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The Academy: Kind To White Men, Just Like History

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by Leigh Kolb
February 4, 2014 11:11 AM
6 Comments
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Last year, after Django Unchained was largely snubbed at the Oscars (compared to the Golden Globes), I looked at the history of the Black actors/characters who were awarded by the Academy over the years. The results were troubling, but not surprising–much like the infographic The Huffington Post posted today about what roles that women won for over the years (here is Feministing‘s take on the findings).

It’s fairly clear what roles Hollywood is most comfortable with: for Black characters, passivity, tired stereotypes, and villainy get the highest awards. For women, wives/daughters/mothers/sisters/girlfriends–all roles in relationship to men–are rewarded.


Black men and women, organized by character type, who have won Academy Awards. (The Black actors up for 2014 Academy Awards–Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Barkhad Abdi–play a kidnapped freed man/slave, slave, and Somali pirate, respectively.) Click to enlarge.


For men (who are almost all white), the category with the most winners is “Historical.” For men, there are countless historical roles to fill, so filmmakers can tell the stories of those who have shaped our history and culture–or at least, those whom we see and are told about. And this has  been a history that has been largely unkind to Black people and women.

In an interview, late author Chinua Achebe quoted the following proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

The hunters write history. The hunters glorify themselves. The hunters’ history infiltrates itself into the very fabric of our cultural narrative, so we’re only comfortable with seeing the complexities of the hunters, and the simplicity of the lions.

It is what we’ve been trained for since birth.

This is a history that the lions have had to fight and claw their way out of, yet we don’t see them in Hollywood. The lions write, the lions pitch, but the hunters are not interested. (And the hunters have the money, from generations of oppressing the lions.)

I’d be happy to see the hunters start telling the lions’ history, even just a little bit (I salivate at the thought of Quentin Tarantino taking on suffragettes).

Three of this year’s Best Picture nominations (12 Years a SlaveWolf of Wall Street, and American Hustle) are films that are based on real stories–and each of these stories, on some level, is about white men fucking people over so they can get rich. And at the end of these stories, the white men don’t really get punished. This is our history.

This is our history.

So how can we blame the Academy for reflecting this history back at us? Art is imitating life, and life keeps imitating art. If the two are so inextricably related (which they are), where do we go from here?

I’m not one who argues that it’s all about the Bechdel Test, or that we need to demand the Perfect Feminist Film.  Some of the most potentially empowering films that I’ve seen (that feature female and Black protagonists) would be solidly placed in the “exploitation” category (Blaxploitation especially). We need to demand female and Black anti-heroes if we want true, complex characters and stories.

As I argued in regard to 12 Years a Slave, we have barely started to deal with our country’s history, and we need to, desperately. But still–the only white American actor who is prominently featured in the film was Brad Pitt, who plays a heroic Canadian. It’s hard to face.

In American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street, the white male protagonists are complex–they aren’t good, but they are whole. They are criminals. They are cheaters. But audiences kind of like them–or at the very least, accept them.

Our goal as lions, then, may not be to just tell our stories. We need to become hunters, and find those stories and demand that they be told. We need to face a history in which Black hunters and female hunters have been punished, and white male hunters have prevailed. We may not be able to rewrite that history, but we can live within it, and force it into our cultural narrative. (Or, as my husband said after we sat through previews last weekend, “They could just quit telling World War II stories for a while.”)

But here we are, in 2014, facing how the Academy’s choices clearly reflect our history. What do we do with this? We should get angry at history, and attempt to rewrite our future. We should be angry at an American history that has oppressed women and Blacks since its inception.

If Wolf of Wall Street reflects modern history, which it does, we see that white men are still winning (case in point: I can’t use the term “winning” without thinking about a white male actor who “allegedly assaulted, threatened, harassed, abused, and—in one incident—shot women” and yet still was the highest-paid actor on television in 2010).

If we want to tell revolutionary women’s and Black people’s stories, we’ll have to settle for a lot of tragedies. There aren’t slaps on the wrists or a few months in a cushy white-collar prison for these historical figures. There’s torture, lynching, and shame. And the villains are almost always white men.

