Art, Change, Entertainment, LGBTQIA+, Media, Movies, Racism, Shannon Jeanna, Television, Transgender

Black or White? #MoviesSoWhite

In case you didn’t already know – which is crazy really because EVERYONE knows this – I’m a huge hard-core, die hard, [insert cool adjective] MJ fan. He was more than just the greatest entertainer that ever lived to me, he was an incredibly lovely human being and that’s probably what I love most about him. Anyway, a few days ago it was announced that a TV movie was going to be made, detailing an alleged road trip from New York to Ohio, involving Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando after the 9/11 attacks. As an MJ fan, I can already tell how disrespectful the mere concept is not only to Michael Jackson’s legacy, but also to that of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. But, let’s skip the issue that the movie in itself is based on a lie, to discuss what exactly has Black Twitter and Tumblr – and MJ fans alike – up in arms. White British actor Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare In Love) was cast to play Michael Jackson…

Ever since the announcement, a lot of people have been putting in their two cents: MJ fans argue – rightfully so – that Michael himself wouldn’t have wanted a white actor to play him, while others insist that, although he was African American, he did appear white later on in his life, making it okay for a white actor to play him.

In the midst of all this, I realized something rather important. Most people seem to forget the reason Michael’s skin was so light during the second part of his life: vitiligo. Vitiligo is an incurable skin disorder that destroys skin pigmentation by portions while putting patients at higher risk of skin cancer. Michael suffered from vitiligo universalis (universal vitiligo), meaning that depigmentation altered most of his body. This affected him tremendously and on so many levels. Having to deal with such a rare condition (touching 1% of the world’s population) was traumatic on a personal level, especially given the beauty-obsessed business he was in. This caused him to keep his condition a secret, suffering in silence for years, thus putting him in a much lonelier, more marginalized place than he was in the first place due to his ground-breaking fame. As if that wasn’t enough, mainstream media ridiculed him and made him out to be ashamed of his race, brainwashing the public into believing that he’d purposefully whitened his skin so that he might be shunned by both the black and white community. Vitiligo also affected the way he dressed: he always wore long sleeves, surgical masks and even had an umbrella-man to protect his hypersensitive skin prone to cancer. Vitiligo was therefore a huge part of Michael Jackson’s experience and identity. To erase that would be to erase part of who he was.

Michael on the set of They Don't Care About Us (how fitting!)

Michael on the set of They Don’t Care About Us (how fitting!)

So why has no one brought up the fact that if a movie was ever to be made about Michael, if anything, he should be played by a black actor who has vitiligo? Apart from Michael Jackson, there has never been a more famous person suffering from such a prominent case of vitiligo. Only very recently has the beautiful model Chantelle Winnie taken the world of fashion by storm. Despite that, people suffering from vitiligo still have very little representation in the world of movies and media at large. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie or TV show depicting someone who has vitiligo. Making a movie about Michael Jackson is therefore the perfect opportunity to cast a black actor with vitiligo. A great opportunity not only in order to remain true to Michael’s story, but also for a black actor suffering from that skin disorder to actually get work, be put on the map and given a chance to showcase his talent. But that’s just too much asked it seems, instead all we get is yet another white guy stealing (appropriating wouldn’t be a bad word in fact) someone else’s job and therefore only managing to perpetuate the under representation – and often times misrepresentation – of a given group; in this case, black people suffering from vitiligo. Casting a white actor to play MJ strips him of the essence of what he was and represented: a talented, successful, affluent black genius who shaped the world of entertainment and broke racial barriers on one hand; and a regular black man struggling with the physical difficulties and social stigma that come with vitiligo on the other.

Proper casting is vital for so many different reasons. The first is credibility. Cis straight white non-disabled actors cannot fathom what it’s like to be part of a marginalized community. It doesn’t matter how much “research” you put into it, how much makeup and prosthetics you cake on, how many hours you spend with an accent coach, or with the real life person the story is inspired by. I don’t care if your name is Marlon Brando, or how empathetic you are, the bottom line is that you are and will always be cis, straight, white and non-disabled. Because of those inherent characteristics, and no matter how mesmerising your performance may be, you will never be able to trump that of an actor who actually possesses those characteristics by merely existing! Given the fact that you belong to a privileged group, you have no clue what it’s like to deal with transphobia, homophobia, racism, or ableism day in day out. As a member of that majority you cannot possibly grasp the nuances and subtleties of living that kind of life. Of course, one could make the case that acting is about putting yourself in the shoes of a character that is nothing like you in real life. However, in a system which oozes double standards and only allows for a “certain kind” of actor to play any existing role, while the rest only get crumbs, certain ethical rules certainly need to be set in order to restore equity.

