No easy answer to #OscarsSoWhite

Promo image for Moonlight

COMMENT: It’ll take more than a Best Picture award to solve the racial disparity in Hollywood. The root problem is the broken culture of A-lister casting.

I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve been wanting to comment on the news from the Oscars. My main interest is, of course, the fiasco over reading out the wrong winning film, because I work in a job where I have to think over everything that could go wrong, and, quite frankly, PWC’s fuck-up is unforgivable. But on the expectation that most of my audience aren’t risk management nerds, the other news was Moonlight, the proper winner. After the big #OscarsSoWhite row last year, this was seen my many as a breakthrough where a low-budget film with an all-black cast did so well.

I am hopeless at keeping up with films, so I haven’t seen Moonlight  (or La La Land, or any of the other numerous films I’ve resolved I absolutely must see), but I’ll take the word of everyone who says how great it was. A lot of people are talking about how this will change attitudes to race and casting in Hollywood. Without being able to earwig on what film producers and casting directors say about race, it’s hard to say whether there are attitudes that need changing and whether films like Moonlight can change this, but that’s a red herring. As I see it, the root problem isn’t attitudes. It’s money. Money, and the broken system of casting lead roles that comes with it.

(Disclaimer: this article is not going to cover every single thing that arguably contributes to racial bias in casting. This concentrates on the one thing that I believe is the biggest problem.)

To look at the extent of the problem, you only need to compare theatre and film casting. Theatre’s far from perfect, but the principle of “colour-blind” casting is becoming increasingly prevalent, and it’s a good idea. Obviously, not every part can be open to every race – no-one (to pick an extreme example) would expect the role of Atticus Finch to be open to black actors any more than you’d expect Tom Robinson to be open to white actors – but the general idea is you don’t specify the race of a character unless you have to. And you certainly don’t do the practice of “white by default”, that making all characters white unless the story expressly specifies a different race. But that practice is quite normal for lead roles in films. In fact, it goes even further, to the ludicrous practice of “whitewashing” where the races of non-white characters are changed to white ones in order to cast a a white A-lister, such as the bizarre casting of Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver as the Egyptian royal family in Exodus: God’s and Kings as opposed to anyone who’s, um, Egyptian.

That film is one of many that does this, but I’ve picked this because of Ridley Scott’s response. He was pretty blunt and tactless about it, but, I have to say, he has a point. In short: if he doesn’t cast big names such as Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver, the film doesn’t get financed. Casting lead roles has very little to do with who can act the part. I’m pretty sure that film (or practically any superhero film, or most other films for that matter) would have been just as good with a competent cast of unknowns. But the conventional Hollywood wisdom is that people don’t come for the good acting; they come for the big names they know are in it. That’s why Hollywood A-listers are paid an absolutely fucking obscene amount when normal actors get a pittance – the millions that go to Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence will be more than offset than the extra box-office takings these names bring, even if the parts written for them are the depths of mediocrity.

Even this shouldn’t have been a big issue for racial diversity if it wasn’t for the stupid level of segregation across the pond. Over sixty years after this was supposed to have ended, there’s still a massive cultural divide, and the most blatant example is the number of sitcoms with casts that are either exclusively white or exclusively black. Now, it’s not really fair to blame sitcoms for the American racial divide – a sitcom can only be as diverse as the society it depicts – but it is a sign of an unhealthy system that encourages you to identify with people of the same skin colour as you on telly. That puts non-white actors at a huge disadvantage. When lead role casting depends so much on how much you money you can make at the box office, which depends on how widely you appeal to people across the country, which in turn is entrenched into a system of people relating to their own race, how are you supposed to compete? Of course, there are some non-white actors who defy the odds and appeal to everyone, which is great, but there’s not enough – certainly not enough available to keep the investors happy in Exodus.

Just to be clear, I am not defending any of this. I hate everything about it. If I had my way, I would dismantle the system of star casting completely. If a cast of unknowns would play the lead roles just as well, cast the unknowns into the lead roles – and if that means investors won’t stump up the funding and you have to slash the production budget, so be it. I’ve seen fantastic plays and films on tiny budgets and enough mediocre ones of massive budgets, and I’ve stopped believing bigger is better. But I’m a realist. What I want isn’t going to happen. If nothing else, there’s no way the great and the good on the red carpet are going to back a reform that puts them all out of multi-million-earning jobs. Similarly, if I had my way, I would end the culture of racial segregation. I’d love it if no-one took any notice whether they’re moving into a white neighbourhood or black neighbourhood, no-one cared whether they’re watching a white guy or black guy on telly. But – and I’d dearly love to be proven wrong here – I don’t think that’s going to happen either.

The point is, as long as the conventional wisdom persists that there’s more money in white lead actors than their ethnic minority counterparts I see little hope that things will improve. Perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong, but I’m not the person you need convincing, neither is Ridley Scott. The people you need to convince are the financiers. You can point to films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures which are massive commercial successes (as you can with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child),  but the problem is these aren’t typical examples. By all accounts, they all have excellent scripts and would have been hits no matter what. But most films don’t have that security, and the star casting could spell the difference between commercial success and failure. I’d love to say put principles ahead of money and give proper representation to actors of all ethnic backgrounds, but that’s easy for me to say. I’m not the one who stands to lose millions of pounds if the gamble backfires. You’ll have a harder time persuading the people who do.

I think the best we can hope for is Moonlight being another step to solving the problem at the source. Much as I’d love investors to put principles before profits, I can only see things changing when paying audiences care less about which megastar is in the film and more about how good the film is. Remember, Moonlight isn’t just notable for being the first all-black film to win Best Picture; it’s also one of the lowest-budget films to win Best Picture. That is important. The more films there are like this, the more people will realise megabudgets and megastars are not required for great films. Win that battle, and the pressure to cast big stars that draw in the money – and the unfairness that comes with it – goes away. But that’s a wildly optimistic idea on my part. For all the complaints people make about massive budgets producing mediocre films, so far nothing has changed. If their extravagance survived the credit crunch, it’s hard to see what else can stop it.

#OscarsSoWhite have won some notable battles, not least a commitment to get the academy members who vote on the Oscars balanced by race and gender. That, I think, is the right decision. But that’s only a minor battle won. The major battle is film financing and the way it’s stacked against diversity. Like it or not, this is the battle that needs fighting, and much as I wish I could be more upbeat, I see no easy way of winning this. But we can start by recognising this is what needs changing. No matter how many celebrities are on board, it’ll take more than a hashtag.

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