Filmism.net Dispatch September 6, 2022

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Every time anyone asks me what I think about the new culture of diversity and inclusion (okay, every time I think about it; being a complete nobody, not a single person has asked for my opinion) I'm reminded of a running joke from an old South Park episode.

The boys are curious about the issue of assisted suicide and every PC-panicky adult they ask, up to and including Christ himself when they call into his talk show Jesus and Pals, wants nothing to do with it. 'I'm not touching that with a [increasingly lengthy] foot pole', is the consistent answer.

But God help me I'm going to try and disentangle it, because Hollywood is often on the front lines of this new culture war, and it's reflected both in the media and in the content on screen, and it seems to set the societal tone about these things more than any other.

Thankfully I can't get cancelled because for that to happen you need to actually have some influence to begin with.

On one hand (according to the right), you have snowflake SJWs who can't get anywhere on their own merit so they have to stamp their feet about the unfairness of it all or trade on some minority status to take advantage of a new culture of box checking where diversity and inclusion quotas make big, very public opinion-aware companies feel and look more progressive.

On the other (according to the left), members of those minorities have traditionally been left behind and overlooked for positions in the arts, academia, STEM, politics and a thousand other fields, and even if this is all just corporate PR, people are getting opportunities they never would have before simply because we're checking our unconscious biases more these days.

The truth (as it always is in these social battlegrounds) is probably somewhere in between. A lot of people have fallen victim to what some snidely called 'reverse discrimination', where someone perfectly suited to a job, opinion or platform is bypassed so the paymasters of that position can install someone from a minority, either to make themselves look better or out of a legitimate desire to help someone who normally wouldn't get a chance.

I belong to a regular email service that collects and presents opportunities for writers on social media, and over the last few years invitations where only writers of colour, women, LGBTQ or any number of other markers of a traditionally excluded community are invited to participate have grown. Often they're described using some acronym I'm too embarrassed to admit I don't know, thus rendering me even less woke.

Every time I see those posts I feel glad people who'd otherwise have a hard time getting into a very competitive field are getting doors opened for their exclusive use. If that's what it takes to redress discrimination I'm all for it.

But I also smirk when I wonder how fast the masses would howl down and cancel any publication that said it only wanted approaches from straight (you're supposed to say 'cis'; I thought it was a new series based on NCIS when I first saw it) middle aged white males.

I know I'm being selfish, and I know I'm experiencing what others have been though for centuries (thus proving such measures are having the intended effect), but I'm now the one who feels occasionally locked out.

But enough about me; what's this got to do with Hollywood?

If trans, gay, black, Asian or any other type of minority is getting work both on screens and behind the scenes, it's only ever a good thing. It's called human rights, after all, and we as a species have too long a history of excluding others who don't look or behave like our tribe does.

The problem I'm seeing from various casting news, executive movements and social media campaigns/takedowns is that the rules keep changing. They change with the times, they change with the mood and they change according to who's speaking with the loudest enraged hysteria, taking up most of the media oxygen.

We start with the kerfuffle over whitewashing that hobbled (some say irreparably damaged) the live action remake of Ghost in the Shell when it replaced a previously Japanese character with that of a white American woman, Scarlett Johansson.

Perhaps because she was so badly burned by the whole experience, ScarJo went all Jesus and Pals by not touching the 2018 movie Rub and Tug with a 20 foot pole, pulling out of the role as a crime boss born female but who identified as a man.

The backlash from the trans community (or was it the Twitterati vocal minority whose job seems to be to generate these destructive media storms, or am I just being all Alex Jones-ey believing that?) was swift and damning.

Since then stories of media personalities cancelling themselves before the death threat-wielding mob could do it for them have proliferated.

A part African American actress named Amandla Stenberg (who played Rue, the young girl Katniss befriended years ago in The Hunger Games) has made a very enviable career for herself and was in the running for the role of Shuri, the tech wiz sister of T'Challa in Black Panther that went to Letitia Wright.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Stenberg took herself out of the running. Being only half black, Stenberg told the media she didn't want to 'pretend she was the same colour as everyone else'. She literally passed on a role for not being black enough.

