Are the Oscars still #SoWhite? Green Book and the white saviour problem in Hollywood
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With the 91st Academy Awards taking place a few weeks ago, diversity and representation are two big issues that will no doubt continue to be widely discussed for the rest of the year. Hollywood may seem to have made progress in recent years - but how much has actually changed in the four years since #OscarsSoWhite took over the internet?
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Marvel’s record-breaking 2018 film Black Panther has not only shattered box office records but also has been praised for a predominantly black cast, providing a great start to the conversation about representation on screen and behind the camera. Whilst Black Panther managed to not only break box office records, it also managed to become the first comic book film to receive a Best Picture nomination. Spike Lee’s film BlackkKlansman also received a nomination in this category.In a win that brought shock and surprise to many, Green Book was awarded Best picture, upsetting heavy favourites such as Vice and The Favourite. The story focuses on pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his bodyguard Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as the unlikely duo depart on a concert tour of the deep south.
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Despite these recent strides forward in racial representation, race and ethnicity have remained a major talking point in awards season - and in the Oscars in particular - in recent years. To the casual viewer it might seem as if the representation campaigns have been successful, and that representation is on the rise - however, this isn’t exactly as it appears.
At the very start of award season, the BBC released a video probing deeper into the issue of diversity and representation on screen, particularly in Oscar-nominated films. It tells us that #OscarsSoWhite started emerging in 2015, due to there being no ethnic minority acting nominees for two years in a row. After the campaign gained lots of traction in both popular culture and social media, the Academy bounced back and began to even the scales of nomination and representation, including taking more steps to include further representation within its voting body.
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However, we know from looking at the maths behind the Oscars, that the Academy’s demographic is still heavily made up of old, straight, white men. If these are the majority of the voters, films like last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight, this year’s Blackkklansman or even Black Panther have less of a chance of being recognised at major award shows. Lack of understanding is likely to lead voters to view such films as being less serious contenders, or less worthy of votes. Changes are being made, but they don’t seem to be coming fast enough.
Many recent films, such as Lion, Hidden Figures and most recent Best Picture winner Green Book, seem to be at a first glance shining examples of representation within Academy-nominated film. However, if you look a little closer they all involve a very familiar “white saviour” trope.
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This “white saviour” trope, most recently found in Green Book, involves a white character rescuing people of color from their plight. Often black characters are used as a device for the “white saviour” or protagonist to learn a lesson or have a transformation over the course of the story. Whilst Green Book tells the story of real-life musician Don Shirley, the film really puts the majority of the focus on his white Italian-American driver Tony. Through the film we see Tony start to change his views as he starts first as something of a racist, and then transforms through the story, ultimately learning a lesson about equality and making friends with Shirley along the way.
The film’s director, Peter Farrelly, spoke with Entertainment Weekly about the controversy surrounding the film, stating that he’s “glad” the film has sparked a discussion about race. Commenting on the white saviour concerns, he said he was aware of this angle “before I ever started shooting.”
While it can be easy to poke holes in a few well-known films, the issue goes beyond that. The entertainment industry, and Hollywood in particular, is still not truly representative. Until very recently, a large majority of the films being made were not reflected nor representative of the audience that was going to see them. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign may have helped to push this issue to the forefront of people's minds, but only time will tell if this is an issue that the entertainment industry will take the time to seriously address in the long-term.
Lead image credit: PublicityUK