Culture

On the Difficulties of the Movie Star

(Ralf Hirschberger/AFP/Getty)

One of the great scandals in the world of philanthropy is the fact that Mohandas K. Gandhi, the great apostle of nonviolence, was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which instead has gone to such figures as the murdering jihadist maniac Yasser Arafat and Barack Obama, who has spent part of his subsequent time in the White House conducting an illegal war in Libya, reinvading Iraq, and assassinating the occasional U.S. citizen.

Timing is everything, of course. The unhappy fact is that Mr. Gandhi was not an especially effective advocate of nonviolence, at home or abroad, and he reached the height of his celebrity at a time when the world was nose-deep in blood from the carnage of the Second World War. During much of that time (1939–43) the Nobel committee had the good taste to forgo offering peace prizes. Mr. Gandhi outlived the peace-price moratorium, but not by much, and a young Hindu radical who didn’t get the nonviolence message assassinated him in 1948 (no peace prize that year, either) in revenge for the violence-plagued partition of India, in which at least a half a million people died.

Sometimes, it just isn’t your year.

The diversity racket — and it is a racket — depends entirely upon keeping prestigious, powerful, and, above all, wealthy institutions in a state of political agitation and moral panic. It’s Hollywood’s turn this time around, and the manufactured controversy is the lack of black nominees for the top honors at the Academy Awards.

RELATED: If the Oscars Are So Liberal, Why Are the #OscarsSoWhite?

Several high-profile black actors, including Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, announced that they would not attend this year’s Academy Awards, absenting themselves in protest. The black host of the ceremony, Chris Rock, will attend, as will the black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Ice Cube, a black rapper and actor who is in the interesting position of having this year produced a well-regarded film about his own career starring his son as himself, scoffed at the controversy, with some appreciation for the fact that being a movie star is a pretty good life, regardless of whether one is celebrated at the very pinnacle of celebrity culture: “It’s like crying about not having enough icing on your cake,” Mr. Cube said. “It’s just ridiculous.”

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche — with insufficient frosting? What are we, brutes?

There have been endless interviews about this artificial controversy, meaning endless opportunities for Hollywood’s best to remind the world that actors don’t usually do well when someone else isn’t writing their dialogue. Inevitably, there came the subsequent theatrical public apologies. Members of the academy have made their spontaneous apologies without being asked. Julie Delpy, a French actress, remarked that critics can be especially hard on women, and added, “I sometimes wish I were African American, because people don’t bash them afterward.” Hoo, boy. This was accompanied by a whole Yoko Ono album’s worth of angst and wailing, climaxing in a groveling apology in which she begged forgiveness for not showing proper deference to “someone else’s struggle.” You can complain about women’s treatment in Hollywood — Emma Watson seems to be dedicating her post–Harry Potter career to that — so long as you do not put any stress on the victimhood hierarchy within the Moviestar-American community. Charlotte Rampling said that maybe none of this year’s black actors really deserved to make the final cut: angst, wailing, groveling public apology. The academy’s president issued a blanket apology. 

RELATED: The New Segregationism: The Oscar Nominations Have Brought a Corrosive Racial Politics to the Fore

The Academy Awards are the most prestigious celebration of talent on earth. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. If you doubt that, ask yourself which of these men does not have a Nobel prize in physics: Takaaki Kajita, Arthur B. McDonald, or Adam G. Riess. Trick question: They’ve all won the Nobel prize for physics, but you probably didn’t know that — almost nobody does. The Academy Awards aren’t exactly meretricious — Hollywood has many lamentable tendencies, but it does produce some works of lasting merit — but they are fixed in a celebrity culture with rituals (“Who are you wearing tonight?”) that are something close to the definition of shallow, literally skin-deep on occasion.

The protest rhetoric inevitably has been concentrated into a Twitter hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, which invites the longstanding and sometimes uncomfortable question of who is white  —  and who decides. The 88th Academy Awards are hardly an all-Anglo affair: Alejandro González Iñárritu of Mexico has been nominated for best director; Rosa Tran, an Asian-American, shares a nomination for Anomalisa; Gabriel Osorio Vargas and Pato Escala Pierart of Chile share a nomination for Bear Story. There are Danes and Irish and Welsh and loads of Brits, and the nominations were announced by Guillermo del Toro of Mexico and Ang Lee of Taiwan.

No one will admit to being annoyed by it, but more global diversity in Hollywood will mean less local diversity.

