Op-Ed: Beyond #OscarsSoWhite, Hollywood needs to confront historic racism on the big screen
Around the time I was 13, in the early 1980s, I started watching movie screeners with my uncle, Gene Wilder. The screeners, sent from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, were provided to academy members for consideration of Oscar nominations.
Gene had been a member since being nominated for best supporting actor for “The Producers” in 1969. We would binge watch 20 or 30 over a month before he began voting.
Throughout my childhood I was in love with movies and enthralled with classic American and international films. But I slowly soured on the American ones.
Nearly without fail, whenever my uncle and I would pop a classic movie into the VHS player, some ruinous and racist image of the happy bellhop, cheerful slave or servant, seldom speaking but ready to tap dance, would emerge. Gene could see the disappointment in my face and know I was thinking about the pain these images would cause me and the African American side of my family.
The new films we watched in the 1980s were not much better. Many came with new stereotypical images or an absolute neglect of people of color. Gene grew to understand this issue well through one of the men he admired most personally and professionally, Sidney Poitier, who became an early mentor to me. My uncle and I talked about this problem nearly every year around Oscar season.
Then, as now, the issue was not about creating an awards quota, but the lack of equal opportunity for people of color to create and exist within this art form on both sides of the camera.
When I was nominated to join the academy in the director category in the early 2000s (under its previous system), I declined. It was not easy, since my life has been a love affair with cinema. But it never occurred to me to accept. Joining that club at that time would mean agreeing to or at least acquiescing to the organization’s blatant disregard of negative images and its neglect of inclusive opportunity.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t about blaming an earlier generation for views common in its day or asking artists to know what tomorrow’s sensitivities might be.
Those earlier characterizations of people of color in movies were not merely cases of harmless ignorance, but a form of cultural violence. They were consciously created to legitimize hateful attitudes and make acceptable levels of social oppression with full knowledge of their effect.
The academy, an organization that has its origins as a marketing instrument, knew — just as the studios knew — exactly what images they wanted to put out into the world and into American commerce.
I would never suggest that such scenes be removed from films (much as any attractive or competent images of African Americans were removed for theaters in the South, while the running time of happy slaves was lengthened) or that any of these films be censored or denied recognition for their storytelling.
But it is my strong hope that the academy, which is opening its own museum in Los Angeles, will honestly confront its own history and role. The museum could include a permanent exhibit that shows the painful images on the big screen that were used to support and maintain a system of dehumanization. Certainly, many academy members would decry such a history when it exists in fields and institutions outside our own medium.
The academy needs to embrace, not fear, inclusion. The demand that the cinema reflect all of us won’t go away, because it still has the power to tell us who we are.
Jordan Walker-Pearlman is a director, writer and producer. He is a co-founder of the production company MoJo and is currently filming “The Jazz Griots.”
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