This week’s tempest in a show-biz teapot is brought to you by the Hollywood Reporter, the entertainment industry trade glossy. Each November, the Reporter corrals a group of actors or actresses deemed relevant to the upcoming awards season and engages them in a photoshoot and roundtable discussion. It’s a glitzy annual rite that also bespeaks a desire to be taken seriously on the part of both the magazine and the performers (or at least their management teams).
This year the chosen actresses, dubbed “The Great Eight,” discuss the pay gap, gender backlash, and other issues confronting women in Hollywood. The group consists of Cate Blanchett (here for either “Truth” or “Carol,” presumably), Carey Mulligan (“Suffragette”), Brie Larson (“Room”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”), Kate Winslet (“Steve Jobs”), Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”), Helen Mirren (“Woman in Gold”), and Jane Fonda (“Youth”). A classy, powerhouse gathering, and, yes, they’re all white. That is standard operating procedure in Hollywood, both commercially and during the awards season. What is no longer standard is getting away with it.
At least not this year — not in a 2015 that has seen more citizen videos than ever lay out the ground truth about what happens when people of color come up against people in positions of armed authority. Not in a 2015 where black college students and athletes have risen up across the country against the infinite slights their administrations and fellow students do not see. Not in a 2015 that saw the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s beautiful, sorrowful, truthful “Between the World and Me,” a letter to his teenage son that is actually required reading for all those people who, in the author’s words, “believe themselves to be white.” (Because racism only exists if you accept race as vector of meaning to begin with.)
What does this have to do with a foolish little movie-awards article? Just that even the people behind the article know they can’t play the game anymore. Which is why executive editor Stephen Galloway penned an editorial to accompany the cover story titled — oh, dear — “Why Every Actress on the Hollywood Reporter Roundtable Cover is White.”
He pleads that his hands were tied, that “the awful truth is that there are no minority actresses in genuine contention for an Oscar this year,” a fact that is “appalling” but that reflects the sorry state of the film industry and the unavailability of strong roles for actors and actresses of color. In other words: It’s the studios that are to blame, not the Hollywood Reporter. In the article, the editor pines for the glory days of 2013, when three of the six actresses in the roundtable were black: Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey, and Octavia Spencer. For the record, the first two played a slave and a butler’s wife that year. The third had won her Oscar two years earlier for playing a maid.
You almost feel sorry for Galloway. Here his magazine is in a punishing publishing climate, they’ve probably been selling ads against the roundtable for months, they make their guesses in many cases before the movies and the performances in them have been seen. (Half the titles mentioned above haven’t even been released yet.) No wonder he feels he has to white-splain. God forbid he should question the studio-supported dog-and-pony show of awards campaigns that keeps his magazine afloat.
A little actual journalism might involve investigating why the only challenging roles for women of color these days are on television, where the likes of Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Gina Rodriguez, and Kerry Washington rage and rule. Or asking why movie awards races and the attendant media circuses are almost always fields of white with token dabs of color. It would involve probing the standards of beauty and visual value reaffirmed or rejected by the Oscar “meat parade” (George C. Scott’s phrase, not mine). In short, the magazine would have to bite the culture that feeds it.
These days, the Academy Awards reflect, more than anything, the decline of the two-hour theatrical movie as a relevant form of mass entertainment. They ignore the gap yawning between the people we see writ large on the screen and the people who are everywhere in America except on that big screen. You have to look hard in 2015 for films that offer even slightly meaty roles to actresses of varying shades of brown, but they’re there. Tessa Thompson bringing intimacy and funk to a stock girlfriend part in the upcoming “Creed.” Jada Pinkett Smith as the regal impresario of a strip-club mansion in “Magic Mike XXL.” Alfre Woodard as a soccer mom loan shark in the barely seen “Mississippi Grind.” Michelle Rodriguez, her character back from the dead in “Furious 7.”
But those are all genre movies and not taken seriously as Oscar bait — a self-fulfilling prophecy and an indication of the problem. The telling truth is that the two finest lead performances by women of color in a movie this year may be from transgender actors Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. They play Sin-Dee and Alexandra, the transvestite street hustlers of the exuberant, micro-budget comedy-drama “Tangerine” — a movie that will be on my year-end Top Ten list and that you can find on iTunes, Amazon, and other VOD platforms right now.
Rodriguez and Taylor might even be on the cover of the Reporter — and might have some especially sharp things to say about wage gaps and unequal treatment in Hollywood. But that would only happen if the editors had the nerve to focus on the best performances of the year rather than the ones with the best shot at the bling.