Friday, December 2, 2011

Whiteout hits cinemas at 2011 award season

Posted By on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 4:07 PM

TREATED LIKE A PARIAH? Adepero Oduye of Pariah
I'm happy that my colleague Ed Adams was able to review Kinyarwanda, a new drama about the 1994 Rwandan genocide to which Roger Ebert gives four stars. Kinyarwanda also deserves attention because it's one of the only new movies to open this weekend, as well as one of the few this season that involves non-white subject matter.

I started to notice the striking whiteness of the current cinema while watching Happy Feet 2, of all things, which features such voice performers as Sofía Vergara, Common and Li'l P-Nut as well as a dance number inspired by Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation." Acknowledging the presence of Robin Williams voicing penguins with Latino and African-American accents, I wondered if Happy Feet 2 was one of the most diverse films I've seen lately. The only other movies I noticed that prominently feature multi-ethnic casts were Tower Heist (with Eddie Murphy, Michael Peña and Gabourey Sidibe) and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (Kal Penn, John Cho, Danny Trejo), which seems kind of embarassing.

Meanwhile, the would-be prestige films and Oscar contenders look even whiter than normal. Perhaps by coincidence, many of them recount historical tales set in England and Western Europe. A Dangerous Method profiles Freud and Jung in Vienna on the eve of The Great War, while War Horse depicts Devon and France during World War I. Hugo takes place in Paris in the 1930s. In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close impersonates a man in 19th century Ireland. Meryl Streep spans the career of English prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, while Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy concerns British espionage in the 1970s. Granted, I haven't seen most of these, but their subject matter seems unlikely to feature prominent roles of color, like the ones that won Oscar nominations for Viola Davis in Doubt or Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The ones with contemporary settings scarcely look any less monochromatic, like David Fincher's upcoming thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, set in Sweden, or Woody Allen's summer hit Midnight in Paris. To its credit, J. Edgar treats the FBI director's persecution of Martin Luther King Jr. as a despicable decision, but the film features no memorable African-American characters. The family at the center of of The Descendants has roots with Hawaii's original natives, but George Clooney's character acknowledges that they're "haole," or white.

Granted, complaining about the lack of ethnic representation in the Academy Award nominees tends to be an annual tradition. In the current season, however, Hollywood seems to have taken a step backward, shying away from engaging with the multiple facets of life in the early 21st century. There's no equivalent to Slumdog Millionaire, Hustle & Flow or Babel. Even The Help, a box office hit over the summer and an all-but-assured Best Picture nominee, takes place in the Jim Crow era.

As usual, independent cinema proves more willing to engage with today's multi-culti society. Due to open in Atlanta on Jan. 13, Dee Rees' Pariah depicts a 17 year-old African American teen (Adepero Oduye) who embraces her identity as a lesbian, and may be the closest we'll get this year to a Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Earlier this year, the high-spirited, low-budgeted British B-movie Attack the Block proved more willing to address racial tensions in modern cities than any of the so-called "important films." However, pointing out the work of unsung screen artists of color, like Shame director Steve McQueen, feels like making the claim "Some of my best friends are black!"

This is not to condemn the new films individually, only to call for Hollywood to make more of an effort to reflect our interconnected, increasingly polyglot global communities, which should be replete with provocative comedies and relevant dramas. Filmmakers can come up with creative ways to be more inclusive. While Roman Polanski gathered an impressive, all-white cast for Carnage (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly), the Alliance Theatre's upcoming production of the film's source material, God of Carnage, flips the script with an all African-American cast. All Hollywood needs to do its broaden its horizons from the all-white narrative territory.

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