Oscars-2015As the dust from the 2015 Oscars settle, we get to sit back and judge all things that encompassed the evening. Some focus on gowns and baubles while others concentrate on speeches and award reception moments while a select few actually focus on the films themselves, regurgitating wins and losses and spewing their opinions into a chasm of people whose YouTube attention span has them already thinking about what next year may bring.

For those who are still in 2015, this year’s Oscars gala was hosted by the charming and mischievous Neil Patrick Harris, who usually glides across the stage with ease and simplicity but seemed uncomfortable this night, his reluctant jokes seeming to often miss the mark. Some blamed his writers, but really who cares? He got to host the goddamned Oscars! How many people get to say that?

Actually, 73.

Regardless, an interesting phenomenon occurred this night when NPH (that’s what we’ll use as shorthand as Neil Patrick Harris now, even though as a blogger I’m paid by the word) made was arguably the funniest and most poignant jab of the evening. He quipped “We’re here to honor Hollywood’s best and whitest. I’m sorry– brightest”. After the initial gasps in the crowd, some applauded (we get it Oprah, we get it) and some laughed but the reaction was palpable. NPH hit a nerve, and like all proverbial nerves that get hit, it’s because there’s truth in it.

Why is it that the Oscars remain so vanilla year after year? Why does Hollywood ‘whitewash’ their stories? Now, for those who don’t know, the term ‘whitewashing’ refers to diluting the ethnicity of characters in film and TV and placing Caucasian actors in the roles of what are obviously visible ethnic characters. It also occurs when the roles are simply rewritten to be white characters. Messed up, right? Who would do that?

A lot of people just screamed “Not me!” in your heads. This was perhaps followed by a course of ““That’s atrocious!” and capped off with the maraschino cherry of “Hollywood thinking is such bullshit!” Well, thanks for screaming that in your heads, but the truth of that truth is most people only ever scream it in their heads instead of screaming it out loud so things don’t change. It could also be, however, that you don’t want to look like a psychopath at the coffee shop, yelling out loud while you read this. Touché.

The point is, ‘whitewashing’ (also known as ‘racebending’) happens all the time, and we turn a blind eye because we are used to it. Since the genesis of film white actors performed in blackface, and to see someone do it now would cause an uproar to say the least.  That being said, ridiculous casting like using Jake Gyllenhall as the Prince of Persia creates the phenomenon of ‘whiteface’, wherein your heroes supposedly must be Caucasian in order for the audience to like or sympathize with them . I think this mirrors America’s diversity component marvelously. It most certainly accurately represents the melting pot of cultures that makes up America and it certainly perpetuates the notion that everyone believes, which is that white people are the only ones able to contribute anything of value into society. Mm-hm.

Not you, though. Right? You’re immune to this type of thinking. Let me guess, you’re a colorblind, fully-evolved human being who can recognize the errors of generations past but would certainly never perpetuate that type of racist behavior, whether flagrant or subdued, right? Interesting.

Let’s play a game.

Let’s imagine this year’s Oscar nominated roles having been played by actors of ethnic descent. Does it change the entire story or are the existing stories still able to be told the same way if you simply put a different colored actor into the role? If it does indeed change the story, how much does it change it? Does it become a totally different story and go down the proverbial rabbit-hole with our ideas about family dynamics, classism, preconceived notions and subconscious judgments about people? Bottom line: What happens to our movies if we recast the leads to be different ethnicities?

Now, you’ve automatically jumped into defense mode. Chill out. Yes, making them historically accurate is important. The idea of a white man playing Dr. King is vomit inducing. It disrespects the entire message of the story it’s telling. I think everyone would agree, so that’s a freebie. History films should use people of the correct part of the color spectrum. But let’s just suspend disbelief and ask some questions to make a point.

A beautiful film that was advertised as “everyone’s story” Boyhood showed us all glimpses into our own lives, journeys and coping mechanisms. With a touching narrative and visionary direction, we saw Patricia Arquette struggle with raising 2 children while in and out of abusive relationships. It became every woman’s struggle. Pause. Now, imagine director Richard Linklater had cast Salma Hayak in the role of the mother.  Some peeps can’t even imagine anyone else playing this role that Patricia Arquette so deservedly won an Oscar for. Well, let’s just remember that not even a paragraph ago I said let’s play a game. So suck it up and play.

“OK, I can see that,” you might have said. Cool.  Great progressive leap, reader.

Assuming Salma Hayak played the role with the same passion and conviction that Patricia Arquette did, what happens to this character in “Boyhood”? For some, nothing happens. For others, it changes the story because maybe to them Latino people have different cultural and family dynamics than white families. Maybe violence or abuse is more prevalent, which makes the unacceptable things that happen to that character a bit more ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ just based on societal perceptions. Again, interesting. What is Patricia Arquette was still cast in her role, but they cast ethnic men in the roles of the men that came in and out of her life? Her patterns are clearly established in the film, but does changing the color of the man change our perception of her patterns?

In the version we saw, viewers generally sympathize with Ethan Hawke because he’s just a young guy doing his best after an unplanned pregnancy, but change that man to a colored man and does he become a degenerate who can’t be there for his kids?  Of course, if viewers feel this way it’s not their own fault, it’s just what society has mislead them to believe. Ok,um…sure. Let’s go with that and move on.