So we’re back to the hunter. And what we know about hunters is they don’t come back bragging about their losses; they brag about their wins. It’s time for them to stop winning, and for the lions to be heard. Then, and only then, can we expect the Academy to reflect a new reality.


Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri. Follow @leighkolb on Twitter.

Originally published at btchflcks.com.

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6 Comments

  • shaun | February 8, 2014 1:12 PMReply

    "Three of this year’s Best Picture nominations (12 Years a Slave, Wolf of Wall Street, and American Hustle) are films that are based on real stories–and each of these stories, on some level, is about white men %%% people over so they can get rich."

    I would add "Captain Phillips" (the world %%% Africa over and flea-bitten fishermen made into the bad guy).

  • Alias | February 5, 2014 12:53 AMReply

    @Accidental Vistor ...good point about white men and the roles they're interested in playing. However, whether moral or amoral, EVERY actor wants a chance to play those types of juicy roles. It's just that when blacks get to play those roles they tend to be wrapped in a stereotype.

    For example, I would argue that Kerry Washington is in the rare situation, right now, where she gets to play a really interesting, complex, flawed character that we, typically, see white men playing. ...And really, I think the same goes for ALL, or most, of the characters on "Scandal." ...But 10, 20 years ago, a similar show would have had all white actors playing those roles.

    And, of course, as we know it's even harder to come by such roles in film, for actors. And that, mainly, has to do with the fact that film is such a HUGE investment. But, right now, at least on TV, there's much more opportunity for black actors to play great, flawed characters of the white collar caliber.

    For example, imagine if a black man had been cast as Gordon Gekko instead of a white man.
    There's no stereotype wrapped in that because, unfortunately, how many black wall street banker types can any of us name in real life? One. Kenneth Channault. Or, imagine a black woman as Miranda Priestly, instead of Meryl Streep. ... Would she be perceived as angry and bitchy or smooth, in control, and confident? And if a black man had been cast as the lead in "Breaking Bad," could it have been as successful, or perceived as a really bad stereotype?

    Additionally, because of white privilege, white men never stop to consider how they might be perceived -- on or off the screen -- based on a character that they play. ...The only white actor I've ever heard express concern about playing a particular role was Brad Pitt. He was offered both Fassbender's and Cumberbatch's parts in "12 Years a Slave," but said he didn't want his children to see him in that type of role. ...Really quite interesting, I thought.

  • Daryl | February 4, 2014 6:11 PMReply

    Even through this article brings up good points , why do we keep spending so much time on calling out hollywood out on their racial practices instead of concentrating on doing for self and building our ownselves up. If we want to really change things, start ignoring the oscars and concentrate on our own awards shows and investing in our own stories. The oscars have no creditbility, it's all politics so why are they so important to us? These articles do nothing to change things because the powers that be want us to just keep talking instead of taking action, smh too many of us are in love and want acceptance from institutions that have no love for us.

  • Accidental Visitor | February 4, 2014 12:41 PMReply

    Pretty good writeup. A couple of these issues I have tried tackling before. This website tends to draw people who see white people in general as the obstacle in the entertainment industry or they pour their energy into writing nasty diatribes about white women specifically. But the truth is that it is white men who reap almost all the glory and awards when it comes to showbusiness, both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. Even white women play a secondary (at best) role to white men on the big screen. Hollywood films used to have about an equal amount of quality parts for females in its heyday. That is no longer the case.


    Black folks have invested time and effort complaining about some white chick who gets the rare opportunity (for a young woman) to write and produce for her own show because this lady didn't feature any black female characters in that show. Meanwhile we are more silent regarding the fact that during the summer blockbuster season, 90%to 95% of the major characters of the films released during that period are portrayed by white guys. Which of those outcomes are worse for people of color looking for opportunities? It should be eager to figure out.

  • Accidental Visitor | February 4, 2014 1:10 PM

    Also what I think can be taken away from this piece and the report is that white males aren't worried about playing characters who are moral, they are more focused on playing characters who are interesting. And the interesting characters typically provide the better roles.

  • urbanauteur | February 4, 2014 12:30 PMReply

    What if CHARLIE SHEEN was a Black man? starring JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE? you know? like that novel "Black Like Me"...

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