When Chris Rock walks to the podium on Feb. 28, the whole nation should be watching. That’s the moment when Mr. DeMille, ready or not, will get his closeup with racism.
Rock, who is one of the sharpest observers of race in our country, is no fan of Hollywood, which makes it doubly ironic that he will emcee the 88th edition of the Academy Awards Show. As essentially the only black face invited onto the stage, he finds himself in the center of this storm. And we can only ponder how he will turn the Kliegs around on the movie-making machine itself.
After his opening monologue, there will be laughter, some of it forced. And we can expect applause and perhaps a standing O, and some of that will feel obligatory, as the primarily Caucasian gathering congratulates itself for recognizing what a terrible oversight it was to not nominate a single person of color for the major awards. Such a pity, darling, and pass the hors’ d’oeuvres, would you please?
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After the nominations were announced on January 14, a firestorm erupted with everyone weighing in — from Danny DeVito saying, “We’re all a bunch of racists,” to Charlotte Rampling likening the backlash against the nominees to “anti-white racism.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wasted little time twitching a knee to address the problem. Last week the Academy announced measures it says will double the number of women and people of color in the Academy before 2020.
It will have to stretch to reach those numbers. By last count, 94 percent of Academy voters were white and 77 percent of those voters were male.
In all of the brouhaha over the nominations, the most rational comment came from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the only non-white nominee among the big awards. He likened the movie-making process to a long chain, with the awards ceremony at the end and all-the-behind-the-scenes people — the producers, directors, the writers, and grips and script-buyers — representing individual links going back to the start.
“The demographic complexity of this country should be reflected not only at the end of the chain,” he said, “but (from) the beginning, in order that more of these people can be excited and integrated.”
We like Inarritu’s chain analogy, and in the big picture, we see what’s happening in the movie industry as one link in a much longer chain. And that’s a chain of inherent racism that manifests in all manner of ways across the country, sometimes benign and sometimes overt. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a thoughtless comment made here or there, and sometimes there are bodies in the street.
Locally we’ve seen two basically benign examples that give us pause. It would be a stretch to call them examples of racism, but certainly they are examples of racial insensitivity. And as such they represent links somewhere down the line.
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Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry’s repeated use of the word “negro” in a speech on Martin Luther King Day is one example. Sure, he explained the historical context during his speech, but he is a white man using language seen as offensive to blacks. He saw nothing wrong with that, and asked for understanding. By and large he got a pass.
The other example came from Jason Ashmore, the new executive director of the Alexander County Housing Authority, who told a group of African-Americans in Cairo that he, a white man, could perform his duties without a problem in the predominately black public housing development because he didn’t see color. “I don’t see race one way or the other,” he said. To which Connie Williams, a black city councilwoman, responded, “That’s a problem.”
That is indeed the problem.
Whites often do not see race because they choose not to. They choose to not see a problem that others live with every day. Whites who claim to not see color are implying that racism does not exist. If we don’t see color, we become blind. And this chain will go on forever.