Art, Entertainment, Media, Movies, Racism, Shannon Jeanna, Television

Awakenings: How I woke up to the movie industry’s systemic racism

The other day, I was talking to one of my coworkers, a white French guy, who couldn’t seem to understand the uproar caused by the shameful whitewashing of Ridley Scott’s latest movie Exodus: gods and kings. I took a breath, counted up to ten to stop my blood from boiling, and calmly explained to him why it is racist that white people were cast to play Hebrews and Eygptians aka POC, and why it was doubly racist, not to mention offensive, that black people were cast solely to play slaves and criminals. Unfortunately, whatever I said seemed to be of no use and he was adamant to linger within the grasp of his clearly racist ideals.

fundraiser

As I continued explaining it to him as calmly as I could, I began to notice just how conditioned, if not straight up brainwashed by media he is, and it did scare me all the more when I thought to myself that he probably isn’t the only person out there who was raised and conditioned to believe such nonsense. I mean, if you think about it, all the movies ever made in Hollywood about biblical times (excluding DreamWorks’ animated movie The Prince of Egypt) or the Middle East are whitewashed; be it Hollywood classics like The Ten Commandments (1956) starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Ramses II, Laurence Of Arabia (1962), starring Sir Alec Guiness as Prince Faisal King of Syria and Iraq and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, and Cleopatra (1963) played by Elizabeth Taylor; or more recent movies like Prince of Persia (2010) and Noah (2014), all of which are composed of predominantly if not exclusively white casts when the stories are actually set in the Middle East, about Middle Easterners aka POC.

Exodus cast aka Heidi Klum's Halloween party

Exodus cast aka Heidi Klum’s Halloween party

To that severe abnormality must be added the fact that representations of people from biblical times in all forms of western art are also whitewashed, very often depicting Jesus, for example, as white and blonde with blue eyes.

jesus4

Add to all of that genuine backwardness, narrow-mindedness and ignorance, and you got yourself people like my coworker, stewing in ignorance, truly led to believe that both Hebrews and Egyptians are white people. Those whitewashed images penetrate peoples’ subconscious minds without them even noticing it. Only when I googled “Egyptian people” and showed my coworker that they actually are brown skinned people, did he even begin to question things.

i don't see race

During our discussion, I tried to explain why representation is so important, and that given the fact that there are already so little roles out there for POC, that aren’t stereotypical and just ridiculous, it is only common sense that the little amount of decent roles about us should, i don’t know, go to actors of color as opposed to white actors who already have infinite other roles to choose from! As an example, I mentioned that I, as a brown girl, am NEVER represented in media. He then got me thinking about the moment I first realised that fact (probably so the heat would be off him) and I honestly couldn’t remember. Having thought about it for a few days, I finally managed to recall that while the process took time, was very gradual and is still ongoing, involving a few years of informing myself, learning, reading, watching things and basically educating myself, one event did AWAKEN me to the institutional, systemic racism perpetrated by media. That awakening began when I watched the movie Bend It Like Beckham, a comedy by Gurinder Chadha about an Indian girl born and raised in Hounslow, England. Her passion is soccer and the whole story is a pretty accurate portrayal of how the two cultures she was raised in seem to clash constantly while she’s caught in the middle, belonging to both, and alienated by both at the same time. As a French Sri Lankan raised by Sri Lankan parents and born and bred in France, that movie resonated greatly within me. Please note that to this day I’ve actually never seen a movie about a Sri Lankan raised in a foreign country, Indian is the closest I can get… I was about 14 or 15 when I finally got around to seeing Bend It Like Beckham and I remember thinking: “Oh my gosh! That is totally me!” I was suddenly awakened to what it felt like to be represented in a movie and it felt rather peculiar, in a good way.

