Alumni Oscars Op-ed: Change the Channel, Democratize Story Telling

Tau Zaman ’13 / Emertainment Monthly Contributor, Alumnus

Our understanding of the world around us is shaped by two things: that which we experience and that which we are told. Violence in the world comes from the failure to see the personhood in someone else. This is where stories matter. Stories outlive us: we pass them down to our children and grandchildren. They can shape future generations’ understanding of the world around them.

Film is an incredibly powerful storytelling medium in that way. But I worry about the stories the film industry is passing down to those who will come after us, that they don’t humanize those who suffer violence and prejudice, and instead echo the experience of only the privileged.
When we watch movies, we suspend our disbelief with magic, witches, and talking wolves. But there are certain things we dare not even imagine: for instance, our treasured fairy tale heroes being any skin color other than white. Seriously, search “Into the Woods cast” and see what Google serves up for you.

Photo Credit: Disney.
Photo Credit: Disney.
I asked some friends, “Why were there were no people of color in Frozen?” The response: well, the story is set in Norway, where people are predominantly white, so the cast was white too. Except the cast wasn’t predominantly white, the cast was entirely white. With the exception of some trolls, maybe? I’m not going to unpack why having people of color voice act the only non-human roles in a film is a problem, but even then, there are certainly people of color in Norway.
Upon bringing up this point, I was told, “But no, Frozen was in historical Norway.” To which I can only say that people of color have existed since the beginning of time, and certainly existed in Europe. You can even find them in historical art.
In any case, a black man in Norway just seems too implausible to people. That the film features a woman who can wield ice magic and create talking snowmen, is no matter.
Look at the lengths to which we’ll go to defend such exclusion. Who is brave enough to say, “because we don’t want to see people of color on our screen,” or “they are just not as beautiful or appealing to the eye” outright? It is so obviously the sentiment it may as well be said bluntly. It is said in all but words. All these justifications about why so-and-so could have only been played by a white person: they’re stories too. Stories we tell ourselves to push to the fringe any doubts we have about things we love.
I haven’t watched the Oscars for the last few years. I’m just tired of watching a group of people pat each other on the back for telling stories that never once sound like my own. In my life, I have literally never, ever, seen someone who looked like me on a screen. To be clear, I have friends in the Academy and friends whose family members have won Oscars, so I do not believe the Academy is inherently evil.
But I believe that injustice and prejudice do not need evil intent to thrive, only complacence.
So next year I encourage you to change the channel. It amazing how many people on Facebook decried that “the Oscars are racist” and demand better representation. Then, they proceeded to go ahead and share their prediction lists and live-status/tweet the show. If you believe the Oscars are racist, at what point does such injustice bother you enough to change the channel? At what point are you willing to let go of something you love to stand up for something you believe?
Photo Credit: Academy Awards.
Photo Credit: Academy Awards.
The Oscars are a night to celebrate the art of storytelling. When we celebrate by offering our most prestigious awards to stories which aren’t told by people of color, we reaffirm that white stories are the most compelling, the most artful, the most worthy.
I’ve heard a number of counter-arguments to this. For instance, “Why shouldn’t we celebrate the hard work of people who’ve earned their awards? Eddie Redmayne did an incredible job playing Stephen Hawking.” It implies a lot of things: one, that only a white person could play a white historical figure (if that’s true why can Angelina Jolie play Mariane Pearl, a woman of Afro-Chinese-Cuban descent in A Mighty Heart, then?). Additionally, it implies that by not watching the Oscars, we are somehow taking away his award. Why is it so important that Eddie Redmayne get his recognition, but it’s no trouble that David Oyelowo receives nothing?
By changing the channel you’re not taking away anything from Eddie. You’re making a statement that you want to celebrate stories told by more diverse voices, not the stories made, told, and celebrated by an organization that is 94% white and 77% male.
But! What about John Legend and Common singing ‘Glory?’ Breadcrumbs, only. It’s easy to believe this is some marker of progress when 2015 was the whitest year for the Oscars since 1998. A live performance assuring us that change is a’comin’ is cold comfort, when people of color are still only considered for awards when they play activists, slaves, and maids. But surely we need to celebrate the small wins, right? Are these even victories when we have Halle Berry, the only black Best Actress telling us the win did nothing to advance her career. And let’s not talk about Gabourey Sidibe going from Precious to Tower Heist.
The problem with Hollywood is not that there aren’t enough talented people of color. It’s that we systematically bar them from taking on characters and stories we believe are exclusive to white people. White people have “roomier” identities: they can play aging, washed up, has-been actors, women struggling with Alzheimer’s, a young all-American boy coming of age. These artistic endeavors are too ambitious for people of color it seems. It appears that struggles that these characters face are unique to the struggle of white America.
So change the channel. Am I saying boycott the Oscars forever? Certainly not. But you can demand that you’ll start watching when you see yourself represented in the stories it validates. In a capitalistic society, your viewership is your only vote.
But it’s not enough for us to deny the Academy our viewership. We have to put our dollars somewhere else. Abstaining from watching movies which don’t have people of color in them, in a world where most of the stories we’re told star exclusively white actors, would leave us with awfully little to watch. We’d starve without stories. So we have to seek them out. If you’ve seen American Sniper but you haven’t seen Selma, you are part of the problem.
So will skipping out on the Oscars and seeking out stories told by people of color really bring about any concrete change? I can only suggest that by demanding better and more inclusive stories that we can humanize those who suffer violence. So that the next time one finds himself about to harm another, he sees in that person a story. And in that fateful moment, perhaps a story can make all the difference.

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