In France, the debate is taking shape more timidly. The Césars 2020 ceremony is a turning point for an industry that speaks little on the subject. On the stage of the Salle Pleyel, the actress Aïssa Maga counts on the fingers of one hand the non-white talents nominated for the Caesar and confronts French cinema with one of its major shortcomings. And if we think we can see the shadow of a change, especially in the United States where the question of diversity has made much more noise since the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, the controversy is ongoing. The recent nominations for the Golden Globes, whose ceremony will take place on February 28, are screaming by their lack of diversity.
To understand why minorities win so few statuettes, a symbol of a well-deserved recognition, we must dwell on the history of film production in Hollywood. Anne-Marie Paquet is a researcher in Anglo-Saxon film and serial studies and American literature and culture at the University of Paris-Nanterre. She returns to a history of representation which helps to explain this deafening lack of recognition.
SHE. More and more productions showcase minorities, how can we explain that the major award ceremonies continue to snub them despite the rave reviews?
Anne-Marie Paquet. This is a difficult question to answer. It is rooted in the long history of film production in the United States. We have to go back to the efforts of independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, who is one of the greatest African-American directors. In the twenties, he understood that white money remained in a circuit that was exclusively white, due to a system of racial segregation that did not break down until the sixties. He therefore set out to collect funds independently by knocking on the doors of influential members of the black community, but also of farmers in the Midwest, to whom his cultural project explained. After convincing a lot of people, he raised the necessary funds to create his own network of directors outside the Hollywood system.
What is happening in the series is not yet happening in the cinema, where a reproduction system of a white model reigns, with screen times still mostly reserved for the dominant majority. white, still at the heart of the target of American spectators. The change comes with the playoffs, where the leeway and freedom are much greater. For example, David Simon the director of “The Wire” (one of the first series to have opened the door to the representation of African Americans on screen) had to fight in the early 2000s to impose the first season. from the series on HBO, which delves into the daily lives of black families in the Baltimore ghetto.
SHE. Can we still talk about # OscarsSoWhite today?
Anne-Marie Paquet. Absoutely. During the ceremony, the same complaints come up. For the moment, the evolution remains timid. We are in an extremely structured world, which involves phenomenal capital. And the control of this capital still passes through the great Caucasian tycoons. Many articles have been published in recent years, in the “New York Times” or the “Los Angeles Times” on #OscarsSoWhite. A movement launched not only to open recognition to African Americans but also to other minorities and women. The example of director Jordan Peele is quite representative of this subject. When his film “Us” did not collect an Oscar after the success of “Get Out”, it was explained by the fact that it was a “genre” film, therefore a priori minor. , with a predominantly African-American cast. But these are only pretexts which do not really explain anything. Is it simply institutional racism that is not about to be eradicated in the United States? Or is it also due to a bundle of additional reasons? It is probably both. Often, this bundle of additional reasons is put forward to explain the lack of recognition, for example in the case of Jordan Peele.
In 1990, Denzel Washington had made a milestone by winning the Oscar for best actor in a supporting role for “Glory”. At the time, this victory was exceptional, because there were black winners on the fingers of one hand. Ironically, it started in 1940 with Hattie McDaniel, who among other things played the role of the black “Mammy” in “Gone with the Wind”. When she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the ceremony was held at a hotel African Americans couldn’t enter due to segregation.
SHE. What about the series “Emily in Paris” which grabbed the Golden Globe nominations, while “I May Destroy You”, a critically-acclaimed black cast in the UK was not nominated?
Anne-Marie Paquet. I only saw a few episodes of the show, which I found pretty bad. Mainly, it seems to me due to a problem with the storyline: the series plays on stereotypes without dismantling them. However, the passage of a series by Netflix is a formidable accelerator. The platform helps the series overcome national barriers. As for the British series by Michaela Coel, which was not awarded at the Golden Globes, even though it is English-speaking, it is likely that it will never be as successful as if it were adapted by an American director.
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SHE. How can the history of American cinema and broadcasting explain this lack of recognition?
Anne-Marie Paquet. For a long time, under the censorship of the Hays Code, which was not abolished until 1968, it was problematic to have black actors play consistent roles. In 1920, Oscar Micheaux produced “Within our Gates”. It’s a response to Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, which is one of the most racist films around. In this film, the black actors were almost all white faces. Thanks to “Within Our Gates”, he features black actors, including Evelyn Preer, who is one of the first great African-American actresses to have made it onto the screen. We come back to this system of parallel independent production house, which arrives after an independent success to sometimes rally the great Hollywood machine. We can also cite “Boy’z and the Hood” by John Singleton (1991). It features great actors who were already playing in mainstream films, like Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr. Perhaps the breakthrough comes from these films, which are in a middle ground. Singleton’s film had an African-American cast but was produced by Columbia. Earlier, in the 1980s, the model of “the white actor with his black sidekick” as a foil was still de rigueur.
SHE. Like Sidney Poitier?
Anne-Marie Paquet. For some members of the African-American community, he was rightly considered to be the actor who broke through, and who brought marginal images to the mainstream screen. For others, he is an “Afro-American token”: it is the idea that in a politically correct system, we “hire” the services of a black actor. It is a little the actor “alibi” who clears the production of not having drawn more fleshed out portraits of African-Americans.
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SHE. The first Oscars awarded to black actors therefore rewarded stereotypical roles, can we say that is still the case today?
Anne-Marie Paquet. We have made good progress on this subject. When these types of stereotypes are repeated in a series or in a film, there is an immediate outcry. Five years ago, this phenomenon did not exist or was very marginal. It is the reaction of society that changes things. Before, these stereotypes were tacitly renewed and accepted. This vocal dimension of protest, very strong, with #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, has changed the production of TV series and is working to change that of films and major studios. That does not mean that there will not be a turning point from an institutional point of view. “Affirmative action” policies have a long history of corporate America. For the moment it seems to me that it is mainly the initiative of producers like David Simon, or his friend longtime director Paul Haggis, with whom he directed “Show Me A Hero”, or the screenwriter, director and African-American producer Shonda Rhimes. These are people who have access to sufficient funds to escape an exclusively white reproductive system.
SHE.Does a series like “Bridgerton” allow you to move away from these cliché roles?
Anne-Marie Paquet. It’s extraordinary. It was precisely Shonda Rhimes who produced it. We come back again to the production system: who controls the purse strings? Who has this capital role of being the distributor of the series or film? This questions the notion of “colorblind”, that is to say of pretending not to see the color of the other. It is a trap notion, because it also denies the difference, the individuality and the reality of the life of the other. Shonda Rhimes enforces a mixed cast and makes all the actors work in a sort of big choir that shows the life of a family from an internal point of view, not pitting a black family against a white family. It’s very interesting to have done that in a historical series because we no longer represent the members of a certain community who play their precise role within an ensemble, we assign a role regardless of skin color. In the current serial landscape, it is, it seems to me, what goes the furthest. And we saw the results, it is currently the most watched series on Netflix. This phenomenon will inevitably catch up with the cinema and ultimately the nominations.
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Controversy at the Golden Globes: towards an increase in the recognition of minorities on the screen? – She