For two years in a row, when the nominations for the annual Academy Awards were announced, all 20 men and women nominated in the four acting categories (five apiece for actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress) were white people. (Note to Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway: That is what is known as a verifiable, not alternative, fact.)
In the “bigger picture” of things, that doesn’t bother me too much. In America, the largest group of people is white folk. (And, it’s worth noting that “white” can contain a lot of diversity within that label, just like it can for black, native, Latino and Asian folk.) So, statistically speaking, there are going to be years in which the crop of movies that were produced in that year will have characters who are all or mostly white. In fact, that’s how it’s been for most of the now 89 years of the awards program for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In the modern era, however, the problem arises when there are movies in which there exist characters played by actors who aren’t white who turned in performances that were worthy of an Oscar nomination but were passed over. That was happened in 2015 and 2016, and that was the reason for the #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon of the last two years, as well as last year’s shakeup in the membership of the AMPAS.
While diversity among the racial and ethnic makeup of Americans as a whole is as old as America itself, the recognition of that fact (there’s that troublesome word again) has only really been acknowledged in American movies and TV shows since the civil rights era that grew in the 1950s and 1960s.
So, in the modern era, to have movies made in which not even one non-white actor or actress was acknowledged (presuming that there was such a role in that year) or if there was no such role from which to choose at all, that is when there is a problem.
Why is that even a problem? Invisibility. While totally cool as a superpower that one could turn on and off at will, invisibility is totally uncool, man, when you’re a member of society, but your existence is left out or unacknowledged in mass media like movies and television. (Incidentally, television has traditionally been Frank Stallone, while movies were Sylvester Stallone — but as a medium it has pretty much caught up with and in many ways surpassed movies in impact, importance and relevance. Movies, though, will probably always have the upper row seat. After all, movies can be regarded as cinema, but TV is just TV.)
There is a related, ongoing problem, and that’s when the words “diversity” and “inclusion” as they pertain to race and ethnicity, only equate to making sure that black acting talent is recognized. While that is a different discussion, it is one that needs to take place, especially in the context of comedians like Chris Rock (last year’s Oscar show host) and Steve Harvey — who you’d think, as black men, would be more enlightened on the topic — who either don’t acknowledge that inclusion means more than just other black folks (Rock) or that when it comes to people of Asian descent, mockery and derision are perfectly fine (Rock and Harvey).
Regardless, congratulations are due to the lead and supporting actresses, respectively (Isabelle Huppert [“Elle”], Ruth Negga [“Loving”], Natalie Portman [“Jackie”], Emma Stone [“La La Land”] and Meryl Streep [“Florence Foster Jenkins”], and Viola Davis [“Fences”], Naomie Harris [“Moonlight”], Nicole Kidman [“Lion”], Octavia Spencer [“Hidden Figures”] and Michelle Williams [“Manchester by the Sea”], as well as the lead and supporting actors (Casey Affleck [“Manchester by the Sea”], Andrew Garfield [“Hacksaw Ridge”], Ryan Gosling [“La La Land”], Viggo Mortensen [“Viggo Mortensen”] and Denzel Washington [“Fences”], and Mahershala Ali [“Moonlight”], Jeff Bridges [“Hell or High Water”], Lucas Hedges [“Manchester by the Sea”], Dev Patel [“Lion”] and Michael Shannon [“Nocturnal Animals”]. To see a list with photos, go to http://tinyurl.com/hl33wlm.
Like last year, I spoke with Chris Tashima to get his take on the 2016 class of Oscar nominations, and figured I should make this an annual thing, and not just limit it to the acting pics. The reason why is pretty easy: He’s the only friend of mine who has won an Oscar (“Visas and Virtue”) and is also a member of AMPAS. It’s always great talking with Tashima, who always has a lot to say, although he might appear taciturn if you were to bump into him in at the supermarket. He is actually quite loquacious and once he gets warmed up on a topic, he is both eloquent and articulate.
When I asked him about this reaction to this year’s noms, Tashima said, “My reaction is largely positive because it’s quite a different crop of nominees in terms of race as a whole. It’s important that that happened.
“A lot of what has come out of all this is: ‘Just give us opportunity.’ I think Viola Davis gave a great speech about that when she won an Emmy last year. [Note: A clip of the “How to Get Away With Murder” star’s Emmy acceptance speech for can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/hk32oc7] That’s really all we’re talking about. The problem in the past was, ‘Well, we don’t have opportunity.’ And here you have great examples of people being given opportunity and they hit the ball out of the park.”
Regarding Patel’s nomination for “Lion,” Tashima noted that he could have just as well been nominated in the lead actor category, but speculated that the decision to pursue the supporting actor nom vs. lead actor nom was probably his publicist’s, in order to increase his chances of winning something rather than nothing.
He also noted that many non-white folk below the line (anyone who is not an actor, director, producer or writer) and in other categories also got nominated this time around. Still, Tashima noted many of the movies that were recognized were guilty of “white privilege,” in which movies with mundane, unremarkable characters get recognized.
“We have to be extraordinary, like in ‘Hidden Figures.’ People say, why don’t they make a movie about [Chiune] Sugihara, because he was extraordinary. Those are almost the only kind of [non-white] people who are considered to be a figure in a movie, or if they overcame extraordinary odds,” Tashima said.
While he lamented the whitewashing that’s still going on in Hollywood and the work that still needs to be done, on a positive note Tashima said, “I’m still sensing, seeing and hearing a big shift in the industry, understanding what this whole diversity push is about.”
On a slight tangent, Tashima told me about his participation in “Go for Broke,” an in-production movie he traveled to Hawaii to be in. Written and executive-produced by Stacey Hayashi, it’s the story of the formation of the 100th Battalion after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor; I’ll be writing more about that project in the near future. But we noted how, with “Hacksaw Ridge,” movies about World War II are as popular as ever. That could bode well for Hayashi’s project.
Meantime, the Mel Gibson-directed “Hacksaw Ridge” and the Martin Scorsese-directed “Silence” are both set in Japan, though centuries apart, and both have at their core conflict between East and West, with Westerners going to Japan in a battle over religion in the case of one, and all-out war in the other. Though he didn’t care much for “Silence,” Tashima praised one of its actors, Issey Ogata. “He’s just amazing,” he said. “He steals every scene. He creates such an amazing character and it’s one of those performances that screams ‘Oscar nomination’ to me — but I think, for a lot of reasons, he got ignored totally by every organization, no one’s barely mentioned him, he’s never gotten any recognition from SAG-AFTRA, Golden Globes — he’s off the radar.
“I wasn’t expecting him to be nominated, but it was absolutely a performance that was worthy of it. If it had been a European or British actor who had done that, people would have recognized him. But, he’s a Japanese actor, no one has heard of him. It’s almost sitting through the two hours and 41 minutes just for him.”
The 2017 Oscars show will be live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 26.
Book Offer Dept.: Earlier this month, I wrote about a new book titled “Honor Before Glory” by Scott McGaugh. It’s subject matter was the rescue of the Lost Battalion by the 100th Battalion/442n RCT during WWII.
I have a copy I’d like to give away to a Rafu Shimpo reader. Here’s the catch. You need to visit Rafu.com and find the version of this column online. In the comments section below it, write something — anything, actually — and I’ll randomly pick one of the people who write and mail you the book.
Why this method? I’d like people to visit the site and comment, which hardly ever happens. Try it, you might like it — and maybe win a free book. You’re chances are pretty good, since no one ever does it.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.