Hollywood has built an empire on the backs of remarkable minority stories – but does it matter who they get to tell them?
So we got this problem, right, of too many good stories from minority groups being sniffed out by Hollywood’s coke-stained nose. "Oscar bait" is the phrase you’ll have heard. Executives or producers then pass along this brilliant idea to an agent, who tells a filmmaker about it over dinner, and before you know it a film about a minority group gets sanitised with an all-white cast of heteronormative A-listers prepping for a role that probably shouldn’t have gone to them. Yet, it’s undoubtedly any actor’s ultimate fantasy: the ability to transform. This role is the role of a lifetime!
Just the other day, Beyoncé was reportedly surveying her massive awards shelf and noted the distinct lack of Oscar and, if the reports were to be believed, she took this as incentive to adapt and star in a film about Saartjie Baartman – aka, the Hottentot Venus, a woman with a #breaktheinternet bottom who was enslaved against her will and forced to perform in a London freak show. The day after the film was announced, Bey was slammed by a South African chief, who said, “I can only see arrogance in her attempt to tell a story that is not hers to tell.”
A representative for the singer subsequently denied she will be making any movies about Baartman, saying, “Beyoncé is not connected to this project, but this is a very important story to be told.” Instead, she plans on upstaging Coldplay at the Superbowl in February. Although the claims were quickly denied, it throws up the age-old question of authenticity in film. If not Beyoncé’s, whose story is Baartman’s to tell? A descendant of Saartjie Baartman? I doubt we’ll be seeing that picture splashed across a marquee anytime soon.
A similar hair-raiser happened with another Oscar attempt: Eddie Redmayne-starrer The Danish Girl. Director Tom Hooper – also likely dreaming of blinding dinner guests with the golden glint of an Academy statuette – decided to make a very commercial film about the plight of Lili Elbe, the first transgender woman to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. The internet balked at the idea that the role went to cisgender ginger Eddie Redmayne. After all, how could Redmayne – who won an Oscar for his performance in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything – purport to know what it’s like at all to be trans?
Well, he talked to them. For The Danish Girl, Hooper explained that Redmayne began prepping a year before production, reaching out to members of the trans community to hear their stories and concerns, which would go on to inform his performance.
I’m sure they appreciated the sentiment, but some aren’t so happy with what they got in return. One commenter on an article discussing The Danish Girl said: “Nobody is better off watching a bunch of well-paid actors playing dress-up with an implied social cause.”
Redmayne’s performance was called out by a trans woman who saw the film. She dubbed his portrayal of Lili as regressive, reductive and harmful. Redmayne’s biggest offense: one pivotal scene where he “examines a cisgender stripper's exaggerated body motions and then mimics them perfectly, as if learning how to sensually caress the back of your hand against your cheek will teach him how to be a ‘real woman’. His femininity is reduced to caricature.”
Spoiler: the film isn’t very good. At best, it’s Trans 101 as told through the male gaze. At worst, it’s a two-hour slog of Redmayne swanning around in his wife’s lacy gowns. Hooper revealed in a recent roundtable interview for The Hollywood Reporter that in the course of filming they “worked a lot with this idea of hyper-feminization. If you’re a woman who’s been living as a man for many years, to become a woman, you might overreach. You might overdo your femininity in order to reawaken those muscles, those parts of you that have been long dormant.”
You might overreach. Or you might just cast a trans woman in the role and not have to reach at all. “Reawakening muscles” comes off as some holistic new year’s resolution, not a serious bid for authenticity in a role that will almost definitely introduce a good portion of the mainstream to the idea of being trans.
But does it matter? If he and others portray the characters in which they’re cast to the best of their abilities and a majority of the minority population which the film depicts doesn’t take offence with the result, then we’ve got a winner. You could also argue that if these people in positions of power (unfortunately mostly cisgender men for the time being) can bring these stories to a mainstream audience, and if those stories are told in a respectful, interesting way, why shouldn’t they be allowed to tell these stories?
Case in point: straight, caucasian director Sean Baker, who made 2015’s most important film, Tangerine. Baker did his homework and asked trans star of the film, Kiki Kitana Rodriguez, for her thoughts on what the story of the film should be. In essence, she informed the narrative from her own experiences working the streets as a trans prostitute. The result is refreshing, hilarious and received widespread critical acclaim.
If only that were the norm. A few quick examples of missteps into minority quicksand are Aloha (Emma Stone cast as a native Hawaiian), Stonewall (LGBT history rewritten with a white man at its centre) and, perhaps the most disturbing – Dominic Gagnon’s recent misfire Of the North. Gagnon attempted to reach out to the Inuit community for what I’m sure was once a well-intentioned plan to show the struggles of these indigenous peoples. Turns out, the filmmaker never even set foot in the north of Canada, and his biased film was packaged as poverty porn showing a drunken Inuit who had hit rock-bottom. His film has been vilified by Inuit artists, billed as “ethnically problematic”. It’s understandable: would you want your culture – largely unknown to the world – portrayed as a few layabouts and failures?
This is why people deservedly get mad when they see another headline which reads something like “White actress to play Mulan in live-action retelling”. For receipts, go here. Instead of awards-worthy identity overhauls, movies could look and feel much more genuine if their casts were made up of people who have experienced a similar journey to what the character goes through. However, to hunt down a South African woman who can play the Hottentot Venus to some degree of validity is a fairly big ask. At what point does the pursuit for authenticity cross the threshold into absurdity? Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay proposes some sort of a solution, by giving new minority storytellers a leg-up from her position of power with distribution company Array. But in some cases, we might just have to settle for Beyoncé.
The argument for authenticity shouldn’t stop at the top layer: actors are just the people we see on the screen. They’re the ones we’re ‘allowed’ to get angry at. E.g. “You must be joking me that Scarlett Johansson is going to play an Asian character for Ghost in the Shell”. Others involved in Frankensteining these stories to life are the screenwriter and director. If they vacuum all legitimacy out of a story then why should actors shoulder the blame?
“At what point does the pursuit for authenticity cross the threshold into absurdity?”
I read something interesting recently with electronic musician and Dazed cover star Grimes in The Happy Reader. She discusses how she produced her new album, Art Angels, by herself – a decision she didn’t take lightly. “So much of the art that goes out is filtered through men,” she said. “Even in comics. I love Brian K. Vaughan, and all the books with female protagonists, but he’s a man and it’s filtered through him. He’s a white guy. Not criticising at all, I’m just saying: everything, even other viewpoints, is often created by men.”
Grimes went on to state that even as a female producer, at some point during the creative process her work would be filtered through the man-sieve, be it mixers, sound technicians, or label heads. That’s simply a reality. We know it has to change, and regardless of how many incredible-yet-problematic stories about minority groups we see at the cinema, we’re past ‘raising awareness’.
Trans actors and actresses exist (Mya Taylor from Tangerine is up for an Oscar); there’s simply no excuse not to cast Idris Elba in anything, and when one of these lemons does squeak by (*coughs* Stonewall), let’s boycott the shit out of it until Hollywood wakes up and serves us something real. If we don’t give minorities the chance to tell their own stories, then we’ll never know anything other than what we’ve already seen: wrist flicks and blonde cornrows.