In an industry that imitates life, the real-life issue of diversity has turned the glamour of the Academy Awards into a reflective history lesson.
Shouts that the old-boys network had struck again echoed when the Oscar nominations were announced in late January. The swirling controversy prompted calls from A-list African American celebrities for a boycott of the show but also pleas from industry veterans that the nomination process is not rife with bias.
The absence of a best actor nomination for Will Smith in “Concussion” could be construed as a snub that has its roots in “othering,” says Professor Rosanne Welch of Cal Poly Pomona’s interdisciplinary general education department. “Othering” occurs when one group takes another group’s differences and uses that against them, she says.
Even Western movie legend John Wayne gets roped into the conversation.
“I tell students if you want to see what cowboys looked like in California, you should go to the Gene Autry museum in Griffith Park because there are photographs of real cowboys,” Welch says. “When you look at whole groups of cowboys in these giant old photographs, John Wayne is not the only kind of cowboy you’ll see. In fact, he’s not often the majority kind you see.
“There are Mexican Americans, there are Native Americans, there are African Americans. Those are American cowboys. They didn’t become John Wayne until the movies, and the movies had to appeal to a large audience. The ticket-buying audience was Caucasian. So, those were the men hired to play cowboys. Now when you say ‘American cowboy’ all over the world, people see 6-foot-2 John Wayne,” she says.
Welch also cites recent cases in which catering to audience appeal denied chances for actors of color. She says that Ben Affleck played the main role in the movie “Argo” because the studio wouldn’t approve of a Mexican-American actor as the lead character. Affleck wound up directing and acting in the film, and “Argo” won for Best Picture in 2013. In last year’s film “The Martian,” a character described in the novel as Korean-American is portrayed by a blonde actress.
“It’s true movies have marginalized minorities from the very start, reflecting society’s attitudes to be sure, but then it became the one storyteller of America and those who were left out, stayed left out or those who were misrepresented stayed misrepresented,” she says.
Welch holds a doctorate in American social history of the 21st century, and her IGE 221 class, “Ways of Coexisting: Reform and Revolution,” examines how events that happened centuries have shaped the world.
“The sessions about ‘othering’ always cause a lot of good conversation because it’s a word students have never heard of,” Welch says.
She sees Christopher Columbus as a historical figure who used this approach as a means to an end.
“Columbus alone didn’t decimate the Indian population. It was the onrush of the Englishmen and what not. Our students rarely ever see that side of the story,” Welch says. “You have to understand that they wanted the land and they did these things. The Englishmen ‘othered’ the Indians.”
Fast-forward more than five centuries, and signs of “othering” can be construed, Welch says. She has insights of the entertainment industry as a member of the Writers Guild of America. Welch has been a writer for TV shows such as “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Picket Fences” and “Touched by an Angel.”
“The Oscars have been interesting in that you have two types of ‘othering’ going on. There is the overall Hollywood inability to trust they will profit from films starring people of color (or women) despite quite good track records for them across recent years,” Welch says. “But there is also the issue that #OscarSoWhite seems to assume age discrimination in that it poses the idea that ‘old white men’ aren’t voting for people of color.”
Welch’s class also has looked at what she termed lesser-known cases of “othering,” including the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Bum Blockade of migrants from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl into California during the Great Depression and the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York that ignited the gay rights movement.
She saw the Oscar controversy as an opportunity to explore equity with a generation of students weaned on video games and movies.
“It was interesting what she said, how a lot of people are boycotting the Oscars because so many white actors and less people of color have been nominated. I didn’t know about that,” says Elijah Sisson, second-year civil engineering student. “I like how she gave her solution about how we should lower the age range of people in the academy, and have more diverse people in the academy so we have more diverse selections in the nominees.”
But as with any discussion, there are divergent viewpoints.
“I get what people are saying about that, but I have a different opinion. If that’s just how it happens, it happens,” says Tiffany Renz-Lopez, a second-year hospitality management student. “Everything shouldn’t be all about race or ‘othering.’ ”
Before the controversy reaches a crescendo at the Feb. 28 Oscar ceremony, academy membership guidelines have been changed to appease detractors and help ensure diversity in future nominations.
Membership in the academy is now contingent on members working every decade. If members have not worked in the industry at end of the decade, they cannot vote in the nomination process. Instead, they will be granted emeritus membership.
While African Americans have at the core of the controversy, the issue of equity goes deeper.
“There is the idea that diversity is always discussed as an issue of black vs. white, but ‘12 Years a Slave’ won for best film last year and several African-American actors have won Oscars,” Welch says. “But name a Hispanic actor or Asian American actor or Native American actor or disabled actor who has won recently — if ever. No one is talking about that.”