By Marlos C. Santos
“In the dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers.”- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
As a kid from the ’80s, I was raised on a steady diet of television and movie heroism. It was the Golden Age of Saturday morning cartoons where the Thundercats, He-Man, the Real Ghostbusters, GI Joe and countless other toy-franchises-turned-cheap-animated-series reigned supreme. It was when movies all had the same main protagonist. You know the guy, the plucky, dirty blonde, blue-eyed underdog—the Teen Wolf/Marty McFly/Han Solo/Luke Skywalker/Peter Venkman kind of guy. He wasn’t the smartest, or the strongest, but he was always clever, and brave, and more than a little lucky. He also looked nothing like me.
The first generation kid of a black mother and white father, both from Brazil, I carried the idea of race on my back long before I even knew what it was. My parents were from a place where despite seeming like a swarthy and mixed country, basking in white beaches and abundant brown asses, things were racial in ways Americans didn’t get. Think about it: a country with two-thirds the population of the US, with the majority of the ethnic makeup being people of color. And despite the vast African influences on language, music, dance and sports, being black in Brazil usually meant that you were poor, and you’d hardly ever see people like you on TV. That is unless they were playing the help, or thieves, or slaves. Even the cartoons I’d watch during my trips down there were dubbed Japanese and American imports.
This is why a shared post about a 4-year-old black boy in Brazil caught my attention. The boy, Matias, captured the collective hearts and likes of tens of thousands of Brazilians on Facebook when his mom posted a picture of him with his favorite toy, Fin from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He was in love with the doll even before seeing the movie or having any cultural context for loving Star Wars. He was simply in love with a toy that was, as he put it, “black just like me.”
Now here I am, a 33-year-old nerd who had grown up with Star Wars as part of a borrowed nostalgia. I didn’t really identify with any of the heroes, but was still intrigued by the hero’s journey. If anything, seeing the blue eyed, blonde haired Luke as the only possible proxy for me was kind of jarring. My own self-image didn’t match that ideal, or any others in pop-culture.
Matias, however, would have a different future. He could see himself in John Obayega’s Fin. He had a hero he could not only look up to, but also see in himself. He wouldn’t have to negatively compare himself to white toys and characters the way his mother did. Just thinking about the story brings tears to my eyes. But why? The picture of a kid in love with a toy isn’t particularly remarkable…if he’s white.
Representation is important. It is one of the key components in the identities we construct for ourselves. Left without the reflections of the ever-so-necessary mirrors of cultural representation, we are stuck looking through windows, gazing in from the outside and seeing only the ways in which we are different. And those who are lucky enough to be represented, to have heroes, can never understand the importance of it. They take that simple privilege for granted.
This is the heart of #OscarsSoWhite.
I never gave a damn about the Oscars. I thought the whole thing was a frivolous show of back patting, more business than art. How else could Shakespeare in Love have gotten so many nominations in 1999—and beat out Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture? But when I had first heard that this would be the second year in a row there would be no acting nominations for people of color at the Academy Awards, I was angry. More than angry, I was outraged. It was as if something had finally snapped in me.
Maybe it was that in a year with so many great and varied performances by people of color—from Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina to Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation—we would be snubbed by the Academy yet again. Maybe it was residual anger from spending the last couple of years (and really a whole lifetime) witnessing the struggle to prove that black lives matter. Or maybe it was my own growing awareness of identity and representation. I had, thanks to the encouragement of my loving partner, been engaging on a newfound journey of literary self-discovery and having recently read James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates I felt armed with new knowledge and purpose. Whatever it was I knew one thing: I was woke. Too woke to put up with another year of all-white Oscar winners. So I decided to boycott the show and campaign to encourage others to do the same.
Why bother though? What did it matter in the grand scheme of things? Didn’t we have enough to worry about with all the mass shootings, police shootings, elections, viral outbreaks and criminally negligent governors to bother with something as vapid as an awards ceremony? But that’s the rub. Whether we like it or not, the Academy Awards mean something. With a worldwide viewership estimated at “several hundred million,” according to the Academy itself, it is the single most recognizable accolade on the planet; bigger than the Grammys’, the Emmy’s, the Tony’s, and sadly even the Nobel Peace Prize. In other words, that little $400 gold statuette is the most familiar award in the entire planet second only to the World Cup.
