A few years ago, my cousin told me he wanted to be an actor. I told him that as a Middle Eastern man he better get used to playing terrorists and cab drivers because those are the only roles he’d ever be offered. It broke my heart to tell him that, even as I knew the truth of what I said.
I’m not ashamed of my Lebanese heritage but I don’t talk much about it these days. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I look white, so it doesn’t come up naturally in conversation. Or maybe I’ve become very protective of that part of my identity in the wake of Donald Trump’s new war on Islam (I’m not Muslim, but that’s not really the point). But just because I don’t wear it on my sleeve doesn’t mean I don’t get a special sense of satisfaction when I see Arab actors making it in Hollywood. Every time Saïd Taghmaoui, Faran Tahir, and Ghassan Massoud get roles that don't reduce them to a trope, I feel like a tiny sliver of progress has been made.
Representation matters to me because I want to see more Arab actors onscreen and I want to see them treated as people, not stereotypes. It matters to a lot of folks too. White people aren't the only ones with stories to tell. Just to put some figures behind it: of the 310 million people who live in America, 39 million are Black or African-American, 4 million are Asian, and 50 million are Hispanic or Latino. A full third of this country is of minority origin. That’s a lot of people who aren’t having stories made for them. People whose lives are undermined because filmmakers don't respect them enough to diversify their casts and crews. And believe it or not those people go to the movies too.
This is why people are so upset at the Oscars this year and why #OscarsSoWhite has been trending for the second year in a row. It’s inconceivable that the Academy couldn’t find a single actor or filmmaker of color this year worthy of an award when off the top of my head I can name Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, and Aaron Covington for Creed, Idris Elba and Cary Fukunaga for Beasts of No Nation, Kiki Rodriguez for Tangerine, Spike Lee for Chi-Raq, and Jason Mitchell for Straight Outta Compton as legitimate contenders. Last year, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo were unfairly shut out for their work on Selma.
The Oscar slights aren’t really the issue, however. It’s just an awards ceremony and not as important in the grand scheme of things as, say, police brutality against black teenagers, oppressive poverty, or mass shootings. But the Oscar flap does visibly highlight a much larger problem: the lack of opportunity for people of color throughout this country, particularly in Hollywood. Hollywood is a unique beast because despite its reputation as a liberal enclave, it’s still mired in a Cold War-era conservative groupthink, the most pernicious notion being that white actors make a movie more profitable than actors of color. When you justify it that way - the thinking goes - it’s not racism. It’s just business… except that’s the dictionary definition of institutional racism: a policy or practice that has a negative aggregate effect on a whole class of people. That’s what people are so up in arms about now. Not only are filmmakers being denied the honors they rightly deserve, but their denial by the Academy perpetuates the status quo in a way that is almost rubbing their faces in it. As if to say, "we gave Oscars to Denzel and Halle. What more do you want from us?" In essence, the Oscars have become the public face of a problem that’s long been known but little acknowledged until recently.
There are simply not enough opportunities for minorities in front of or behind the camera, a reality that vaulted into the national discourse this past fall when Matt Damon and producer Effie Brown went to war over the racial makeup of the crew on Project Greenlight. Damon believed that the best way to fight racism was to cast a diverse group of actors. Brown rightfully argued that hiring a diverse cast wasn’t enough; it was just as important to ensure the diversity of the crew as well. Damon retorted by mansplaining diversity to Brown, herself an accomplished and celebrated black producer. Not only was his response remarkably tone deaf, but it proved to be the ideal example of how institutional racism works. You don’t have to BE racist to perpetuate racism (and for the record, I don’t believe that Matt Damon is racist). You just have to sustain the status quo by ensuring that white actors and crew members keep getting the jobs that could be going to equally qualified people of color. Without meaning to, Damon proved what has been blatantly obvious to many of us: Hollywood is for white people. Say what you will about Tyler Perry (and much has been said about him), but you can’t deny that he’s single-handedly kept a whole industry of black actors, actresses, and filmmakers employed.
Luckily the solution to this problem is simple. First, fix the Academy so actors and filmmakers of color don’t get shut out repeatedly. Thankfully this is already happening. In response to the #OscarsSoWhite outcry, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has promised to institute substantive changes to membership rules in order to increase diversity within the Academy’s voting bloc. Second, hire more black actors. Hire more Latino producers. Hire more woman directors. Greenlight more films that don’t originate from a white man’s point of view. I think you’d be surprised how quickly the conventional wisdom about profitability goes out the window. I’ll be curious to see what effects, if any, the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has on this kind of thinking. Not only is it the biggest film in history, but it's fronted by a diverse cast including a black man (John Boyega), a white woman (Daisy Ridley), and a Hispanic man (Oscar Isaac) whose character, if rumors are to be believed, may be gay. Hollywood has a tendency to learn the wrong lessons from its successes and failures, but maybe this time they'll get it right.
Whenever this issue comes up, there are those who will invariably argue that the best person should be hired for the job regardless of race or ethnicity. That’s a fair argument to make, but if all the jobs are filled by white people, aren’t you really just saying that white people are inherently more qualified than non-whites?
As a thought experiment, ask yourself how many characters truly need to be played by a white person. I submit that the answer is probably far less than you think. In instances where that whiteness is crucial to the character’s makeup, I think it makes sense. But there are always caveats.
Supergirl is one of the biggest hits on TV right now and that show recast Jimmy Olsen as a black man (Mehcad Brooks). Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has taken the world by storm, receiving universal acclaim and selling out shows so far in advance that I can’t even get tickets until next September. The broadway musical has a nearly all-black/Hispanic cast playing historical white figures like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. So even in cases where history tells you “you have to hire a white actor for this role,” well, you don’t. You can always take artistic liberties. Is there really any reason why Spider-Man can’t be played by a young Hispanic kid? Is there really any reason why George Washington can’t be played by a black man? Is there really any reason why Bob Dylan can’t be played by a woman?
Of course not. That’s the point of art.
I understand why you’d want your movie to be fronted by Brad Pitt. But maybe you can find a way to gender- and race-bend that character and still make the film interesting and financially successful. Glenn Rhee is the most popular character on The Walking Dead and it’s not because he’s white. It’s because he’s compelling. And he’s not a racist caricature either. He’s a fully developed human person who just happens to be of Korean ancestry.
Representation matters because it reflects what our society really is. America is not comprised of a homogenous group of white people, no matter what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would like us to believe. It's important because it validates the lives and struggles of everyone, not just white Americans. I think representation on film is a moral imperative, and that's why it matters to me. And there are 100 million Americans who I bet it matters to as well.