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#14 – OscarsSoWhite and the Diversity Issue: Problems of Translation

Posted on Jan 19, 2016 in The Wall | 0 comments

Idris Elba on UK parliament

OscarsSoWhite and the Diversity Issue: Problems of Translation

Yesterday in US was celebrated Martin Luther King’s Day and Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee used the social media to take a stand on the lack of black filmmakers nominated for the Oscars. For the second year running, no actor or actress of color is present among the twenty nominees in the acting categories, and that particularly hurt Lee and Pinkett, actress and wife of Will Smith, lead in Peter Landesman’s Concussion, out in Italian theaters only in April 21, a film appreciated by Roger Ebert and The Hollywood Reporter but completely ignored by the members of Academy. There were at least four other “black” films that could have been selected for a nomination: namely F. Gary Gray acclaimed homage to legendary group NWA, Straight Outta Compton; Cary Fukunaga war drama Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba; Spike Lee’s Chi-raq, saluted as the most relevant “joint” produced by Atlanta’s golden boy in years; and Creed, the new chapter in the Rocky Balboa saga, directed and starred by the lead couple of Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan), whose value was in the end translated into two “white” nominations, for Sylvester Stallone (Best Supporting Actor) and for the screenwriters (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, as authors of the Best Original Screenplay).

“Begging diminishes dignity and power” was the main slogan in the video message recorded and posted yesterday on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook page. “Is it time that people of color recognize how much power, influence, that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?” she added in the video. “Maybe it’s time that we pull back our resources and we put them back in our community, into our programs, and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit, that are just as good as the ‘mainstream’ ones.” Announcing her decision to boycott the ceremony, while at the same time wishing all the best to the host, black comedian Chris Rock, the actress concluded addressing particularly to black filmmakers: “Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people and we are powerful”. It is not clear if that is to be interpreted as a personal engagement to invest more on black talent; influent blogger Tambay Obenson responded polemically that Jada, Will Smith (who by the way runs an independent Studio, Overbrook Entertainment, since 1997) and all the big black names in Hollywood should do themselves more in order to affect a real change than to add some “lip service”.

If Jada’s intervention is bound to raise discussions, even more controversial could result from Spike Lee’s declaration, posted on his Instagram account yesterday, and stating his intention not to participate to the ceremony of this year, in protest against “another all white ballot”, especially after the recent decision of the Academy to attribute to Lee an honorary Oscar, for which Spike publicly thanked the President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governors. He explicitly mentioned the acceptance speech made in November, saying that “it’s easier for an African-American to be President of the United States than be president of a Hollywood studio” and inviting Hollywood producers to invest more on diversity, trusting at least “the United States Census Bureau”, according to which “white Americans will be a minority in America by the year 2044” and to learn from what is being done in sports, music and social media.

The Twitter campaign #OscarsSoWhite was diffused one year ago after the controversial decision to snub Selma by Ava DuVernay, excluding particularly the director and the lead David Oyelowo from the nominations. Already in February 2012, Los Angeles Times published an article on the composition of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), including at that time 5,765 members, in which resulted that “Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male”, “blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%”. Academy tried to move things, electing a black female president in July 2013, aforementioned Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and inviting 332 new members in 2015, among which many were women and many BAME (including actor Oyelowo and actress Gugu Mbatha Row), but the law of big numbers is still there, and the major problem concerns the executives of Hollywood and TV studios, who are almost exclusively white and male. Responding to the polemics against the “all white ballot”, rev. Al Shapton declared “Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher up you get the whiter it gets”.

Yet yesterday was the day also of Idris Elba, who was invited to give a speech on diversity across British television and film in the House of Parliament, in an event organized by Channel 4, in which about one hundred members (all white…) were present, included the Minister of Culture Ed Vaizey. In his long, remarkable speech, 43 years old UK-born Idris Elba, son of a Ghanaian mother and Sierra Leonean father, worldly acclaimed for his roles in Hollywood blockbusters (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: The Dark World, Thor) and in successful TV series like BBC Luther, praised United States for having “the most famous diversity policy of all: it’s called the American Dream. The problem is the gap between the dream and reality. That gap is what Martin Luther King set out to fill with his dream. […]. I want that British dream”. Elba mentioned specifically Keli Lee’s Diverse Casting Initiative at DisneyABC, the important role played by Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, thanks to which Viola Davis won last year the first-ever Emmy award for best acting in a drama given to a black woman, and the authors of Star Wars’ latest episode in which a British African actor like John Boyega could play an important role, and we see a princess “growing up to be a general”.

Elba, whose speech was constellated by expressions of approval and amusement from the audience, revisited his path as a young worker at Daghenham, committed to fit tyres, but also his passion for acting, the grant of Prince’s Trust that made possible for him to attend National Music Youth Theater, the first roles designed exclusively for black athletic actors, and the decision to move to Hollywood: “So I got to a certain point in my career, and I saw that glass ceiling [...]. I was busy, I was getting lots of work, but I realized I could only play so many ‘best friends’ or ‘gang leaders’. I knew I wasn’t going to land a lead role. I knew there wasn’t enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead. In other words, if I wanted to star in a British drama like Luther, then I’d have to go to a country like America”.

With reference to multicultural society, Elba defended proudly British model: “In terms of real estate on this earth, we’re a small island. But in terms of culture we’re a continent. The Britain I come from is the most successful, diverse, multicultural country on earth”. At the same time, whilst recognizing what has been done in British television along these years, he pointed the finger at the “disconnect between the real world & TV world”: “there’s an even bigger gap between people who make TV, and people who watch TV. I should know, I live in the TV world. And although there’s a lot of reality TV, TV hasn’t caught up with reality. Change is coming, but it’s taking its sweet time”.