Well beyond the thrill of being renowned for artistic achievement, this kind of global recognition has its advantages. Known as the “Oscar Bump,” films that receive Academy Award nominations will see huge spikes in box office numbers.
The aforementioned Shakespeare in Love had only made about $36.5 million in the box office prior to its nomination. After getting nominated the film more than doubled its revenue up to $73.1 million. The wins on Oscar night garnered an additional $27 million in ticket sales. Million Dollar Baby is perhaps the biggest winner though, originally only pulling in $8.5 million, it eventually raised over $100 million after its win. And this is only the box office. According to Reuters, these films usually go on to see an increase of post-release DVD/Blu-Ray sales of 30%. The money doesn’t stop there though.
A star that walks off stage with an Academy Award will get a 20% bump in offers on their next project, and comparable raises and access are awarded to directors and producers as well. Winning Best Picture, Director, Editing or even Best Sound can lead to a gain in US Box Office of over $10 Million. And with box office attendance dropping so steadily thanks to the prevalence of technologies like cheap flat screens and streaming services, it’s no wonder the film industry is leaning so heavily on the Oscars. Why else would the Academy have expanded the number of Best Picture nominees all the way up to ten?
According to a 2013 U.S.C. Annenberg study on the Race and Ethnicity in popular films, despite being an astounding 46% of the movie going public, people of color made up only 25.9% of the speaking characters. Nearly a fifth of the films depicted no Black characters with speaking roles. Worse still, “Latinos represent only 4.9% of speaking characters yet they purchase 25% of all movie tickets (20.1% difference) and command roughly $1 trillion in spending power.” This of course doesn’t take into account the types of roles these actors are often forced to play. Hollywood is still made up of a litany of bad cultural stereotypes, from the Indian cabbie/clerk/scientist, to the Black thug/slave, or the Muslim terrorists, and of course all the hyper-sexualized women across the racial spectrum who make up less than one-third of speaking roles. The truth of the matter is that people of color are dangerously underrepresented in film and there doesn’t seem to be anything pointing to that trend changing, especially with the way the Academy members have treated this year’s films from people of color.
It’s not as if there weren’t excellent films featuring people of color this year: Tangerine, Beasts of No Nation, Dope, Ex Machina, and Sicario. All of these films had scored as high if not higher than the nominated films on rottentomatoes.com. Yet despite their critical (and commercial success) none of these films were deemed worthy of nominations. Well that is not entirely true. The Revenant was helmed by Mexican film director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. Creed and Straight Outta Compton were also nominated, albeit only for the white Best Supporting Actor and Screen Writers, respectively. This in a year with a record breaking number of Best Picture nominees.
In fact, in light of the outrage over #OscarSoWhite, the Academy has voted in new policies limiting voting terms, which their President Cheryl Boone Isaacs hopes will end up “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” Currently there are over 6,000 Academy Award voters—94% white, 76% male and all an average age of 63. So even if these changes were implemented we would still only be looking at a drop in the bucket in terms of representation for people of color. Regardless, it seems as though everyone in Hollywood is acutely aware of the problem. The only issue is that we as the consumers have not caught up, and we still hold on to the myth of the merit behind an Oscar, which appears to only fuel the great monochromatic Hollywood machine.
So what did I hope to accomplish by boycotting the Oscars? Did I hope to end the vicious cycle of cultural imperialism? That the studios who claim they can’t make money overseas with black people as leads would crumble under the power of the people? That they would institute affirmative action casting in films, casting by racial quota? Or that maybe we would forge on to create a Black Oscars? No. Of course not.
Honestly, I initially hadn’t thought that far ahead. It wasn’t a plan for change. It was a gut reaction that drove me to look for others who want the same things. We all want Hollywood to recognize our diversity beyond stereotypes. We want to be more than slaves and maids, playing out narratives of oppression to show “how far we’ve all come.” We need more superheroes and scientists and princes. We need to be a part of the dream. Maybe that way stories like that of Matias wouldn’t feel so remarkable.