Lupita Nyongo rose to fame with her role in McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Having won the Oscar for best actress in a supporting role, her acceptance speech reflected her disappointment in the industry: “The Awards should not dictate the terms of art in our modern society, but rather be a diverse reflection of the best of what our art has to offer today”. With the Academy being perhaps the most famed and best established “judge” of the film industry, surely it must have a responsibility toward representation?
But what does our art have to offer today? And, as Clooney said, what opportunities do minorities have in quality films? And let me clarify, in this case by quality I mean the big budget Hollywood ones everyone watches at the cinema, with the enormous marketing campaigns and the big names. Even then, when and if the roles do come up, who on earth is getting them all?
I say all because there seem to be a select number of “go to” minority actors who will play anyone remotely racially related, and sometimes not even that.
I wonder what conversation is being had in the studio… “Let’s make a film about China and cast Jackie Chan!” or “Let’s make a film about a Nigerian doctor who discovered how soccer players suffer brain injuries and concussion – and cast Will Smith! Makes perfect sense.” True story.
A recent controversy has been that surrounding the new biographic film Nina. With the documentary What Happened Miss Simone being nominated for best documentary this year, the film is a hot topic.
Ms Simone was the first Black classical pianist to ever play the Carnegie Hall. She was a militant Black Rights supporter, rallying with the likes of Malcolm X. She was extremely proud of her heritage and a strong advocate for embracing her physical attributes as a Black woman. To her, Black people were “the most beautiful people in the whole world” and she felt a real responsibility to push people to identify with lack culture and to “make them more aware of themselves and where they came from.” She saw the African civilisation as a culture second to none, and fought that people should know about it.
Did Hollywood get any of that? Nope. Nada. Why? Because they cast Zoe Saldana. What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Everything. In a country where to be Black means to be criminalised, under represented and often considered as disposable, this is a real slap in the face. Zoe Saldana might be Black, but here comes the controversial question: is she Black enough? I don’t think so, and here is why.
Nina Simone was dark skinned and proud, with full lips, a broad nose and beautiful textured hair, none of which are attribute Saldana possesses. Instead she has to resort to a wig, darker makeup and an offensive prosthetic nose. It really does beg the question: even if there are roles for Black women in the industry, why are they being given to light skinned, slim nosed, sleek haired Black women? Maybe because they conform more to the standards of beauty dictated by white society over the last few centuries. Their features put them into a category of “accepted Europeanness” and grants access to many of the freedoms that come with the title. It’s not that these women should not be cast in roles, or that mixed race or lighter skinned women should be discriminated against, but where are the dark skinned women at? And I can’t accept Twelve Years a Slave as an answer because it’s an accepted context and narrative. We can accept a dark skinned slave, why not a dark skinned Nina Simone, a genius? The late artist was quoted saying she would like to be played by someone like Whoopi Goldberg, another woman who embraces her blackness, and, incidentally an advocate for boycotting films that don’t represent.
Why do we have to create “Black” or “minority roles anyway? Look at Annie (2014), multiracial cast, makes no difference to the plot. Yes some roles are race related, but they don’t all have to be… Casting directors need to lose the stereotypes and realize that ethnic background does not imply much when it comes to a vast majority of roles.