Take nothing away from the talent at Sunday night’s Oscars, white folks can act. And Sean Penn shows no small courage when he travels to Baghdad to re-center our experience of war. So please read carefully.
Because you’d think from watching it all on Sunday night that a century of Hollywood has produced a remarkable global alliance of white audiences, from Billy Crystal’s Long Island, to Peter Jackson’s New Zealand, not to mention Charlize Theron’s South Africa, Nicole Kidman’s Australia, or Sir Ian Mckellan’s England.
In fact the geography of this audience sounds remarkably like Bush’s coalition of the willing, doesn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong. The players who were honored Sunday night are my entertainment heroes and all of them have been reliable witnesses against the late imperial wars. But didn’t anybody else notice how white it all looked?
Once upon a time, as we saw Sunday evening, the late, great Gregory Peck starred in the terrific movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And not long after that, as we also saw, the late and legendary Katherine Hepburn played a courageous part in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
But forty and fifty years later, after these noteworthy achievements in the art of civil rights, guess who’s not coming to the Oscars? Does Oscar have a last name? Oscar White?
There is no reason at this point to fawn over important exceptions. I would rather point out that on Oscar night, some “losers” must be braver than others.
When I saw the first movie in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy a few years ago, I watched it back-to-back with “Ali.” And since that long afternoon turned into evening, all the excellencies of the trilogy have been speaking to me also of the fact that Tolkien’s mythology is mightily white. After all he was born in South Africa, and he taught at Oxford.
But I don’t begrudge Tolkien for writing a white mythology, especially when the theme begs its characters to give up their obsession with total power. Tolkien itches the problem of white mythology from within.
Nevertheless, I do worry about the images of conflict that are perpetuated in this colossal epic, where ethereal whiteness meets an enemy made of dark mud.
And I worry about collective structures of taste that are reinforced when these white-centered narratives have no visible, say visual, counter-challenges in the nearby image mix. What happens when there is nothing but other white-centered narratives to jostle up against on a night that celebrates excellence to audiences around the world?
On this reading, the movie “Monster” could be viewed as a cautionary exploration of white womanhood, artistically daring for a blonde, South African star.
Penn and his co-star Tim Robbins have been courageous in their outspoken warnings against the ring of power in the real world, and I was not unmindful that Clint Eastwood made a choice to put the two together this year, and then sat squarely behind them, as they took top honors from the academy.
But we do have a problem here, and we need to talk about it without succumbing to cheap accusations.
For example, today, when conservatives appeal to “merit and excellence” as “race neutral”; we cannot forget that there was nothing race-neutral about “merit or excellence” on Sunday night. Nor is there any simple way to evade the welded relationship between “merit” and “whiteness” that helps support our mainstream sensibilities of what counts for truth and beauty.
It is a complex problem, fitted exactly to the kind of cultural leadership exemplified by Penn and Robbins. Against this problem, they are more active than most.
The difficulty of solving the problem demands a reform of Oscar beyond the notable uplifting of our most disgruntled, white genius.
A process of affirmative action, if you will, should be considered by the academy. Not because “lesser excellences” of Black, Latino, Asian, or American Indian talents need “assistance”. No, that is not the argument. The genius is there already, quite solid, and quite strong.
Reform is needed, because presumptions of white-centered excellence need systematic counter-considerations and persistent challenges. On Oscar night, when image is everything, let there be no more Oscar White!