Hollywood’s Whiteout

Hollywood’s Whiteout

The New York Times

Manohla Dargis

A. O. Scott

CRAMMED into this year’s field of 10 best picture Oscar nominees are British aristocrats, Volvo-driving Los Angeles lesbians, a flock of swans, a gaggle of Harvard computer geeks, clans of Massachusetts fighters and Missouri meth dealers, as well as 19th-century bounty hunters, dream detectives and animated toys. It’s a fairly diverse selection in terms of genre, topic, sensibility, style and ambition. But it’s also more racially homogenous—more white—than the 10 films that were up for best picture in 1940, when Hattie McDaniel became the first black American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” In view of recent history the whiteness of the 2011 Academy Awards is a little blinding.

Nine years ago, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won his and her Oscars—he was only the second African-American man to win best actor, and she was the first African-American woman to win best actress—each took a moment to look back at the performers from earlier generations who had struggled against prejudice and fought to claim the recognition too often denied them…

…What happened? Is 2010 an exception to a general rule of growing diversity? Or has Hollywood, a supposed bastion of liberalism so eager in 2008 to help Mr. Obama make it to the White House, slid back into its old, timid ways? Can it be that the president’s status as the most visible and powerful African-American man in the world has inaugurated a new era of racial confusion—or perhaps a crisis in representation? Mr. Obama’s complex, seemingly contradictory identity as both a man (black, white, mixed) and a politician (right, left, center) have inspired puzzlement among his supporters who want him to be one thing and detractors who fear that he might be something else.

In their modest way American movies helped pave the way for the Obama presidency by popularizing and normalizing positive images of black masculinity. Actors like Mr. Poitier and Harry Belafonte made the leap, allowing black men to move beyond porters and pimps to play detectives, judges, the guy next door, the God upstairs and the decider in the Oval Office. At the same time, while the variety of roles increased, the commercially circumscribed representational conservatism of American cinema—with its genre prerogatives and appetite for uplift, its insistence on archetypes and stereotypes, villains and heroes—meant that these images tended to fit rather than break or bend the mold. Certainly this isn’t a cinema that jibes with what, in his 2007 memoir “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Obama called “the fluid state of identity.”…

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