Parminder Nagra as Jess, Kiera Knightley as Jules and Shaznay Lewis as Mel

Parminder Nagra as Jess, Kiera Knightley as Jules and Shaznay Lewis as Mel

As a 90’s kid, I grew up with TV and watched A TON of it. I knew almost every TV show out there and watched all of it with great enthusiasm without, I must admit, viewing much if any of it with a critical eye. I was clueless to the fact that very little POC were represented. That I wasn’t represented because for the longest time, I – or rather my subconscious mind – thought I was white. I grew up with Disney movies, admiring and looking up to its princesses (huge Ariel fan here), swooning for its princes (Prince Philip is a babe), and the first show that I ever watched that wasn’t a cartoon was Saved By The Bell. I had a huge crush on blonde haired Zac Morris (played by Mark Paul Gosselaar who by the way was extremely whitewashed despite being half Indonesian). I wanted to be Kelly Kapowski and had virtually no interest in Lisa Turtle, despite the fact that she was just as pretty and way more lively than Kelly (I’ve realised that only recently when watching SBTB reruns).

Saved By The Bell cast

Saved By The Bell cast

Just like everyone else, I watched shows like Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, Full House, Step By Step, My So Called Life, Charmed, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Roswell, Smallville, Friends, Invisible Man, Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, etc. all starring predominantly, if not exclusively white casts. I was however also a big fan of more racially diverse shows like Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Sister Sister, Family Matters, Kenan & Kel, That’s So Raven, Dark Angel, but the majority of what I did watch, or rather of what was available to me, were white shows, and none of them starred brown Asians, even as extras…

You may think “Oh poor you! How did you bear it?” to which I can only say that I didn’t know any better so it didn’t really matter to me. That is until I had that awakening. You may have heard of the movie Awakenings based on Oliver Sacks’ book, and directed by Penny Marshall (yay for female directors!). It starred Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, in a story about a group of patients incapable of functioning properly and basically in a vegetable state. Dr. Sayer (played by Robin Williams) comes along and has the idea of using a new treatment which awakens them back into reality as fully functioning human beings, as if back from a long slumber.

Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro in Awakenings

Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro in Awakenings

When I first watched Bend It Like Beckham, it truly was a similar type of awakening for me. As if all this time I had been blind and could suddenly see. I finally got a taste of what it was like for the brown girl to be the protagonist, not the stereotyped side-kick waiting in the shadows while the white girl gets to shine. This time, the brown girl was in the spotlight! She was the one the audience was rooting for, the one who was actively chasing her dreams, the one who got the guy. It was totally new to me; being able to relate to a character in a way I never thought possible. I’ve watched that movie probably a million times (and still enjoy it to this day).

Parminder Nagra and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Bend It Like Beckham

Parminder Nagra and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Bend It Like Beckham

After that, I began to crave such stories, and went looking for more of that narrative, so I searched for similar movies and found almost none… Sure there was Bride And Prejudice by the same director, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn’t relate half as much as I did with Bend It Like Beckham. Then there was The Other End Of The Line by James Dodson, starring Shriya Saran, Jesse Metcalfe, and Anupam Kher (who was also in BILB), which wasn’t successful probably due to its amateurish skits, but I was ready to cut it some slack since so little movies like that have been made. There was also another movie called Bollywood Queen, starring James McAvoy and Preeya Kalidas (who played a minor role in BILB), but was so mediocre that even I can’t cut it any slack. That’s it. I searched and searched and finally had to admit that the movies made about girls that look like me: stories about brown girls in the Western world, can literally be counted on one hand! WTH!??

representation

After that, everything I watched and read, I did it with a critical eye. I wasn’t passive anymore, I watched and read things actively and straight away noticed the lack of diversity in the media that I consumed. I discovered the terms tokenism and whitewashing which embodied those frustrating feelings I felt inside but couldn’t really put in words. I went from being conditioned by media into cluelessness, blissfully ignorant of the problem, to being awake and painfully aware of it. After that, everything I watched and read made me feel forgotten and ignored, and I began to question things. When I watched a show, I no longer related to the protagonist just because they were the protagonist, I no longer shipped characters together, just because I was supposed to. I used my brain, and began to relate to the characters that embodied what I felt like, which is forgotten, overlooked and unimportant. I related to all the under-developed characters, the forgotten ones, the so called irrelevant ones. I felt for those characters that were designed to be nothing more than tropes, plot devices, the best friend, the “magical negro”, the comic relief, lacking depth and devoid of much if any character development and story line. All these “characters” have one common denominator though: 99% of the time, they are played by actors of color.

