HomeAsian AmericansOpinion: For Chris Rock, the Oscars is still in Black and White

Opinion: For Chris Rock, the Oscars is still in Black and White

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

I still held a slight grudge against Chris Rock for the 2016 Oscar ceremony where three kids of East Asian descent were dressed as “accountants” and made the butt of a joke. Yet that skit was totally scripted and must have received approval by some academy members. It was Rock’s second time hosting; His first time was in 2005.  Rock’s 2016 opening monologue  was pointed about the lack of Black actors and Black people as if that was what diversity is. His monologue was an answer to #OscarsSoWhite. And that problem of limiting diversity tripped up Rock in his unscripted comments on Oscar Sunday 2022 and, again, the problem did concern people of Asian descent.

With Will Smith’s slap heard around the world Oscar Sunday 2022 and Rock’s joke about the health-related hair loss of Jada Pinkett Smith, its a good time to revisit 2016 in connection to what happened Sunday.

Certainly, Black and White is the binary defined by the lynching statistics of the Tuskegee institute, where lynching victims were divided into Black and White between 1882 and 1968. The year 1882 is the year Congress passed the first and only law (Chinese Exclusion Act)  to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from coming to the US.  Until recently the official page of the NAACP also relied heavily on these outdated statistics.

During the monologue Rock called the Oscars the “White People’s Choice Awards” and mentioned “lynching.” He talks about “no Black nominees.” He notes that before that Black people were “too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. “

Rock attempts to more narrowly define the Hollywood kind of racism, asking, “Is it burning cross racist?” He concludes that “Hollywood is sorority racist,” but his monologue is not really about diversity. The Oscars were held in Hollywood at the Dolby Theatre. That’s about eight miles or 13-minutes on a good traffic day away from where the Chinese massacre of 1871 occurred. Should the subject of lynching ever be mentioned in California without drawing in the Chinese or the Filipinos or the Latinos? And some people who are considered White now, weren’t always considered White. In 1891, 11 Italian Americans and Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans.

That’s important because, not everyone there was White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Diversity isn’t just Black and White.  Nicole Rocklin, who won as one of the people behind the Best Picture winner (Spotlight),  is from a Jewish family. One of the men who won Best Original Screenplay, Josh Singer (writing with Tom McCarthy), was also Jewish. Italian American Leonardo DiCaprio won Best Actor (The Revenant).

Hispanic/Latinos got some representation. Mexican-born Alejandro G. Iñárritu won Best Director for The Revenant.   Mexican American Jonas Rivera shared an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film (Inside Out) with Pete Docter.  Best Cinematography was won by Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant), who is Mexican.

And yet in 2016 April Reign, who originated #OscarsSoWhite, , tweeted, “It’s actually worse than last year. Best Documentary and Best Original Screenplay. That’s it. #OscarsSoWhite,”  she was just counting Black and African American nominees. It was likely she was referring to the documentary about Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone? as well as the screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (Straight outta Compton). She failed to notice Jewish nominees such as Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), Simon Kinberg (The Martian), or the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel. She didn’t note the representation of another minority, one that is not only larger nationally than the African American/Black population, but even more representative of Los Angeles County: Hispanic/Latinos.

I wrote about it. Other people called her on that:

She also failed to notice that nominee Charlotte Rampling was 70. That puts her in the Women Over 50 demographics.

Other nominees in 2016 included Japanese (Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura (for When Marnie Was There), Brazilian director Alê Abreu (Boy and the World), Turkish French woman Deniz Gaze Ergūven (Mustang), British Jordanian Kaji Abu Nowar (Theeb) and Colombian Ciro Guerra (Embrace the Serpent).

But this isn’t altogether surprising; she had failed to notice that the year before when Iñárritu won for Best Picture and Best Director  (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)), when she began the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Hispanic/Latinos are 19 percent of the national population and 49 percent of Los Angeles County.

More pointedly, Best Documentary Feature winners in 2016 were Asia Kapadia and James Gay-Rees. Kapadia is from an Indian Muslim British family.