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The second reason is representation, because representation freaking matters! Newsflash: people hailing from marginalized groups actually enjoy reading books and magazines, watching movies and TV, seeing plays, and Broadway shows. Believe it or not, none of us live our lives being constant sidekicks to cis straight white non-disabled people. We are the leads in our own lives, so why not in movies also? We too deserve and long for the spotlight! Our stories matter, our opinions matter, our lives matter. I will never say this enough: Bend It Like Beckham changed my life. That kind of representation made the little brown girl in me subconsciously realize that I could take the driver’s seat. I could be the hero, I could be smart, I could be beautiful, I could be anything I wanted. I can do all that MY OWN WAY instead of constantly trying to tend towards whiteness. We live in a society that solely elevates the cis straight white non-disabled angle as the norm, the default narrative that everyone should strive towards. If you so happen to be a square peg in a round hole, you’re supposed to force yourself to fit that model until you break, instead of adapting it to who you really are. Such a mentality is toxic to us all. We all need to see different angles to broaden our horizons and better live together, and contrary to popular belief, the universe will not implode if all movies and stories do not automatically celebrate and worship cis, straight, white, non-disabled people.

tumblr_o1wrwf5emq1u55joyo1_540White privilege is profoundly embedded in society, and movies are no different. Cis straight white non-disabled actors in particular already have a wide array of roles to choose from in an industry where cis straight white non-disabled roles continue to be the rule. As if that wasn’t enough, they also get to take the scarce roles about marginalized people away from actors hailing from said groups, and who have a hard enough time as it is finding work. This is especially prevalent when it comes to roles about POC that seem to be constantly whitewashed so white actors may play them. The film industry therefore enables a bunch of white actors to play ancient Egyptians in Gods of Egypt, snow white Emma Stone gets cast to play a Hawaiian woman in Aloha, lily white Rooney Mara is even considered to play Tiger Lily in Pan, whiter-than-white-tea-drinking Benedict Cumberbatch gets to play actual Indian characters (not only Khan Noonien in Star Trek, but also Shere Khan in the upcoming Jungle Book movie), and still white Ben Affleck gets to be the Latino hero in Argo. Hollywood, French, British cinema (and should I say Western cinema at large), and let’s not forget Bollywood, has a long history of whitewashing roles that it has yet to address.

A similar phenomenon also occurs went it comes to LGBTQIA+ roles. Cis actor Jared Leto played Rayon, a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club, which even owed him an Academy Award, when an actual trans actress could have and should have played that role. Same goes for cis Eddie Redmayne who recently played Lily, a trans woman in The Danish Girl, awarding him little to no criticism, while directly propelling him in the running for a very probable Oscar nod.

Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

Another example is the infamous movie Stonewall that managed the prowess of whitewashing, cis-y-fying (is that even a word?) AND male-y-fying (now I’m just making up words) the actual story; thus magically turning Marsha P.Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two black and Latino trans women – who played a central role in the Stonewall riots – into a cis white gay man played by a cis straight (?) white actor, Jeremy Irvine. More often than not, gay and lesbian roles go to straight actors. Back in the day, Brokeback Mountain was seen as such a progressive movie, finally offering some kind of representation to gay men, while starring two straight actors: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. When it comes to portraying lesbians, things are worse. Too often do casting directors make it a point to hire straight actresses who respond to society’s ideal of beauty (white, skinny and non-disabled) in order to fit sick male fantasies. The French coming-of-age drama movie entitled Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle), about a French teenager discovering her homosexuality was portrayed by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos both straight as can be. Actress Adèle Exarchopoulos was in fact awarded a César (French Academy Awards) for the part. A more recent example is Carol, a story about a young aspiring photographer and her relationship with an older divorced woman, which stars none else but Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (her again…). Yup, you guessed it: straight, straight, straight!

