Veteran civil rights activist Al Sharpton has said, “Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains: the higher up you get, the whiter it gets.” Once again the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or the “Oscars”) is in uproar over its failure to nominate a single non-white actor for the awards. As this is the second year in a trot the black talent has been blacked out we have to assume that either white actors are just so good, or that something more sinister is going on. In an interview with Steve Ross of The Guardian Steve McQueen, the Academy Award winning director of 12 Years a Slave, suggested that the problem goes deeper than the nominations.
Of course it goes deeper than the nominations, and we need no more evidence of this than that English Oscar winner Charlotte Rampling could so confidently insist that the present furore was “racism against white people.” McQueen’s analysis that the issues stretch all the way to the people who make the decisions as to what movies to make, however, fails itself to go far enough. As ever, Twitter was all lights, camera, action from the start. Very quickly the tag #OscarsSoWhite morphed to encapsulate the wider frame of American society with the harder hitting tag #BlackOscarsMatter, echoing the entire drama playing out on the streets and highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. The Oscar goes to Racism.
Ùr-Fhàsaidh (@UrFhasaidh) January 25, 2016
Taking nothing from the brilliance of Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave, do we really imagine that the theme of this film had nothing to do with his nomination and Oscar? Is this all that black actors can be celebrated for – their Uncle Tom pandering to the guilt complex of white America? Around the world, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, we have learned from harrowing video images the true value of black lives in the United States. Nothing! Black children can be shot within seconds of the police’s suspicion being aroused, and all that is needed to arouse that suspicion is skin colour.
If black lives matter diddlysquat, are we to think that somehow magically black actors and directors’ artistic re-creations of the world in their art is of any more value? In Ireland we have an expression of disbelief: “Come off the grass!” One hell of an amount of grass is being smoked by the white-capped Hollywood mountaintop if this isn’t as plain to see by the gods up there as it is over here. This problem is a cancer that goes right to the heart of American culture, and we are deluding ourselves if we think that the most powerful vehicle of modern communication will be handed over to black voices. They might just tell the truth.