22 January 2016

Race, actors, representation

The 2015 Oscars, much like those of 2014, have not nominated any blacks (or, save Inarritu, minorities) in any categories. While black groups are acting on this with boycotts and editorials, the primary social presence is via the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. This is on its face a statistical oddity, so what representation would we expect based on the racial makeup of the US? The Wikipedia article on this, excluding measurements of mixed race, provides several groups of slightly different percentages. The first group comes from the article header representing census numbers, the second from the section on racial makeup representing estimates:

  • White - 62.6%
  • Hispanic (ethnic) - 17.1%
  • Black (race) - 13.2%
  • Other - 7.1% (remainder from the above)
  • White - 63.0% (2012 est.)
  • Black - 16.3% (2014 est.)
  • Hispanic - 14.1% (2012 est.)
  • Asian - 4.4% (2008 est.)
  • Other - 1.2% (remainder from the above)

Going with these numbers, we are ignoring actual minority participation in the acting community (i.e. there are probably no Quaker bankers, few white rappers, etc.), barrier to entry (here's where racism comes in to play), and representation in high-quality and possibly well-financed films (if there is a ghettoization of a minority, participation and support of projects becomes extremely problematic). Also, and perhaps more importantly, we are assuming that artistic skill is distributed evenly across humans no matter the race or ethnicity (or gender or left-handedness, etc.). Given that best and supporting actor and actress categories have five nominations each, any racial or ethnic minority would need 20% of the population to make a slot statistically representative (I suck at statistics; are there issues with this logic?). Blacks and Hispanics are under that 20% margin, but not by too much. Suspicious?

Related: there has been some grousing regarding non-transgendered (cisgendered) actors getting transgendered roles. I have not read enough of the articles/editorials to provide a good summary, but Jared Leto is probably going to win an Oscar tonight, and I feel weird about it (updated) from two years ago gets close to the group gestalt. Simply: it's an insider complaining that a dramatic representation is not as faithful as it could be. Complications arise when the insider status coincides with deep prejudice from society and the oft-correlated ignorance that begets prejudice. More even than racism, I'm treading into dangerous waters here.

As a relatively well-informed musician and a long-time industry software developer, I know from imprecise dramatic liberties. Many example exist; some are egregious; most are harmless. The getting-it-right is satisfying to see, but art is suggestion and generally not encyclopedic. A good writer can hit key points and work around that they don't know the difference between F# and Gb or how EBCDIC is related to ASCII.

With that in mind, I dislike the assumption that like must play like. Writers and actors research in an attempt to portray the diversity of human nature by having the full of humanity in their palette. Many don't succeed; some don't spectacularly; most are harmless. When you've seen a good actor in two roles in diametric opposition and embody them to their fullest, it's difficult to want to make typecasting a requirement. We constantly accept that French characters only ever speak to other French people with a French accent, and accept that the actor is not actually French. When did actor-to-role authenticity become mandatory?

Conversely: is man-playing-woman ever acceptable? Or--and here's the real icky part--is white playing black ever acceptable? Is this the same as cis-playing-trans?

[ posted by sstrader on 22 January 2016 at 5:29:53 PM in Cinema , Culture & Society ]