This year, at the 94th Academy Awards, when Rock announced the winners for this year’s Best Documentary – Feature (Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),  he only announced the name of the African American winner, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The others were “four White men.” Rock, still looking a bit shaken after the unscripted assault and battery by Will Smith, made a mistake about the number. There were only four men in all. Further,  Joseph Patel is proudly Asian Indian American. Moreover, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein are Jewish, and also represent a minority. Even if they look White, it wasn’t that long ago that people were chanting, “Jews will not replace us” and there are still concerns about anti-Semitism.

Patel has pointed out that other people of South Asian descent won Oscars that night: Indian British Aneil Karia and Pakistani British Riz Ahmed for their live-action short, The Long Goodbye, which is part of Ahmed’s second studio album of the same name. At one time, Karia, Ahmed and Patel might have been considered Black as in Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo. Yet historically, the US did define Asian Indians as not White enough  (US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923). Thind may have been born in India, but when he died in 1967, he was in Los Angeles. The year he died was two years after Rock was born and a year before Will Smith was born.

Thind was by then a US citizen, thanks to the Nye-Lea Act, while allowed World War I vets to become naturalized citizens without any limitations due to race. It took him two decades to become a citizen and the SCOTUS decision against Thind resulted in Asian Indian immigrants losing citizenship and, in some cases, the right to own land. To be clear, there were states where a Black person could own land, but an Asian Indian immigrant could not. Of course, you don’t have to own land to be eligible to win an Oscar.

Rock could have easily avoided this snafu by saying each name as best he could, and, to be fair, his mind must have been reeling over being assaulted and battered on live television. However, his 2016 monologue as well as April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite tweets point to a problematic binary system of racism and prejudice in a country where people have always been more than Black and White. This categorization of an Asian Indian American as White, also calls into question the optics surrounding the Hollywood Foreign Press Association which did have an Asian Indian president (Meher Tatna).   Further, one of the limitations of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is it doesn’t (or at least, originally didn’t)  include people like Charlotte Rampling or even this year’s Best Supporting Actor winner Troy Kotsur (CODA).

Although, the Japanese film, Drive My Car won Best International Film for director/writer Ryūsuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe, none of its actors was nominated. Besides the lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima, who won Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics, Drive My Car featured an exquisite scene with a Korean actress signing (Park You-rim 박유림 as Lee Yoon-a). The Best Picture winner from 2020, Parasite, also had no nominations in the acting category. The 2021 nominated Minari, did have two acting nominations, with Youn Yuh-jung winning for Best Supporting Actress. There have been men and women of Asian descent who have won Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars, but they’ve all been White-passing. That’s worth remembering when discussing #OscarsSoWhite, but only if one is willing to go beyond a binary of Black and White when discussing racism.

Oscars 2022 was called  historic in that the producer employed an “all-black production team.”

At a time when an all-white production team would come under criticism, at a time when anti-Asian hate crimes have shown that anti-Asian hate isn’t just instigated by White people or White-passing people, at a time when #OscarsSoWhite has shown itself to have originated without an inclusive nature and at a time when a Black host has already shown insensitivity toward East Asians, is that really something to be proud of?

Oscar night 2022 should have belonged to another minority that does face discrimination and issues of access: the deaf and disabled community. The film CODA won three Oscars, including the first for a deaf man in an acting category, Troy Kotsur One of the truly beautiful moments during Oscars night 2022 was shared between two minorities, Troy Kotsur and Youn Yuh-jung. Youn, who would be a minority in Hollywood as opposed to her native Korea (Youn Yuh-jung was born in North Korea, but raised in Seoul, the capital of South Korea) and is 74,  was obviously well prepared and sensitive to the need for Kotsur to communicate with his hands. She gave him his moment to shine. Perhaps diversity training, one that isn’t based on a Black and White binary system, is something that the Academy needs to consider for its Oscar hosts, production team, and presenters before the next ceremony.

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