More recently, comedienne and actor Jenny Slate, who'd very successfully played the African American Missy in Netflix's filthy/funny animated series Big Mouth, quit the role because she thought a black actress should play a black character... even after she'd already played the character for several seasons.

Even a star as big as Tom Hanks agrees, saying he'd never play the role that made him a serious star and earned him his first Oscar in Philadelphia today.

Recently some Australian YouTuber I'd never heard of (no, that's not a dig about the guy being a snowflake who only gets a media platform because his views adhere to the left/woke/Jewish/lizard people conspiracy, it's because I'm not the target market for YouTubers) got a mouthpiece in a Variety story where he 'doesn't necessarily have a problem with straight actors playing queer roles, but he wants Hollywood to try harder. "I would say to the people who are casting: 'Have you really looked? Why are you casting that person?'".

Now, here's why this whole can of worms is confusing.

Hadn't Eddie Redmayne played a trans character in The Danish Girl, a role so successful and admired just a couple of years back it blagged him his second Oscar? Why did a trans character have to be played by a trans actor in 2018 but not in 2015? I'm not being a smart alec, I'm genuinely asking.

Maybe it was because the public mood had shifted enough for trans people to finally feel their views would be supported, which they hadn't before MeToo and its attendant social change swept the world.

If so, good for them. I've spent my life feeling my views are supported and not feeling discriminated against and I can't imagine what it feels like for some people. For a tangible example, read my epiphany when I started thinking about Police Academy in a whole new way.

Then there's race, an even hotter button issue that consumes the American body politic and thus ripples across the global social firmament. We already saw the flak a white woman as beloved as Scarlett Johansson can cop for playing a formerly Asian character.

But when Danai Gurira, the African American actress famous for The Walking Dead and Black Panther, can play Richard III (a man, and a white one at that) in a New York Shakespeare on the Park performance and the sense of 'accomplishing inclusion' is palpable, is there a disconnect?

Our deeper reptilian brains that are born racist, sexist and prejudiced might be tempted to splutter 'but she has her own black characters!!', 'how can she play a man, she's a woman!!', etc.

If we give into it, we fall into the same trap as the incels and white supremacists who consider that a woman has her realm, a man has his, a black person has theirs, etc.

The point, which I'll revisit, is that actors play people who aren't them, including their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, etc. But why (asks a tiny, meek voice, waiting to get squashed, cancelled, threatened with rape and murder on Twitter, etc) didn't that apply to ScarJo?

It goes for religion too. Think of all the great Jewish actors who've played characters of other religions (or characters whose religion isn't even mentioned in the script).

But that hasn't stopped raised eyebrows over Helen Mirren, a Brit and an atheist, playing Golda Meir in a forthcoming film about the Israeli Prime Minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Reactions from those involved and those asked for an incendiary comment on the side ranged from how it's impossible for a non-Jew to play a Jew to it being 'complicated'. One respondent even said it was okay even though it's obviously wrong for a white actor to play a black character. So... that guy gets to decide religion isn't as pivotal to a person's identity as race?

Now before I get all QAnon-ey again, let me state my position; you do you. If it's wrong for a Christian, Muslim or atheist to play a Jew, I'll adhere to the letter of the law. But does that mean I should feel affronted when Seth Rogen (a Jewish man) plays me (christened Anglican) in the story of my life as a shlubby fiftysomething?

Here's a thought straight from the mouldy soup of the right wing media/conspiracy theorist/ranting incel quagmire (by the way, I thought that term had something to do with screen pixels when I first heard it...). The minority groups we think deserve representation and inclusion are identified thanks to the mob who assigns them such status.

Now, I don't believe that. I don't think equality means taking rights away. Some groups do indeed start the race of life many steps back from the starting line, and deserve doors to be opened only for them to make things equal. But it is indeed the case that it's okay to poke fun at certain people using caricatures and not others, isn't it?

