If you, like me, were among the millions of people who watched the Academy awards being beamed live, you would have had to wait for later news bulletins to see that there was a group of protesters near the venue. Obviously, the demonstrators, led by civil rights leader and talkshow host Reverend Al Sharpton, were not going to be allowed to rain on the glittering parade at the Dolby theatre and the biggest filmi do on the planet.
The protest may have been peaceable, and the numbers may have been small, but it was a counterpoint. It’s one thing for host Chris Rock to have tossed out the Black and White question right up front, the sharpness of his opening monologue being co-opted by the fact that he was part of the party. As well as muted by the laughter, a mix of the uneasy and accepting, which was generated among the beautiful people, all waiting for their trophies. It is quite another thing to see a group of people, clearly boycotting the event, from the other side.
The question is not whether there should be more diversity among the nominees, which kick-started the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Of course, there should.
The real concern, which no one touched upon, is just how this is going to happen. Yes, Blacks, Hispanics, Latinos were left out of the nominees, but the only time Asians came up, they were made into an unfunny feeding-into-stereotype joke. And no, Priyanka Chopra’s presence didn’t make up for it.
Simply put, the diversity pipeline is long and vexed. We laughed dutifully at the little skits in which Black faces replaced White ones. But can you imagine a major studio backing a film like The Martians (in which, nominee Matt Damon learns to survive on Mars by, among other things, growing potatoes in his own, um, excrement) if it starred a Black actor?
There’s Will Smith, sure, but he’s good to knock off a few aliens right here on earth, along with a White companion. Would we have rooted as much for a Black version of Best-Actor-Finally-Phew-Here’s-Your-Oscar Leo DiCaprio, eating raw bison liver and doing other incredible things to be able to live, in The Revenant?
No, the great survival heroes have to be White for movies to sell around the world because even though more than half the world may be non-White, the narratives coming out of Hollywood’s grand, richly bankrolled tentpole dramas or superhero franchises have been largely white.
Yes, Spiderman is still strictly Caucasian. He may never be of any other race, unless there’s a lot more diversity among the decision-makers, the suits who greenlight movies after approving star casts and scripts.
And then, of course, just like that old Indian saying, “women, Dalits and ‘anya pichhde varg’ (women, Dalits, and other backward classes)”, there is negligible representation of other groups, which include gender, sexuality, as well as people of all colour. Why have the categories of “male” and “female” at all, asked Rock. Because everyone is an actor, right?
When an award-winner (and, as he put it, “openly gay man” Sam Smith) dedicates his trophy to the “LGBT community”, it is a moment. When an actor playing a character who underwent a sex change is among the nominees, it makes a statement. When a woman takes away the Best Director’s statuette, we all stand up and applaud.
And that’s the thing. This is not the 1950s where, as Rock put it so succinctly, Black people were still “hung from trees”, and strict segregation was the dividing line among races. This is 2016. We should be able to take diversity for granted. But these nominations seem like such a mingy thing, a sort of here-you-are-now-keep-quiet olive branch handed out just so the rest of it — the “White People’s Choice Awards”, in Rock’s words — can go on undisturbed.
Quite clearly, it is still a fight that needs to be fought, and conversations that need to be had. Not just in all-White Hollywood, but in “all-savarna” Bollywood. In Martin Luther King’s immortal 1963 speech, we still have a dream. Raise the flag.