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett starring in Carol

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett starring in Carol

Claire Danes in the HBO movie Temple Grandin

Claire Danes in the HBO movie Temple Grandin

And the same “rule” applies to disabled roles, with an increasing amount of non-disabled actors “cripping up” for roles. Claire Danes for example, won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Temple Grandin, an autistic girl from Boston who went on to be a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and even invented a stress-relieving device for autistic people. Did the casting directors even search for an autistic actress who could play the part? I seriously doubt that. Same goes for Eddie Redmayne (again!) in The Theory Of Everything who played Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist suffering from motor neurone disease. The movie owed Redmayne another Oscar nomination, all that at the expense of struggling disabled actors! Leonardo DiCaprio was also nominated for both a Golden Globe and Academy Award, at the tender age of nineteen, for his portrayal in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape of Arnie a young man suffering from developmental disability. The list goes on.

The result is that cis straight white non-disabled actors benefit doubly from this short-sighted, prejudiced system. Not only do they have millions of roles to pick and choose from, but those performances are often greatly applauded by the mass cis straight, white non-disabled public just as clueless about the realities of the communities whose narratives are stolen from. This makes me think of Black Swan. Majority of the public ignorant of ballet, actually believed that Natalie Portman did a lot of the dancing herself, which in fact sparked quite a controversy as to whether or not she truly deserved to win the Academy Award. The truth was that ballet dancer Sarah Lane was hired to perform the dance sequences. The reason for that being that a person who hasn’t studied ballet seriously from a very young age, cannot physically perform any of the complex steps required. No matter how hard an actor may work at it, it is just impossible because they haven’t developed certain muscles that dancers do when they are kids and still growing. Same goes for cis, straight, white, non-disabled actors! You cannot grow a sexual orientation, skin color or disability, nor can you possibly grasp those struggles.

Eddie Redmayne portrayed Stephen Hawkings (right) in The Theory Of Everything

Eddie Redmayne portrayed Stephen Hawkings (right) in The Theory Of Everything

The industry seems adamant to use the slyest methods, throwing in as much money as necessary on prosthetics, makeup, coaches, consultants, so cis straight white non-disabled people may continue snatching all the roles for themselves, instead of footing the bill for hiring actors who actually inherently, and naturally possess whatever characteristics needed for said roles.

Keen status-quo defenders are quick to argue that no, it isn’t racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, etc. We’re just being oversensitive! Perhaps – in Charlotte Rampling’s own words – black actors just aren’t talented enough, and fighting for more diversity in film really is “anti-white racism”. Or how about Ridley Scott’s two cents? Movies wouldn’t be funded if actors from marginalized groups were cast as leads. I mean, it is public knowledge that the only good, famous actors out there happen to be cis, straight white and non-disabled! Let’s please pretend like it has nothing to do with centuries of unfair advantages awarded by white supremacist, patriarchal societies thriving on slavery, colonisation and the constant shunning of LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities! “White privilege? There is no such thing! Black lives don’t matter! All lives matter!” Such attitudes only contribute to one thing: strengthening the status quo. Viola Davis couldn’t have been more right: “the only thing that separates women of color [and marginalized groups in general] from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Nor can you become a bankable, studio friendly actor if you aren’t given a chance to shine in the first place.

And please let us not make excuses for the actors who have the audacity of taking on said roles. The aforementioned people are big names and in no way need these roles to survive in the business. For one missed business venture, hundred other opportunities follow!  Those faces are literally in EVERY OTHER MOVIE! It is therefore their responsibility to turn down roles that they would otherwise be STEALING from struggling actors from given marginalized groups. They (just as much as casting directors) should be held accountable for their actions by the public, instead of being blindly revered for something that isn’t theirs to play with in the first place.

diversityWhile it is great that #OscarsSoWhite has been grabbing so much attention, even leading to the adoption of concrete measures, let’s not make this an annual thing. Part of the reason Oscars are so white is because movies in general – released worldwide all year round – are so overwhelmingly white, cis, straight and non-disabled. Movies (and media in general) are made by and for people belonging to that privileged group. So maybe instead of just boycotting the Oscars, we should concentrate our energy on boycotting movies that lack diversity both in front and behind the camera. Minority groups have buying power, and if President Obama’s reelection has taught us anything, it is that united we no longer are a minority. Our voices count and have an impact. Remember what happened to the Stonewall movie? It tanked because and only because we all agreed to boycott. See how everyone’s talking about responsible eating? How about we made responsible movie-watching a thing? The rule is simple if a movie doesn’t pass the new DuVernay test, meaning if “African Americans and other minorities [including the LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities] don’t have fully realised lives rather than serve as scenery in white [cis, straight, non-disabled] stories”, then don’t watch it, don’t contribute to its box office revenue. No diversity, no money.