Fourth from the right is Bonnie Bennett, cast as the "magical negro", the only POC on the CW's hit show The Vampire Diaries

Fourth from the right is Bonnie Bennett, cast as the “magical negro”, the only POC on the CW’s hit show The Vampire Diaries

I kept asking myself why it didn’t seem to bother anyone that we always get to see the same people be protagonists and the same others being, well, The Other? Then I realised that for the longest time I myself was clueless, just like my coworker who thought that Egyptians are white. It’s not his fault, just like it wasn’t mine. We were both conditioned the same way by media, by the system. The difference is that as a POC, I had to awaken sooner or later to reality. As a white guy, my coworker can afford to simmer in blissful ignorance pretty much for the rest of his life because it’s not going to affect him whether or not Moses is played by a white guy, because there are already millions of stories out there about him that he can pick and choose from, while I have literally four movies, four representations of myself, to take away with me; the same way a black girl has very little media representing her and a First Nation girl has none. This lack of representation is however not only crucial for the main people interested (POC), but also for white people. Because when white people watch Bend It Like Beckham, that is what they’ll think brown girls are about, and while a lot of that movie is true to life, there is so much more to us than just that. Because before being Brown, or Black, or Native, we are people, complex human beings with a million different traits that story telling has hardly even begun to scrape. When it comes to POC in the media, even the tip of the iceberg remains submerged under water.

Representation-Matters-1

The discussion I had with my coworker the other day showed me more than ever what white privilege is to those who are either too stupid, lazy or indifferent to awaken themselves to its despicable realities. After all, why should a white person care about whitewashing, and under-representation or misrepresentation of minorities when they already have an ocean of media representing themselves? How could they even begin to understand what it feels like not to be represented when all they see all day every day are representations of themselves in every possible angle?

I know what you must be thinking: now what? Is this the end of the story? Are we to surrender and admit defeat? Hell to the no! It starts by complaining, ranting about what frustrates us, talking about it, but it should never end there. Once you’ve vented, go out and do something about it! Yes, boycotting counts, petitions count, but we cannot expect white people to write stories and make movies about us that will be portrayed accurately, because they do not know what it’s like to be us. The bottom line is that WE have to write about ourselves because we are the only ones who can do it truthfully and properly.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi

No situation is all positive or all negative and I do see something positive in our story. Having been so exposed and even forced to deal with stories solely revolving around white people, like players standing on the side lines, we know BOTH worlds and can write about both more accurately, thus bringing them together! As POCs, we can even write about each other! I can write about brown people, and feel like if I put in real work, respect and heart, I can also write about other POC because, while we do each have very different cultures, powerwe understand each other on the stuff that matters because we know what it’s like to be forgotten, stereotyped, diminished, dominated, ridiculed and even hated. We know what it’s like growing up with media that completely ignores us as if we’re not interesting enough or even worth talking about. But I can also write about white people because I’ve grown up and live in white culture. It’s all around me. It’s all we ever see and hear about. It is by creating, writing, filming, producing, distributing our own stories that we can truly awaken people, both POC and white to reality and the importance of diversity and representation; so that one day none of us will ever have to explain to our coworkers why movies like Exodus are shameful, or even better, such bigoted movies would never be approved for funding in the first place.

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4 thoughts on “Awakenings: How I woke up to the movie industry’s systemic racism

  1. Pingback: The problematic treatment of People of Color on The Vampire Diaries | Rebel With A Cause

  2. Pingback: Black or White? #MoviesSoWhite | Rebel With A Cause

  3. LanaB says:

    Just like you, I was an avid television/film watcher. I use to relate to all main characters (typically the white ones since they were the most prominent in the media). As I got older, I noticed the differential treatment POC received on the other end. You are seen as a mere prop, shamed, or sometimes largely ignored. It really pisses me off when racist fandoms have problems with hero/heroin black characters that don’t fit the negative well-known stereotype. It’s like the racist in the person can no longer feel validated, because they now face a person/representation that challenges their bias notions. It made me realize how complacent society is at large with having black people seen as second class citizens. When you are “woke”, it’s almost painful to see how this treatment reflects what people really feel about you (not being seen as a person), but a color.

    Like

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