Safe white hands: Hollywood's problem with minorities in film

White men make films about the emancipatory struggles of everybody else. The final article in Transformation's liberation series.

Georgia Coles-Riley
11 June 2014
 Idris Elba with Justin Chadwick

Actor Idris Elba and director Justin Chadwick on the set of Mandela. Credit: The Canberra Times.

There are few evenings in my calendar as frustrating as the Academy Awards. My irritation starts with the red carpet parade, in which some of the most talented women in the world are assessed as fleshy retail mannequins for our viewing pleasure.

The climax is the speech in which an award winner weeps into the microphone in awe of the ground-breaking steps that Hollywood has made towards equality.

We have 'come a long way', they say.

But the fact is Hollywood is as male and pale as ever. For years now, angry film fans have berated Hollywood for its systemic failure to recognise and reward minorities, on screen and off.

In each awards season, one picture is heralded as a ‘new frontier’ in film-making. In 2011, there was The Help, a film that featured African American women at the centre of its narrative. Last year, The Dallas Buyers Club was celebrated for telling the story of a trans woman.

But the people behind these films - the writers and directors - were white, cis men. And the voters that sit on the Academy’s board are 94 per cent white and 76 per cent male.

What does it mean that 'minority' film-makers are being systemically jilted when stories of emancipatory struggles are being told more than ever before?

Theories of the 'male gaze' suggest that film audiences view characters from the perspective of the heterosexual male. This could be expanded to include the exclusion of other minority identities; Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses ‘The danger of a single story'. Telling every story from such a narrow, stereotypical perspective is dangerous.

2011 hit The Help (Dir: Tate Taylor), gave audiences a dip into recent black history by safe, white hands. It was written and directed by a white director, and its production team was also majority white.

Despite challenging the criminal paucity of roles for black actresses, seeing Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis both nominated for Oscars in acting categories, The Help's “$170 million box office set a new paradigm for how Hollywood wants it’s black pictures: uplifting, sentimental and inoffensive”, said Boyz in the Hood director John Singleton.

The film exalts white people as the integral ‘help’ of the black liberation movement, a theme that was reiterated in Tarantino’s popular 2012 outing Django Unchained. A film set around the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s could have shown any number of abuses by the white Americans who saw their black domestic servants as second class citizens. But instead it offered its young white star plenty of screen time to flex her empathetic tear ducts.

In contrast, Best Picture winning 12 Years A Slave is unrelenting in its presentation of the barbarism of whites who kept black people their prisoners for 246 years. It is also the most critically acclaimed black film of all time, although failed to make Oscar win history for its black British director Steve McQueen.

Slave was majority funded outside of Hollywood’s mainstream, and Brad Pitt was one of the film’s producers. Pitt makes an awkward cameo appearance as a concerned Canadian who is ultimately responsible for Northrup’s emancipation: the only sympathetic white person in the movie.

Pitt has defended his cameo, arguing that his appearance was to get funding. Although the inclusion of this narrative thread is true to the protagonist Solomon Northrup’s real life story, it's ironic that 150 years later, a famous white actor can impact on whether a film about slavery will receive support or not.

Brad Pitt White Savior

White saviour Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave. Credit: Youtube.

A few months after Singleton’s article was published, a film chronicling the life of the world’s most iconic black activist was released. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was written and directed by white British men William Nicholson and Justin Chadwick.

Mandela portrays a seemingly singlehanded deconstruction of Apartheid, focusing on Mandela’s marriage and side-lining his relationship with the radical activists who, like him, were willing to lay down their lives for the struggle. His friendship with the prominent ANC activist Walter Sisulu is reduced to a few lines of dialogue and we see less still of the teenage South Africans involved in the pivotal Soweto uprising.

The sun-drenched aesthetic of the film draws inevitable comparisons with Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic Gandhi, and reminds us that the stories of the world’s most prominent activists - both involved in challenging the oppressive actions of the British Empire - have been brought to us by white British men.

The Help director Tate Taylor is also set to direct the upcoming James Brown biopic, Get On Up. And so for the third time in the past decade, a white director has been hired to tell the story of important figures in black music history. The film follows Ray Charles’s biopic Ray (2004, Dir: Taylor Hackford) and The Supremes’ biopic Dreamgirls (2006, Dir: Bill Condon), which are both also written, directed and produced by white filmmakers.

James Brown famously wrote the song “Say it loud - I’m black and I’m proud”, which became the unofficial anthem of the Black Power movement. It even features the lyric“…And now we demands a chance/To do things for ourselves.”

At the 82nd Academy Awards Gabourey Sidibe missed out on a Best Actress Oscar for her stunning turn as the eponymous Precious in a film that tells the story of an abused and HIV positive 16-year-old black woman.

Instead, Sandra Bullock won that year’s Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of real life ultra-rich interior designer Leigh Anne Touhy, who adopted a poverty stricken black kid and nurtured his talent for football. In one scene in The Blind Side, Touhy is confronted by a peripheral black character who threatens her adoptive son. Her response is to announce that she is a member of the NRA and “in a prayer group with the DA [District Attorney]”, asserting her white privilege with a line that is intended to garner big laughs from the audience.

In the context of the racially motivated murders of 17 year old Trayvon Martin and 13 year old Darius Simmons by NRA members, this sits more than a little heavy in the stomach.

It would be easy to dismiss my complaints about the obnoxious politics of the film and to suggest that it was Bullock’s acting skills that were being applauded. But the Academy’s recognition of this film legitimatises the toxic racial politics at its centre.

Rayon Woodruff Dallas Buyer's Club

Woodruff watches Rayon in The Dallas Buyer's Club. Credit: Youtube.

And so to last years The Dallas Buyers Club, where cisgender actor Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of fictional transgender woman Rayon.

The problem is not just that Rayon’s role did not go to a real life transgender woman, but that it went to an actor as seemingly ignorant of trans* issues as Mr Leto. In an acceptance speech for Hollywood breakout performance, Leto makes a number of horrifically awkward jokes about his “smooth thighs” and “Brazilian bubble butt”, and goes on to refer to his character Rayon as a “beautiful creature”.

It isn’t just the awkward, severely misjudged ‘jokes’ that Leto makes that belittle trans* people: it’s the film itself. As filmmaker Eleven points out in her article for Autostraddle:

“The dynamic of Rayon serving as a catalyst for [central character] Woodroof, with little to no regard for her own desires, agency or even her life, persists throughout the film.”

The Dallas Buyers Club falls into the same trap as The Help - its Saviour Complex narrative is a reflection of the people who made it. Had a trans woman written the part, or at the very least been a consultant on the film, Rayon’s narrative - and indeed Rayon’s casting – may have been different.

This is not The Dallas Buyers Club’s only major problem. According to his real life friends, Ron Woodruff was - contrary to the film’s depiction of him as a red neck homophobe - openly bisexual.

Of course, films based on real life people often play around with the facts. But when you consider that The Dallas Buyers Club is only the second major film to centre on the AIDs crisis and comes 20 years after 1993’s Philadelphia, the decision to rewrite Woodruff as a bigoted heterosexual is a regressive, dangerous one.

If we continue to be shown the marginalised struggle through the mainstream lens, we will continue to be othered and misrepresented. Maya Angelou, the celebrated poet and author who was prominent in the American civil rights movement, has recently died aged 86. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a black woman director was attached to tell her story in a stirring biopic?

With Hollywood’s track record so far, it somehow seems more likely they’ll just attach Seth MacFarlane to the project, and Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’ will be translated into a song about the wonders of human breasts.

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