The manner in which media is constructed only benefits cis straight non-disabled white people. So while I cannot stress enough how important it is for POC, LGBTQIA+, disabled people to keep on writing our own stories, this also proves how critical it is that we occupy positions of leadership within the industry, (in all areas, from casting to directing and also Academy/César/BAFTA/etc. memberships) or else, the stories that we keep telling, OUR stories, will continue being whitewashed and miscast to further perpetuate our under-representation and misrepresentation, contributing in our erasure of media, and in time of History itself.

Some things in life they just don’t wanna see But if Martin Luther was livin’, he wouldn’t let this be

They Don’t Care About Us – Michael Jackson

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Change, Entertainment, Fake Feminism, Media, Movies, Patriarchal Society, Racism, Rebel With A Cause, Shannon Jeanna, Television

Oscars 2015: Best and Worst Moments

Oscar season always makes me super excited and I normally make it a point to see most of the movies in the running so I can speculate as much as I can about who should win what, and rant over who should and shouldn’t have won. But this year was different. This year, the extreme lack of diversity turned me off and instead got me side eyeing the Academy like crazy. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one

Therefore, I will not rant over who should have and should not have won. I may not have seen half the movies nominated this year, but I did check out the acceptance speeches and I have to say that there were some pretty awesome moments, and some awful ones too. I often like to start with the bad news and end on a positive note, so let’s start with the worst Oscar moments.

Oscar fail #1: Sean Penn and his green card

Sean Penn presented the award for best picture to Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman. Right before mentioning his name, for some reason, Sean felt the need to preface by saying “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?

fran

I have to say that when I heard that, it pretty much broke my heart, because I love Sean Penn. I find that he is a very gifted character actor as well as one of the rare celebs who seems to be truly passionate about quietly helping people without cameras in his face. So when I heard that racist joke come out of his mouth, it appalled me. Now I do get that both Sean and Alejandro are good friends and that it probably is some kind of lame ass inside joke, and if Alejandro is okay with that kind of “humour” then so be it; but I think that it really is the whole context that makes it inappropriate. A context in which Mexicans (and Latinos in general) are marginalized, under-represented and grossly stereotyped by media, which in turn has the most awful of repercussions on their daily struggles. So when someone jokes like that about one of the biggest stereotypes attached to Latinos, in a context where millions are watching, especially in a room filled – even more so than normal (#OscarsSoWhite) – with white people, it gives the illusion that, once again, there is nothing wrong with marginalized groups always being the butt end of white people’s jokes. For a second, it even felt like I was reliving Margaret Cho’s cheap impersonation of Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, alongside Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes

The moral of the story is: if you really really want to make a borderline joke, KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!!! And that goes for everyone: white people and POC alike. If you’re standing before a largely white audience (aka a privileged group) who has very little knowledge about the history, stereotypes, daily struggles, and overall difficulties marginalized groups go through, HOLD YOUR DAMN TONGUE!!! Because it is doing more bad than good! It may well be a good joke to you, but to the rest of the audience that sniggers away with you, or rather AT said marginalized group, it only encourages them to Other the rest of us and continue seeing us merely as walking-talking stereotypes that aren’t to be taken seriously. Knowing Sean Penn’s pretty progressive political beliefs, I don’t think that he meant any harm (at least I hope not), but it surely doesn’t give him a free pass. He really ought to have thought long and hard about it before blurting that stuff out like that. I mean Sean, seriously, in what world is a televised green card joke about a Mexican ever a good idea?

Oscar fail #2: Patricia Arquette’s pseudo feminist speech

A lot of “feminists” have been raving about Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech. On receiving the golden statue for best supporting actress, she read off of a white sheet of paper something that she clearly should have given way more thought to:

To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!

I will be honest, I didn’t quite know how to react when I heard those words. I certainly wasn’t jumping up and down on my seat the way Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez were, nor was I shaking my fist in anger. I was more confused than anything else. First of all because part of Arquette’s speech sounded extremely ignorant and self righteous: “(…) To my friends who all work so hard to make this world a better place. To my heroes, volunteers and experts who’ve helped me bring ecological sanitation to the developing world.” What does that even mean? You mean to say she “helped” the entire “developing world”? And what does it even have to do with winning an Oscar? That clumsy wording reminded me of what I call the white hero complex which touches a certain category of white people; the kind who get so insulted when they’re called racist, yet do not want to know what racism really entails. The kind who goes to Africa to “save” what they think are “poor, illiterate, ignorant people who can’t even save themselves”. The kind that does charity work only to pat themselves on the back and feel superior to the people they’re supposedly helping.

saving africa

That got me thinking: in her acceptance speech, was Patricia referring to all women or just white women? Since I wasn’t sure, I thought I’d give her the benefit of the doubt. But then I saw her backstage interview and this is what she had to say:

The truth is: Even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women. And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.

