In today’s media climate, there’s no experience more vexing — yet routine — than watching a legitimate complaint about diversity, exclusion, or injustice gain traction and momentum, and then promptly expose the bigots and reactionaries who cannot handle any of said complaint’s implied critique.
Witness the downfall of one Charlotte Rampling, veteran thespian and doyenne of this year’s Best Actress field for her turn in the film 45 Years, who felt compelled to weigh in with fervor about the controversy over the Oscars’ near-total lack of diversity this year. It’s an omission so stark, let us note, that the higher-ups in the Academy themselves have acknowledged the problem and are trying to work on it.
But Rampling had other thoughts during an interview with French radio station: “It is racist to whites,” she said of the recent spate of protests that the Oscars snubbed actors of color, launching thousands of incredulous reactions. “One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list,” she continued. “But do we have to take from this that there should be lots of minorities everywhere?”
Not to be outdone in tone-deaf awfulness, her countryman Michael Caine had some thoughts of his own, only marginally less offensive. He addressed the matter by saying that patience would win the day for actors of color because, hey, it worked for him, and also, “In the end you can’t vote for an actor because he’s black.” Caine’s cranky old man qualities were even more apparent than Rampling’s in his interview, since he also complained that he didn’t want to fly halfway across the world merely to “clap Leonardo DiCaprio” (OK, we’ll give him that).
What Rampling said was particularly pernicious, and probably reflected the secret thoughts of many white and older voters who are baffled by this new emphasis on social equality in the film world. Anonymous interviews with Academy members in The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly revealed a lot of dismissiveness towards films like Straight Outta Compton and defensiveness about race in general that very much echoed the attitude Rampling and Caine expressed. As Slate’s Aisha Harris noted, it’s “the same argument used by affirmative action opponents… and by average white people like Abigail Fisher who assume that people of color only get rewarded for being people of color, not because they may actually be — gasp — deserving of their reward.”
These dismissive remarks are not only ignorant and representative of troubling strains of thought; they’re also insulting to talented performers and directors of color including Lupita Nyong’o, Steve McQueen, David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, and Viola Davis, who have all spoken up either in this context or in others with insightful and personal thoughts about discrimination in the industry and how it can be remedied. To those who live it, Hollywood’s diversity problem is not manufactured by the media. The fact that these talented luminaries’ earned perspective is being ignored is only more evidence that there’s a widespread problem.
This series of culturally illiterate statements has naturally got the public on edge, worrying about what clueless comment will emerge from which white actor’s mouth next. The Oscars are always good at showing us how capable our favorite thespians are of pandering, shallowness, and narcissism, but this diversity controversy seems to be revealing how capable some of them are at being racist, too.
To their credit, some white actors have chimed in with more reasonable responses. George Clooney accurately noted that the problem is with the industry more than the awards themselves. “How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?” he asked. Reese Witherspoon posted on Facebook that she was“disappointed that some of 2015’s best films, filmmakers and performances were not recognized,” and added, “I would love to see a more diverse voting membership.” Mark Ruffalo’s statement went the furthest, praising the boycott and urging people concerned about the Oscars to participate in Black Lives Matter protests.
This is all very well and good, but what white allies in Hollywood could be doing — beyond making encouraging statements — is actually working on amplifying the voices and work of their peers of color. Producing work with diverse casts, refusing to participate in all-white projects or events, or even just talking to the media about great work by under-appreciated minority and queer colleagues is even more important than clearing the fairly low bar of sounding off and making themselves sound more enlightened than Rampling.
As Viola Davis — who is emerging as one of the strongest and most sophisticated voices on the issue — said to Entertainment Tonight, “How many black films are being produced every year? How are they being distributed? The films that are being made, are the big-time producers thinking outside of the box in terms of how to cast the role? … Can you cast a black woman in that role? Can you cast a black man in that role?” She also brought up the pay and funding issue, which is key. “You could probably line up all the A-List black actresses out there [and] they probably don’t make what one A-List white woman makes in one film,” Davis said. “That’s the problem. You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?”