Birdman.  What if a phenomenal Asian actor like Ken Wattanabe played the title role? You may remember him from his great work in “Inception”, “The Last Samurai” (don’t even get me started on Hollywood hero-worship here) and “Godzilla”. He could be Birdman. Again, you screamed silently to the tune of; “But, Michael Keaton was Birdman because he was Batman!”

Good point. So glad you brought it up.

Casting could never go to a man of Asian descent for this because Batman in the comics was white. We have to keep the fanboy purists happy, right? Makes sense (although if it was that important they should have kept Ra’s al Ghul Arabic instead of casting the Northern Irish Liam Neeson in “Batman Begins”) and so the compelling argument remains that Bruce Wayne was white in the comics, so he should be white in the films. As you can see, these simple casting issues have decades of walls protecting them. Batman can’t be Asian and be done ‘right’ because his genesis was rooted in a time where people weren’t as progressive as they claim to be today.

Ok, reader, let’s play level 2 of our game.

What if, in the comic books, Bruce Wayne had been Asian and if Wayne Industries had been led by a brilliant, Asian man who was ahead of his time whose young son trained in ninja school after his parent’s death, pushing away his birthright of privilege in order to become Gotham’s dark hero?  “No way!”  Is your retort. “People would know it was Bruce Wayne by looking at his eyes in the Batman mask.” Wow. Dude. That’s the most racist thing you’ve said all day.

So, what if “Birdman” did have Ken Wattanabe playing the title role giving an equally as compelling and passionate performance? Would it have garnered the acclaim that it did or would it have been avoided like the Birdman Asian Flu? Hmm, someone should make a movie about it.

Let’s look at “American Sniper.” Based in the history of a real person, granted, but what if the sniper had been cast as a Middle Eastern man? I’m not saying tell the story of the other sniper in the film (spoiler alert – which is kinda a dick move because I wrote spoiler alert after I wrote the spoiler) but from the same perspective, just making the sniper a highly patriotic, American born and raised man of Middle Eastern descent.  If they kept all components of story and casting the same, including his white family, would they need to address his ethnicity, or could they just carry on without mentioning it at all? Would the story have been about one of cultural identity as well just by making that change? I suspect if this was the case this film would have never been made in the first place, but let’s say they did and THEN…here’s the kicker…imagine if the sniper on the other side had been a white one?  Who would American audiences root for?

Sure “the Imitation Game” was based around the real story of the brave, brilliant and bizarre Alan Turing, but had they cast a Black man in the role, would Oprah have been divided in her views of who should win best actor? Would taking it in that direction be a statement of progressive casting? If so, let’s return to our scenario where a white man had been cast to play the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma”? That would not have been progressive, and there would have been uproar coast to coast, followed by marches and demonstrations that would eventually lead to the emergence of new powerful black icons that would later inspire new films where those black characters would eventually go on to be played by white actors.

Agreed, the roots of these casting issues are tangled and complicated ones, but ones that really and truly need to be addressed, of we will end up with more unwatchable shit like Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”.  A film set in ancient Egypt with the lead roles played by white dudes, (mind you all the slaves were dark skinned) Ridley Scott’s response in being asked about his whitewashing was:

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

It actually makes sense, and Ridley Scott raises a great point, that we aren’t at a place where the Hollywood system has created enough range in the star system in which other ethnicities become bankable stars.That’s a problem. One we can change, mind you. I think Ridley Scott exposes a lot of the Hollywood mentality in this interview, but Ridley…did you have to say it in a way that made you sound like such a complete and utter douchebag? PS. I know some amazing actors who are of Mohammed-so-and-so descent.

I’ll end my thoughts on the quirky and cute film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Artistically bright and intriguing in its humor, it left me a bit confused. Not in terms of the plot, mind you, but rather  in the mayhem of how a young dark-skinned West Indian character played by a Guatemalan actor can then grow up to be a light skinned man played by an actor of Assyrian, Italian and American descent. What the f*ck?

When I saw this I cocked my head to the side, yet no one else seemed to notice. Was it a victory for the young ethnic man who scooped that role from a young actor of Assyrian, Italian and American descent, or was it that a ‘suitable’ ethnic actor couldn’t be found to play the older version of the character, so they whitewashed it? In the end I remained confused, only silently screamed and kept zipped, perpetuating the behaviors that I’ve been chastising you for engaging in for the last few pages. Guilty.  I liked the film though, so I suppose you sometimes have to just enjoy the art or you’ll end up focusing on the brushstrokes instead of the picture.

Ultimately, there are mountains to move and unfortunately history has a way of repeating itself, so the dark skinned workers will, most likely, have to build those pyramids. As one who fits into that category, I am ready and willing to bear the weight of those boulders so that my kids can look at Iron Man fighting alongside superheroes of Indian descent in Avengers movies to come. Let’s build legacies and create stories that are as diverse as the people who are watching them. The chance to make these changes is happening now. Networks are introducing ‘Diversity Mandates”, social media gives people a platform to vent and bring awareness, and NPH makes us laugh at the Oscars. And all of it matters.

I hope we all decide to occasionally scream out loud when needed and continue to try to make changes that make us as accepting in our actions as we are in our minds.  It’s freeing, and that liberation allows us to call Sean Penn a ‘wanker’ for asking “Who gave this guy his green card?” to a director that just won an Oscar. It begins with self-reflection and among other things, ends with new heroes and villains that get to play with the old ones.  And I hope we all want that.