The problem for the proponents of minor diversity, meaning black and Latino Americans, is the emergence of major diversity in Hollywood, which is a fully global enterprise. African Americans may constitute 12 percent of the U.S. population, but Academy Award nominees are drawn from the population of the entire world, of which African Americans constitute something less than a rounding error. If we were to assume a random distribution of Academy Award nominations, then we would expect to find no African American nominees in many years, just as we would expect to find no Ukrainians or Comorians in many years. If African-American actors, writers, and directors are nominated in numbers lower than their presence in the industry would suggest, it reflects the fact that black Americans, like white Americans, are wildly overrepresented in Hollywood. But that fact is changing. No one will admit to being annoyed by it, but more global diversity in Hollywood will mean less local diversity, which is a problem if you want to define “diversity” in such a way as to include two ethnic groups instead of . . . well, there are 213 different ethnic groups identified in the New Zealand census alone. There are many more ethnicities on earth than nation-states.

The convolution of thinking necessary to maintain #OscarsSoWhite–type thinking is substantial. If excessive whiteness is the offense, then “white” needs to be defined in such a way that it includes Alejandro González Iñárritu and Pato Escala Pierart. But Hollywood has in fact been pressing in precisely the opposite direction, insisting that Latin Americans must not be considered white. There is at the very moment an outcry over the fact that Charlie Hunnam, the star of the hit television series Sons of Anarchy, has been cast in the lead role in a film about the Mexican-American drug baron Edgar Valdez Villarreal. Mr. Hunnam is a fair, blond-haired, blue-eyed Englishman, whereas Mr. Valdez is a fair, blond-haired, blue-eyed Mexican American. Mr. Valdez is in fact such a pale specimen that his nom de narco was “La Barbie,” after the doll. We should all be so lucky as to have Mr. Hunnam cast in our life’s stories, but the objection here isn’t that Mr. Hunnam is implausibly handsome but that his presence in the role is ethnically outrageous.

Which is to say: Latinos are white when it suits activists’ complaints, but it is outrageous to cast a white actor in the role.

#share#Which brings us back to Mr. Gandhi, who was played by Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s hagiographic film biography. Mr. Gandhi was Gujurati. Mr. Kingsley’s father was a Kenyan of Gujurati descent, and his mother was a British woman born out of wedlock back when that meant something, whose ethnic background is unknown. (She may have been of Jewish ancestry and uneager to speak about that.) Unlike Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, Kingsley is generally greeted by nice American liberals as Sir Ben Kingsley rather than mocked with his given name, Krishna Bhanji. Kingsley is a light-skinned man who was heavily made up for the role of Gandhi — “brownface,” some have called it. Proper? Improper?

SLIDESHOW: Oscar Nominations

When they get around to casting the lead in The Barack Obama Story, they’ll probably just cast Harry Lennix. But if they don’t, what is the ethnically correct thing to do? Find a half-Luo, half-daffy American-hippie actor? Tell every actor from each of Africa’s 3,000 ethnic groups that they’re all interchangeably black in the eyes of Hollywood liberals? In fact, a film about the Obamas’ early courtship has just been released, with Parker Sawyers of Zero Dark Thirty as the future president. His professional material identifies him as generically “African American.”

Close enough?

The racial dynamic in the United States was, for many years, effectively binary. Not any more.

The activists will never be satisfied, because being unsatisfied — being outraged — is their business. It’s a good business: Universal Studios’ “chief diversity officer” holds the rank of executive vice president. The money in the diversity racket is big: Google is spending $150 million to increase the diversity in its work force, in which whites are slightly underrepresented while Asians are dramatically overrepresented — again, if we’re using U.S. demographics for our point of comparison. And it is by no means clear that we should: Google, like Hollywood, is global.

#related#There is a certain irony to our historical moment: At the very moment when a black American family has reached the apex of American social life — the presidency, and a cute movie about their first date! — African Americans are as a group experiencing a stressful disorientation: The racial dynamic in the United States was, for many years, effectively binary. Not any more. In an increasingly multiracial society whose most prestigious institutions are truly global, African Americans are no longer the moral yardstick by which the American commitment to our liberal founding ideals is measured. In 30 years, it very well may be the case that African Americans are no more of a significant interest group than Vietnamese Americans or Norwegian Americans, and the social and economic success of Nigerian American immigrant families, among others, complicates the meaning of “African American” as a concept, in that these communities are likely to maintain a certain distinctiveness that renders “black” devoid of clear meaning.

That is a big, attractive lever for the Al Sharptons of the world to let go of, which is why we’ll see more #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite rather than less, even as the question becomes less significant nationally.

What, you thought this was about how hard movie stars have it?

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