Even Star Wars, the franchise bending over backwards in its wokeness nowadays (stories led by females and ethnic minorities, a right-baiting lesbian kiss) once got in trouble because people thought Jar Jar Binks was a thinly veiled stereotype of a' wise fool' black slave archetype and Watto was a thinly veiled caricature of a grasping Jewish merchant.

Now let me ask you this. Do you know any white South Africans? I don't know a lot, but I used to work with one who was thoroughly lovely (hi Julia), and the only way you'd know she was South African was her accent.

She wasn't a mercenary cutthroat (Black Panther), a foaming-at-the-mouth racist (Lethal Weapon 2) or uncaring whether other people lived or died as long as they didn't inconvenience her (Everest) at all.

But if you've watched any movie from the last 40 years that depicts South Africans you'd think they were all malevolent thieves with knives in their teeth only too willing to stab their partners in the back as soon as they turn around.

The NAACP spearheads the promotion of racial awareness. GLAAD does so for sexual orientation awareness. Putting my conspiracy hat on one more time, is that why the media and thus our culture are flooded with awareness and acceptance about diversity when it comes to race, gender and sexual orientation?

Where's the South African lobby or interest group in Hollywood, protesting every time another of their countrymen is depicted as villainous and corrupt?

The answer to this conundrum isn't to return to older, simpler ways. Those social mores are the ones that gave us caricatures that really were offensive, like Mickey Rooney as the Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Heroes were all squared jawed white men, just like scientists were all Coke bottle glasses-wearing nerds whose only job was to dispense exposition before the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood/Indiana Jones archetype swooped in to save the day with guns or fists.

Nowadays scientists are the heroes in their own stories. In a lot of ways Hollywood is only just catching up to the rest of us; William Shatner expected to be The Star of Star Trek, and he hated that Leonard Nimoy was getting more fan mail than him, which happened because kids in the atomic age were more interested in the scientific heroes who rode rockets to the moon than the devil-may-care cowboy types Shatner's square jaw and cheeky glint represented.

But it has caught up. Look at a movie like Hidden Figures, where the heroes weren't only scientists but black women. I even celebrated that fact in a story.

Lenny Henry made a joke in the late 80s that the only job for black men in TV was the guy who pushed Ironside around in his wheelchair and we've very much moved on, as the creative success and fan adulation around Black Panther proves.

In gender, a lot of movies still subscribe to the Madonna/Whore dichotomy when portraying women, but we also get plenty that depict women as the three dimensional hero as capable and complex as any man, and have been for decades.

Did we simply forget somewhere in the past 10 years (as I'm sure a lot of Carlson/Hannity/Jones/Fox News-flavoured commentary has shrilly demanded) that the art of acting is for someone to convincingly pretend to be someone they're not?

After all, Linda Hunt, another American woman, did something similar to Mickey Rooney in my living memory, playing an Asian (and a man) and winning an Oscar for The Year of Living Dangerously.

I'm not old enough to remember if there was a backlash around Tiffany's at the time (there sure is now), but when Hunt played Chinese photojournalist Billy Kwan, the Academy loved it because it was done with a serious artistic approach and audiences accepted it because it was an actor playing a role well.

Isn't that enough any more? If we're going to be truly colourblind and accept Danai Gurira playing Richard III (and again, I'm all for it), can't Ariana Grande play Martin Luther King Jr or Danny Trejo play Elsa in Disney's inevitable live action Frozen adaptation if they're good enough?

(Now I've said it I desperately want to see Danny Trejo wearing a sequinned gown singing Let It Go, but that's another story.)

On screens now, two classics from yesteryear. One is Wolf Blood, a movie from 1925 that's said to be the oldest surviving werewolf film. It's not interesting because it's scary (it isn't) or it has a werewolf in it (it doesn't), but because of the filmmaking styles, techniques and tastes of the day.

Another is The Killer Shrews, an ultracheap independent horror movie from the 1950s that front loads everything you need to know right there in the title. A story about shrews that grow to enormous size and have a taste for human flesh, it's likewise interesting because of the moviemaking tricks and technology they employed to portray the ravenous beasts.

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