For the past week, the Oscar diversity issue has been an outraged, white-hot-button topic with actors and industry members of all stripes coming out all calling for the Academy and the industry to make changes, and present a more diverse face not just at the awards show, but in the boardrooms, movie sets, and beyond. The conversation has been tough, and sometimes hyperbolic, and in a country where race is still a very sensitive issue, where #blacklivesmatter remains a potent and important movement, these feelings are being worked out in a public discourse, for better or worse. It's crucial that the discussion is happening, but sometimes in the process of airing thoughts on the matter, the lack of nuance can create an atmosphere that sometimes makes it feel like figuring out how progress can be made is being overshadowed by polemic. But today, a new and ugly sentiment has surfaced, one that perhaps shows the colors that some Academy members don't necessarily want to display.
In an interview with French Radio network Europe 1 on Friday morning (via Les InRocks with translation from The Guardian), "45 Years" star and Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling was asked about the controversy, and made the rather astonishing proclamation: “It is racist to whites.”
“One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list,” Rampling added, and when asked if there should be a quota system (which no one has suggested), she responded: “Why classify people? These days everyone is more or less accepted ... People will always say: ‘Him, he’s less handsome’; ‘Him, he’s too black’; ‘He is too white’ ... someone will always be saying ‘You are too’ [this or that] ... But do we have to take from this that there should be lots of minorities everywhere?”
And Rampling's reply of "no comment" when told that many black actors feel like minorities in the industry, is troublesome and speaks volumes.
So, is Rampling's opinion an outlier? According to Los Angeles Times writer Glenn Whipp, "Charlotte Rampling is an Academy member...And I can tell you many other members publicly share her sentiments."
Whether or not other Academy members take the ridiculous "reverse racism" position, there is clearly a major lack of awareness of how white privilege works, and a tone-deafness to the thoughts and feelings that many minority actors have made clear recently. My guess is that some Academy members' thinking is probably closer in line with Michael Caine's, who, when asked about the issue by Radio 4 (via The Independent), said that black actors needed to "be patient."
“Of course it will come. It took me years to get an Oscar, years,” he added. But again, this is ignorant of the quiet social forces that have kept black and minority performances unrecognized for years. However, Caine adds that awards should be handed out on merit, and no one disagrees with that, but that playing field needs to be a fair one to start with.
“There’s loads of black actors. In the end you can't vote for an actor because he's black. You can't say 'I'm going to vote for him, he's not very good, but he's black, I'll vote for him,' ” Caine said, sounding better-intentioned than Rampling, but still walking a problematic line. "You have to give a good performance and I'm sure people have. I saw Idris Elba (in 'Beasts Of No Nation'). I thought he was wonderful.” Of course, Elba was not nominated.
Rampling's comments are already making major shockwaves around social media spheres, and one can only imagine Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is already under immense pressure to make substantial changes and address the issue, isn't happy that one of her Oscar nominees is putting out this kind of statement. But perhaps this is the sort of thing we need to hear, because it can be very easy to forget why this conversation is so important, why it needs to happen, and it highlights exactly the kinds of attitudes Hollywood needs to change in its corridors.