The Symptom and the Disease

The controversy around the Oscars is the symptom. The disease itself is much deeper. I am talking, of course, about the lack of diversity on-screen raised by the movement #OscarsSoWhite, started a year ago, that is making more headlines than ever in the United States.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama commented for the first time on the controversy surrounding the unveiling of the Oscar nominees on Jan. 14. Among the 20 actors nominated, there are none from an ethno-cultural minority for the second year in a row.

“Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?” Barack Obama asked, widening the debate to the whole of American society. He added that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which determines the Oscar nominees, “has to catch up with our reality.”*

To give this equality a chance and to reflect this reality, the president of the Academy, Cheryl Isaacs, herself African-American, recently announced measures to double the number of women and visible minorities in the Academy’s membership between now and 2020. The Academy, whose 6000 members have an average age of 62, is currently made up of 70 percent men and 94 percent white people — and only 2 percent black people.

Some have decried these new measures, lamenting the idea that the Academy is getting away from the principal that has always guided the selection of its members: merit and excellence. “Admitting people with a preference for gender or ethnicity also implies the Academy believes they will also be voting with a gender or racial consideration,” a technician wrote sadly in an open letter to the Academy published in the Hollywood Reporter. The meritocracy is a nice illusion. Like the rest of the American dream…

The Oscars controversy is just the symptom of a deeper disease, as I said. This disease eats away insidiously, not only at the United States but also at the entire West. It is the product of societies run by heterosexual white men who refuse to notice, let alone accept as true, all the advantages linked to being born neither a woman, nor a visible minority, nor a homosexual.

Men who prefer to talk about merit and excellence rather than ask themselves about the underrepresentation at the heart of the prestigious organization [the Academy], in a society made up of 50 percent women and 38 percent visible minorities. Men who refuse to question the industry, the industry of Hollywood cinema, which doesn’t reflect the American social, ethnic and economic reality either in front of or behind the camera.

To be admitted into the circle on the basis of merit and excellence, you must first have the chance to make your case. To enter the straight, white boys club when you are a woman, black, or gay, the rules of the club must be more flexible.

I’m not saying that we should modify the rules for picking Oscar nominees to make Will Smith happy (who is certainly not the best person to lead the revolt). I’m talking about giving fate a little boost so that more minority screenwriters, directors, actors, and producers — including women who are treated as a minority in our society — can be seen and heard.

I’m talking, yes, about that reviled method: affirmative action. When things are stagnant, we sometimes need some fresh air. Without concrete actions, a wish is just a theory — no matter how good it is.

“I think that when everyone’s story is told… that makes for better art,” Barack Obama said on Thursday while passing through Los Angeles. These aren’t sentimental words. A work of art is a point of view. The more points of view there are, the more depth and richness. Art seen through the single prism of a white man’s eyes is sure to be less interesting.

The most reassuring thing in this debate that is still raging, two weeks later, is that many finally recognize the problem of the lack of ethnic diversity on the screen. The problem is far from belonging solely to Americans. In Quebec, actors who are visible minorities, according to an investigation led by my colleague Hugo Pilon-Larose, hold less than 5 percent of leading roles on television.

The proof that the assessment of the lack of diversity has made some headway is that we can now laugh about it. This was evidenced by the hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch last week, which staged a fake awards ceremony celebrating white actors in less than supporting roles who’ve outdone black actors, and satirized the unheard of efforts to deny a black person an award…

We understand completely, given the circumstances, the outcry raised at the news of the choice of the white actor Joseph Fiennes to play Michael Jackson in a British television series, “Elizabeth, Michael, and Marlon,” which will be aired on the Sky Arts network this year; it tells the story of a fictional car trip with Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, and Marlon Brando after the Sept. 11 attacks. Joseph Fiennes (a star of “Shakespeare in Love”) plays the “King of Pop,” who, despite troubles with pigmentation, was still a black man until the end of his life.

How can we hope for more recognition for visible minority actors at galas and elsewhere, when in 2016 we choose a white actor rather than a black actor to play a black character? And to think that some people here at home persist in considering blackface as the simple expression of waning political correctness…

The disease, I repeat, is much deeper.

*Editor’s note: The original publication falsely attributes this quote to President Obama. It was actually said by Hillary Clinton.

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