New Canadian Media

American Dreams, Canadian Realities: A Night at the Oscars

Written by  New Canadian Media Thursday, 21 January 2016 18:16
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Recent Canadian cinema, such as Mina Shum’s documentary Ninth Floor, has helped open up a discussion on race and culture in Canada.
Recent Canadian cinema, such as Mina Shum’s documentary Ninth Floor, has helped open up a discussion on race and culture in Canada. Photo Credit: National Film Board of Canada (NFB)

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

So then … the Oscars are guilty of being a tad too monochromatic and a chorus of notables from Spike Lee to Michael Moore are threatening to boycott the whole event.

Now even Donald Trump has weighed in on the whole issue – and rather gingerly at that – calling the fact that this year there were so few black actors nominated as “unfortunate.”

But as Spike Lee noted on Instagram, the " 'real' battle" over racism in Hollywood is not with the Academy Awards but in "the executive offices of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks," where gatekeepers decide which projects get made and which don't.

"People, the truth is we ain't in those rooms, and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white," he wrote.

While one can’t argue with Lee’s logic, it seems a truism to say, “Hollywood is white.”

Corporate culture or racism

Puritan America was after all, founded on a cult of whiteness. And Hollywood itself was largely a myth, a WASP fantasy constructed by Eastern European Jewish immigrants partly as a way to assuage their feelings of being outsiders. Neal Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood examines the way new immigrants “whitewashed” their way into their own version of the American dream.

And as actor Janet Hubert (of Fresh Prince fame) said to her Oscar boycotting peers “Y'all need to get over yourselves. … You are a part of Hollywood. You are a part of the system that is unfair to other actors." 

Hollywood has had its moments.  In the 30’s, great anti-war films like All Quiet on the Western Front, and Idiots’ Delight espoused pacifism, Chaplin’s Modern Times the plight of the working man, and the classic Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was deemed “anti-American” and “pro-Communist” for its portrayal of government corruption. And 1970's American cinema was provocative and political  (Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s MenDay of the Locust, Dog Day Afternoon). But Hollywood always seems to slip back into dull dominant cultural narrative mode. That may, of course, be more due to corporate culture than racism per se.

And for many actors of colour around the world, Hollywood has been a godsend.

As black British actor Idris Elba noted in a speech to MP’s at Westminster this week, he and many of his peers had to go to the U.S. to advance their careers. He mentioned a “glass ceiling” for black actors in Britain, saying, “I was very close to hitting my forehead on it.” Although last year’s Martin Luther King epic Selma was snubbed by the Oscars, it did offer U.K. actor David Oyelowo a starring role.

Culture by bureaucracy

Here in Hollywood North, where a low loonie means a production boom in American TV and films, I know many Canadian actors of colour who would starve if it weren’t for the plethora of parts they play every year on everything from cop shows to feature films. (Full confession: I have paid my rent on latina housewife in Swiffer commercial and belly dancer in Ford advert roles during rainy Vancouver winters).

The parts may be one dimensional, but at least they exist. While racism may be less overt in Canada, it’s not less institutionalized and Canadian film culture is hardly a model of diversity. If Hollywood is about aggressive corporatism, the Cancon attempt to revive the “old stock” cultural corpse verges on necrophilia.

While racism may be less overt in Canada, it’s not less institutionalized and Canadian film culture is hardly a model of diversity.

In Canada, culture-by-bureaucracy (as opposed to the more American free market model) perpetuates a quaint colonial old boys system and the Anglo inspired  “multiculturalism” that, as opposed to the Hollywood casts of thousands style, only allows for single representatives/gatekeepers of entire ethnic groups – normally safe, inoffensive, controllable and palatable to liberal CBC listeners.

The system is run by a crew that’s more monochromatic than the Academy, who go bravely forward like colonial administrators on a mission – partly to perpetuate “Canadian values” – one of which seems to be denial that American-style racism exists in Canada.

But just as our neighbours to the South perpetuate the “American dream” of opportunity, even as statistics about race, wealth and poverty put paid to it, we have our own Canadian myths, many of which create their own “glass ceilings” for artists who are not “Canadian” enough.

Culturally fragile place

In a recent article penned for Canadian Art magazine, Chinese-Canadian artist Ken Lum, who now lives and works in Philadelphia, wrote an eloquent treatise on differences between his homeland and adopted home.

While admitting that living in the U.S. is a “Faustian pact”, he writes of the strictures of a “certain ideal of what can constitute Canadian culture,” and remembers a leading Canadian curator expressing displeasure at his East Vancouver inspired work that juxtaposed corporate signage with portrait studio style images of people of colour as being “cold” and “not very Canadian.”

Entities such as the CBC continue to advance the narrative of Canada as a culturally fragile place, with stories of success beyond the borders of Canada promoted as somehow rare. The narrative of a nation comprised of isolated communities in constant threat from the forces of nature endures, in spite of the reality of Canada’s increasingly cosmopolitan urban centres. The reality of vibrant, multi-ethnic urban clusters is folded into the former meta-narrative of the bush.

By contrast, he notes that artistic expression in America exists without “qualifiers”.

The system is run by a crew that’s more monochromatic than the Academy, who go bravely forward like colonial administrators on a mission – partly to perpetuate “Canadian values” – one of which seems to be denial that American-style racism exists in Canada.

So while Hollywood may perpetuate its nation’s founding cult of whiteness, at least there’s a discussion about race and culture that makes headlines in Variety. And while recent Canadian cinema offers some encouraging signs (Fire Song, Felix and Meira, Mina Shum’s documentary Ninth Floor about a black student protest movement in 1969 Montreal), I always get the feeling that even raising the issue of diversity in Canada is considered somehow, impolite, or at the very least, something that should be assigned to an all white committee to discuss and write a report on.

It’s certainly not an issue that inspires boycotts of the Canadian Screen Awards (previously known as the Genies) or expressions of concern by right wing politicos.

While a perfect system only exists somewhere over the cinematic rainbow, if I were forced to choose between Hollywood fantasia  (think the factually inaccurate, inflammatory, but thrilling Argo) vs. earnest documentarianism approved by committee, I think I know which side of the Faustian bargain would prove most seductive.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician.  

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

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