In a crucial passage, Elba highlighted his own engagement for diversity all the way round: “I’m not here to talk about black people; I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin color. It’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV & film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned”.

Elba invoked ambitiously a “change of mindset” and “a Magna Carta moment” “to redesign the face of British TV”, taking advantage of the so-called Project Diamond, thanks to which “for the first time we’ll have hard data across the TV industry on who’s doing exactly what, where, and when”. The actor proclaimed repeatedly the importance of imagination, as a way to leave behind all stereotypes and boxes we live in, also in creative industries: “Audiences don’t want to see caricatures. Because the point about a caricature is this: you’ve seen it all before. So I want our incredibly creative and successful TV industry to be more imaginative with the cultural exports we send around the world”. This plea for change is justified by three convictions: 1) “the TV world helps shape the real world”; 2) “the creative industries are the foundation of Britain’s future economy”; 3) “if you want to safeguard the economy, you have to safeguard the Creative Industries; and they rely on talent. […] But when you don’t reflect the real world, too much talent is trashed. Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t”.

It’s no wonder that, while the controversy around the Oscars and the two interventions by Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee were variously commented on main Italian newspapers like la Repubblica, La Stampa, Il Fatto Quotidiano and even right wing Il Giornale – remarkable also the article published on Il Post -, only movie website Movieplayer.it published a brief account of the speech by Idris Elba, whose video registration was published by Channel 4 on YouTube, together with the entire text. It’s no wonder that no one even tried to translate to the Italian context the diversity issue in film and TV industries, starting from the arguments raised by Elba in more general terms and by Pinkett-Smith and Lee with reference to race in US.

In our blog since October we have been trying to comment the faint, tentative, timid signs coming from Italian TV regarding diversity and specifically race, gender and sex, with reference to some TV series featuring characters of African or Afrodescendant (young) women and characters also of Italian women or girls expressing a lesbian orientation (in È arrivata la felicità, Tutto può succedere and Tutti insieme all’improvviso). These signs have to be evaluated with great interest in a political contingency like this one, characterized in Italy as in other European countries, after the attacks on Paris of November 2015 and the facts that took place in Cologne on January 1st, 2016, by the resurgence of a climate of suspicion against immigrants and refugees, notably coming from Muslim countries and communities and by the discussion in the Italian parliament of two draft laws concerning same sex unions and second generation rights of citizenship.

These two legislative proposals are being heavily debated in TV, in mainstream media and on the social media, also because their fate appears hanging by a thread. No one still evoked the issue of diversity in creative industries and in mainstream imagery, with reference to race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Possibly, social and political groups who promote and support actively these proposals are focused on the aim of winning this battle before opening a wider front on the issues of diversity, image and representation. Let me just remind you, to quote Idris again, that “It’s all our business. And that’s why everyone should care about our media industry – it’s the custodian of our global identity”.

According to the last data available, on almost 61 millions of people based in Italy (60,795,612, at December 31, 2014), there is an estimated number of 5,421,000 foreign citizens, who represent more than the 8 per cent of the population, coming from about 200 countries. It is quite complicated to estimate the number of citizens who acquired the Italian citizenship in a way or the other (via marriage, naturalization, presence of Italian ancestors, etc.): only in 2014 were 130,000, almost 690,000 between 2002 and 2014. Reasonably we count at least one million of people, so it means that at least one in ten people based in Italy is a foreign citizen or has acquired Italian citizenship. How many films, TV programs, theatrical productions reflect this articulated image of the Italian population? Just to limit ourselves to films and TV series, how many titles feature roles and/or characters belonging to this very general category of “Italy-based people with a non-Italian provenance”? How many of them include these performers in the opening credits, as part of the main cast?

The problem is by the way even more complex if we take into considerations the boxes and stereotypes evoked by Elba. Some days ago my friend Hedy Krissane, a Tunisia-born actor and director in Italy since early 1990s, legitimately asked himself on his Facebook page why the name of Emmanuel Dabone is not present in the opening credits of Quo vado?, the last feature by Gennaro Nunziante and starring comedian Checco Zalone – the most viewed Italian film in national film box office with almost 60 million euros, second only to Avatar (65 millions) -, although the role of Kato bears undoubtedly a certain relevance. I agree with him also because, as evoked before, it is not at all an isolated case: in Italian film and TV series actors of foreign origins are often marginalized, absent from the posters and from the press sheets, hidden in the bottomless pit of ending credits when not frankly erased at all. But we could also raise, in this case, the issue of the image of blacks and of Africa, which combines an exotic-cartoonish repertory of figures and the familiar, humanitarian imagery of the hospitals installed by western NGOs. We could and I did it, on my review in Italian on Cinemafrica, but when confronted recently on the image of Italy produced by Quo vado? an influential la Repubblica journalist, Ilvo Diamanti, concluded that “Zalone’s Italy reflects [...] the values and the economic and social benchmarks that characterized our society, in the post-war period”, avoiding to evoke its imagery of Africa as Dark Continent, inhabited by savage natives and generous Western aid workers, so congenial also to the familiar image of Italiani brava gente. This imagery is somewhat filtered by an ironic glance but is very difficult to reconsider it in an anti-hegemonic, progressive perspective.

Those interventions evoked may usefully raise questions of cultural translation, involving also the hegemonic self-image of Italy we like to preserve, which includes all its myths, notably that of racial innocence of Italian people. If no Italian commentator ever posed himself (or herself) the question if in Italy too we may possibly have a problem with diversity in creative industries, that happens simply because diversity is still considered a non-issue in our country. 

Contributors: Leonardo De Franceschi

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