Say what??! Patricia, in what world do you live in? Apparently the fight for gay people and people of color is won! Someone please enlighten me on where the hell in the world that fight is even close to being over. I find it doubly shocking that she even had the audacity of saying such a thing after watching John Legend and Common’s deeply moving performance of Glory, and hearing their heartfelt acceptance speech addressing the ongoing fight for equality between races (see below).

Secondly, since when have straight white women fought for us? Please note that I’m saying straight white women because clearly, Arquette seems to feel like people of color and LGBT people are entirely separate groups standing on the sidelines, waiting for white feminists in shining armor to come and save them; and that women of color, Lesbians, Bi women, Trans women (both white and of color) do not count for anything. Because if straight white women did fight for us, well they did a pretty lousy job. I hate to be the one to have to say it, but we ARE STILL FIGHTING not only for equal pay, but also not to get gunned down in the street for being black, beaten up for being homosexual/bi/trans, forgotten for being First Nation, ridiculed for being Indian/Chinese/Latino, etc., and overall victims of racism and sexism in all its despicable aspects.

Thirdly, even if white women had in fact fought for the rights of others, are you saying that fighting for human rights is a I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine thing? No, because standing up for equal rights means fighting for the recognition of something that is inherent to all human beings whether men, women, white, black, brown, straight, gay, trans, bi, rich or poor. So the I-supposedly-fought-for-you-so-you-should-fight-for-me thing doesn’t even make sense and only reveals Arquette’s sense of entitlement when “fighting” for a given cause. Beware, people of the so-called developing world, because based on what Patricia said, her “supplying ecological sanitation” to you comes with a price: fighting so her pay check can equal Sean Penn’s!

Feminism is inclusive. It isn’t about pitting marginalized groups against each other. It’s about uniting against our common enemy: the patriarchal society ruled by straight rich old white men. So when Arquette says that gay people and people of color should fight for white women because white women supposedly fought for them, it is not only extremely ignorant, but also counter-productive. If anything, Patricia Arquette’s speech has proven one thing: feminism and celebrities really don’t mix! I really hope that she learns from this mistake and informs herself on the matter, because that distorted notion of feminism (which is unfortunately widely popular) really isn’t helping.

Now for the good part of the night, those who actually had something important and encouraging to say. Here’s Rebels’ top 4 speeches (in no particular order of preference):

#1: John Legend and Common march on

You know how I’ve been raving about the song Glory, so I was absolutely thrilled to see it win. But what I enjoyed probably the most was John Legend and Common’s acceptance speech. Short but straight to the point. Inclusive of all people, and embodying beautifully Dr. King’s message of love, peace and hope.

#2: Laura Poitras’ ode to Edward Snowden

The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made, affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage and to the many other whistleblowers and I share this with (…) other journalists who are exposing truth.

I was pleasantly surprised that Citizenfour won best documentary given just how conservative the Academy tends to be. The fact that director Laura Poitras was even allowed to give such a controversial speech is to be applauded.

#3: Alejandro González Iñárritu sets the record straight

I want to dedicate this award [to] my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve; and the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect [as] the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant Nation.

I thought that it was very responsible of Alejandro to address this with such eloquence and sincerity, especially in front of a largely white audience. Whether he meant for it or not, I feel like Mexican viewers needed some kind of damage control after Sean Penn’s clumsy green card comment. Kudos to you Alejandro for handling it with class!

#3: Graham Moore’s inspirational tirade

I love that speech because it is so real. Graham seems to be speaking from the heart, and is so honest about something that we all struggle with at least once in our lives. We are so often told that being different is bad. That it’s something we ought to be ashamed of, that it keeps us from fitting in. But the truth is that the more we try to conform to these insane, rigid and dumb unwritten rules, the more we alienate ourselves from everything good around us. Be yourself and as weird, quirky and different as that means because that is how you will truly find where it is that you belong and truly make a difference in this world.Stay weird, stay different”. Graham, you hit the nail on the head!

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