Diverse Fare

By Allen, Brooke | The Hudson Review, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Diverse Fare


Allen, Brooke, The Hudson Review


A LOT OF INK HAS BEEN SPILLED-OR GIGABYTES USED UP-over the Academy of Motion Pictures' recent failure to nominate a single minority actor for an Oscar. The papers were full of it for what seemed like months, with editorialists pontificating and angry moviegoers taking to hashtag activism through the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The antics of the Academy itself were peculiarly unedifying. In January, after an emergency meeting of the Board of Governors, the Academy's president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced that they were about to take what they were pleased to call "historic action," a series of measures designed to double the number of woman and minority Academy members by 2020. Minority actors were assiduously courted to attend the award ceremony. Once there, they were targeted for special camera attention and disproportionate interview time, presumably to keep viewers from noticing just how white the vast majority of celebrants actually happened to be. The caustic Chris Rock was bagged as the evening's host-yes, the same Chris Rock who was deemed just a little too sharp and irreverent when he hosted the Oscars eleven years previously and had never been asked to do so again. This year, he seemed the perfect choice. Rock himself has claimed that he only got the gig because Ellen DeGeneres turned it down, and this may be true, but what a sigh of relief the Board of Governors must have let out when, with the hysteria over the all-white nominations, they realized that the decks were clear and they could pursue a black host without having to dump a white one. Rock, as ever, provided a masterful balance of cold cynicism and genuine, irrepressible good humor, and his teasing approach to the Oscars as a cultural institution was refreshing. Still, the tenor of the evening was enough to make the United States an international laughingstock, if we are not one already in this Age of Trump. The spectacle of the nation's white cultural elite, clad in grotesquely expensive eveningwear, groveling-mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!-in ritual expiation, must have been hilarious to countiess unsympathetic viewers.

A special low point in the discourse was reached when the Coen brothers were targeted for not having included any minorities in their showbiz epic Hail, Caesar! There was something peculiarly mindboggling about this accusation. Hail, Caesar!, after all, is a satire on movie stereotypes of Hollywood's golden age. There is George Clooney as the Kirk Douglasesque Roman centurion in a Biblical epic; Scarlett Johanssen as a swimming beauty closely modeled on Esther Williams; Channing Tatum as a tap dancer in the style of Gene Kelly, or perhaps Gower Champion; Alden Ehrenreich as the singing cowboy, a surprisingly common trope in mid-twentieth-century movies. Had there been a black actor in this mix, what would he or she have played? A Stepin Fetchit type, rolling his eyes in terror? A Hattie McDaniel or Butterfly McQueen type, branded into the cultural memory by the stupendous success of Gone with the Wind? Lawsy, Miss Scahlett, I don't know nothin' about birthin' babies! Or what about a Latino Hollywood stereotype- Aaaaaaaay Señor-Mañana! I had actually thought that the Coens exercised good taste and restraint in keeping minorities out of this film.

Nevertheless, they were enthusiastically attacked by cultural watchdogs. In Salon, Peter Birkenhead took a self-righteous stance:

I'm sure that, if asked, the Coens would say they cast Josh Brolin as '50s Hollywood executive Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar! because he was right for the part. I also assume that had he not been available there were other actors of necessarily varying heights, weights, ages, accents and skill, whom they would have considered-Brolin's character was based on a real Hollywood fixer of the same name, but Brolin could hardly be mistaken for the real Mannix's twin. Yet apparently they would have drawn the line at a fixer with dark skin. Because that would be . . …

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