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An Alternate Perspective On Sexism and Racism In Movies

93 percent. If you are even tangentially related to the film industry, you hear that number and think ‘the percent of Major Oscars which haven’t gone to minorities or women’. When a fact as glaring as that exists, it’s all hands on deck to try and rectify the environment of filmmaking. But, I believe, the problem goes deeper than hiring minorities and women to write/act/direct—hiring, in this sense, meaning a simple consideration of work monumentally more talented than the schlock we call ‘a necessary evil’.

If I may speak as a part of the absurdly exalted demographic, movies cannot just include minorities and women. The only thing more insulting to see than an all-white, all-male cast is one that moves around diverse characters like props. Actually, I take that back—the only thing more insulting than prop characters are malicious characters who serve to highlight how good and virtuous whitey is. But, and here’s the central point, I don’t believe that that’s always racism speaking. Or sexism. What I believe exists universally is an unattended problem with story.

Europe gets a lot of credit for making more nuanced, ambiguous films. The good guy might fail completely. People get away with wrongdoing because it’s based in fucking reality. Minor characters are afforded as much depth as major characters. Coincidentally, I also don’t read as many complaints about racism or sexism in European filmmaking (excluding films about football). Black guy and a white girl? Sure! Who gives a shit? A woman behind the lens? Why not? America’s reaction: ‘Well, they’re European. They can do that.’

My reaction: ‘Do we actually believe Europe is more diverse than us?’ Hardly anyone is more diverse than us! Each state, nay, each city is a new culture unto itself. Europe is actually quite well contained. (History hasn’t been as kind to them, re: bring me your tired, hungry, poor masses—oh, shit, they’re invading.) I guarantee that if America were more open-minded about story, racism and sexism would have a hell of a lot easier time drifting off into the dreams of the past. But through the Star Wars Indoctrination, we need to know who’s good and who’s bad by the end of the movie. Maybe not perfectly, but we should have a clear idea.

We also know that studios are now all-in financially when it comes to production. So the non-white-males find themselves in the Position of the Intern. I’m sure you’re aware of: ‘Entry-level position. Must have three years of experience to apply’. Minority actors never become bankable because the major roles only open up to minor characters who have gained huge recognition and likability. Unfortunately, because of the tenets of American Storytelling, the minor character, the ambitious intern, is told to sit in a room until he/she is needed to make other people look good. Giving the minor character any other job would turn people off to this fucking moronic and very profitable notion of story that we’ve created.

And as for minority directors? I honestly have no idea what to tell you. Even ‘good luck’ seems condescending. I do know that more fleshed-out characters result in better stories and better stories mean more work for the director, in the future.

We have a problem with over-reliance on simple opposites in storytelling. Think of it not as white=good and black=bad. Think of it as ‘good needs bad to be good’ and ‘smart needs dumb to be smart’. In real life, this is, of course, unnecessary. You can’t get into Yale by giving them a list of GPAs lower than yours. But in the movies, it seems to be the rule. Yes, the Powers That Be have made racist and sexist decisions. But attacking those decisions from a standpoint of anti-racism and anti-sexism will fall on deaf ears, because putting a white male in a movie isn’t inherently offensive and won’t bring out the pitchforks like Donald Sterling’s recent speech did. Making money is how you bless yourself beneath the Hollywood sign.

So instead, I’d encourage you to lob your justified cries toward a shift in the paradigm of story. If enough ‘tentpole templates’ start to crash—and they currently are—executives will think differently about race and gender real quick. If movie stars have to start from the bottom, improve the bottom. Give the higher-ups an IMdB-certified reason not to skip over a talented Asian female during casting. Good roles on TV shows with decent ratings will not a minority movie star make.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: otool102@mail.chapman.edu