Films That Ignore Realities of Race Can Never Be "Great Art"

Updated March 05, 2016 3:42pm PST

I don’t go to the movies often. 

That’s not to say I don’t watch movies; I’m a voracious consumer of cult films on Netflix, and I could probably give you the location of every Redbox in my city. But for me to actually go out to the movies, with the attendant costs of bad popcorn and giant slushies, there’s got to be a really, really good reason.

It’s not always a very profound reason–I saw the first Avengers three times in cinemas because it was just that fucking awesome. But lately, I’ve been trying to show up to support movies that represent the world as I know it, in all its diversity.

I’m not talking about movies with a token black best friend or a gay guy who dies heroically in the second act to inspire the heroes in the climax. I’m talking about films that show the world as a place where you don’t have to be a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class white guy with a college education to be a hero. I’m talking about films that show the world as the place I know it is: one where marginalised people can be and are the heroes of their own stories.

With one exception, I haven’t seen any of this year’s Oscar-nominated films in cinemas. Can you guess why?

It’s not because I don’t like any of the nominees. I have been a lifelong fan of Cate Blanchett (though the spark died a little for me when she felt the need to cape for Woody Allen after starring in Blue Jasmine), and I think Mark Ruffalo is a lovely specimen of human man.

It’s not because none of the films looked good; I’ve heard great things about Mad Max: Fury Road, and while I wouldn’t have chosen to see The Martian in theatres if I hadn’t been dragged along by my friends, I still had an enjoyable enough time. There’s no question that the movies and movie makers who’ve been nominated this year are good movies and good actors.

But, I mean: is that enough?

Art that doesn’t acknowledge and reflect the reality of the society in which it was made can never truly be great art. America was 14% Black in 2014. Were 14% of Oscar nominees–not just actors, but directors, cinematographers, set designers, music producers, etc–also Black in 2014?

The reality of the America in which I live, the America in which we all live, is that Black people and other marginalised people comprise a significant proportion of society. And yet, a film industry that derides and eschews escapism and fantasy in film as childish in favour of gritty realism finds itself either unwilling or unable to reflect reality as it is.

I wanted to write an article about Muslims who’ve won Academy Awards. It turns out, that’s pretty hard to do, because there aren’t many. Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 with A Separation, but I wasn’t able to find any Muslim winners of the award before that, and Muslim nominees in other categories are even more sparse.

Most well-known Muslim entertainers in America are either converts like Dave Chappelle, whose fans might be unaware of their religious affiliations, or a very small group of Muslim Americans who play all the “ethnic” roles that require a strong Arab, Hindi or Persian accent (see this list and this list for examples, and note that both lists would be about half the size if one were to remove all the athletes, rappers and dead people).

Although films about fighting ambiguously foreign forces of evil have been in vogue for some time now, “angry terrorist” and “menacing foreigner” aren’t exactly Oscar-bait roles–it’s hardly surprising that Muslims aren’t being nominated for Academy Awards, particularly in American-made, English-language films.

Muslims comprise about 1% of America’s population–that’s roughly 3.5 million people–but are woefully underrepresented in film despite their ubiquity in American society and their incredible racial diversity.

In fact, it’s astounding to me that Americans, who obsess about the threat of creeping Sharia and the vague possibility that mosques might be built in their neighbourhoods, are so incredibly unaware of the reality of Muslim life in America. There are Bosnian Muslims, Persian Muslims, Arab Muslims, Indonesian Muslims, South Asian Muslims, Muslims from Somalia, Sudan, Cameroon…you would think someone would’ve made a film worthy of an Academy Award nomination starring at least one of these by now, right?

Reality looks like this: Muslim fashionistas on Tumblr and Instagram looking fabulous in everything from hijabs to miniskirts; Muslim activists on Twitter raising awareness and educating on everything from theology to decolonising our government; Muslims in our schools and hospitals and government offices serving the American people daily, not because they’re Muslim, but because they’re Americans, too.

Why doesn’t the media reflect that reality? Why don’t our greatest and most celebrated films reflect that reality?

The Oscars are so white because the film industry is so white. People of colour aren’t being nominated because people of colour aren’t being given the kinds of roles that lead to nominations. That’s a systemic problem, one the Hollywood machine should probably think about fixing, because while America is 77% white and 97% cishet now, it’s unlikely to stay that way forever. These ratios are rapidly changing in realtime.

As more and more marginalised people begin to demand representation, fewer and fewer of them will remain satisfied with the offerings at local cinemas. Those profits will start to go–and are already starting to go–where they ought to: towards indie creators and developers making interesting, innovative, representative content.

If a film depicting the reality of sex work and the sex trade in America, one created with input and direction from real sex workers, were to be nominated for an Oscar, couldn't that change the way governments around the world legislated about sex workers?

If a film about life on the Pakistani-Afghani border under the constant threat of drone strikes were to become nominated in a category other than Best Foreign Film, couldn't that change the way politicians and policy-makers talk about the War on Terror?

Allowing marginalised voices to be heard through film could quite literally change the world–but it would also change the film industry, perhaps irreversibly, perhaps in a way that the industry couldn’t survive.

Maybe this is how Hollywood ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper of “we’re all African, really!”

But as someone who grew up loving cinema, the idea of that institution being rendered irrelevant and obsolete by a stubborn refusal to move with the times just doesn’t thrill me. Instead, I’d like Hollywood to become better: better at representation, better at giving voice to the marginalised and oppressed, better at recognising the immense talent and potential of people who, unlike Meryl Streep, really are African (or Asian or South American or indigenous to white-colonised lands).

I’d like Hollywood to produce and honour great art, because great art makes the society in which it is produced a better, fairer, more enlightened one.

I’d watch an awards ceremony dedicated to art like that.

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Aaminah Khan is an Australian-born activist of Pakistani and Turkish descent currently living in the American south. Zie has been a staff writer for The Rainbow Hub and has had zer writing featured in The Huffington Post, Black Girl Dangerous, The Progressive and elsewhere. Zie blogs, tweets and posts pictures of zer food as jaythenerdkid.