discrimination in his mind because -- as a white person, racial issues are not his domain. Somehow --using his logic, though flawed, – when people of color are not in the picture, you don't have race in the picture therefore there aren't any of the problems associated with race i.e. racism, racial discrimination, and possibly the whole host of issues that might arise from attempting to satisfy a multi-racial audience. He could just by-pass all of that by hiring the default generic humans. The ones whose presence doesn't evoke thoughts of race (this is meant to be ironic).
Noted anti-racist Tim Wise discusses this type of racialization in a piece he authored addressing opposition to racial diversification in literature curricula. Here is a snippet from Tim Wise:
… a push for diversifying the literature curricula in schools was met with howls of protest, even from liberal whites, who insisted the addition of "too many" authors of color would crowd out "the classics." That the classics were only "classic" because white scholars had deemed them so-and not due to some objective scientific standard by which great literature can be judged-escaped notice. That many of these classics were once considered junk fiction (like the works of Mark Twain for example) also went unremarked upon during the uproar.
White critics of the plan complained that black and brown authors' stories wouldn't be "universal" enough in the themes they discussed, signifying the way in which Eurocentric thinking supplants rational thought. Such an argument assumes that white folks' perspectives are sufficiently broad to stand in as the generic "human" experience, while persons of color have experiences which are only theirs, and from which whites can learn nothing. This is, truth be told, the essence of white supremacist thinking.”
I don't know Aron Handel and have no reason to believe that he has any racial animus. But his remarks reveal a deep lack of understanding of what modern-day racism looks like. His way of thinking sheds light on why there is a huge disparity in unemployment rates for whites vs people of color.
Whether we are talking the days when Elizabeth Taylor played the role of Cleopatra or today when Russell Crowe "stands-in" to represent every man, the outcome is the same - disproportionately high rates of unemployment for people of color in Hollywood and, by extension, everywhere in America.
Publisher - LA Progressive