February 20, 2011
Two days ago I posted a version of this entry which began with 3 extraneous paragraphs. "I buried the lead," as Albert Brooks' character, Aaron Altman, said in "Broadcast News." So I've edited the piece to begin where it should. What follows, then, is "Whiteout, The Special Edition:"
In the Sunday, February 13th Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times, Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote about the paucity of roles for African-American actors in Hollywood movies this year (”Hollywood’s Whiteout Year: Few Blacks on Silver Screen”). The article upset Whoopi Goldberg, whose 1990 award (for “Ghost”) wasn’t mentioned alongside later wins by Denzell Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson and Mo’Nique. Ms. Goldberg (with whom I had the privilege of working on Herbert Ross’s “Boys on the Side”) accused Dargis and Scott of “sloppy journalism.”
Perhaps the real problem was a lack of clarity in their prose; I had to read the piece a couple of times before I fully grasped the authors' point, which is as follows: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has bestowed its awards annually for 83 years. In the first 73, only 7 black actors received Oscars (all of them, including Ms. Goldberg, unnamed by the writers). In the next nine years, another 7 (those mentioned above) won the coveted statuette -- a tremendous acceleration. But this year there was a marked deceleration. Hence the critics ask, “Are the coming Oscars an anomaly, or an unsettlling sign of the times?”
Clarification to the contrary notwithstanding, however, the piece by Dargis and Scott is hardly a paragon of rigorous reporting. For one thing, the authors fail to mention that Best Supporting Actress nominee Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”), according to Wickipedia, “has African-American ancestry on her mother’s side.” For another, like most newsroom movie pundits, they sacrifice cogent analysis for the sake of would-be cleverness. “So,” they ask at the end of their article, “is class the new race?” Such a glib question assumes the very best movies to be ephemeral and trendy -- the opposite of what their makers intend, indeed, the opposite of what their viewers experience. "Winter's Bone," "The Town" and "The Fighter" were not made because socioeconomic status is "in" this year.
But most eggregious is that the Times critics are blind to the issue of race in the film business as a whole. They write, “A few years (after ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ together won 17 Oscars in 1967), ...African-Americans began to appear on screen and behind the camera to an unprecedented extent.” Behind the camera? Really?? Where had they all gone by the time I began to work in the industry in the late ‘70’s?
One of the reasons I started blogging is that I’d grown weary of film journalism which supposes that films are made solely by actors, screenwriters and directors. The rest of us -- cinematographers, gaffers, sound recordists, production and costume designers, editors, sound editors, mixers and countless other craftspeople involved in production -- remain invisible to many reviewers for newsweeklies or dailies. If we didn’t, Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott couldn’t think there was ever a significant African American presence “behind the scenes.”
I won't beat around the bush: The film industry is overwhelmingly white -- to a degree unparalleled in other arts and professions. To be sure, my evidence for this claim is empirical, not statistical. At Motion Picture Editors Guild and American Cinema Editors gatherings, I simply don’t see more than a small handful of black colleagues. The same is true on studio lots and at independent post production facilities. Even the "urban films" on which I've worked have had mostly white crews.
And Oscar history reflects my personal experience. Hugh A. Robertson, editor of “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969, remains the only African-American cutter ever to receive an Oscar nomination. There has been only one black cinematography nominee, Remi Adeferasin, director of photography on “Elizabeth” in 1999. Three African-American costume designers have been nominated in 83 years, as have two black sound mixers.
There should be statistical research on this subject. We might discover that what is perceived as the most liberal U.S. industry remains basically inaccessible to people of color. And we might, then, address the problem. What Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote about was “the tusk in the room.” This is the elephant.