A Grey Perspective: Part I

Even though I am (sadly) no longer in Cape Town, I try to follow along with the news.  These days (depending on when I am able to publish this post), the protests among students have started up again.  To read what I’ve previously written about this subjects, click here, here, and here.

I’m not too sure on how to begin explaining what has happened in South Africa over the past few weeks.  My point of view on the subject comes from reading UCT announcements, Facebook posts, news articles, and asking a few people who are currently in the Cape Town area.

I’m not going to pretend that I know everything, but I think from a very external perspective, I think I can offer a different insight from the people that are currently there.  If you disagree with me, I totally understand.  I am, to a certain extent, an ignorant but interested third-party bystander.  I don’t have much at stake here, and I think I can offer a semi-objective third opinion.  (Nothing is truly objective, right? Especially regarding these issues?)

So, let’s get into it.

And to begin, it’s very GPP of me to start even before the events of the past several weeks.  I’m going to start with last year, with the beginnings of the Rhodes Must Fall movement.  Something I failed to do in my previous posts was give a wider context of what current protests are predicated on.

Rhodes Must Fall (abbreviated ‘RMF’) is a movement of students and workers mobilising against the institutional racism at UCT (and across South Africa).  Their work began with the symbolic removal of a statue that commemorated Cecil Rhodes in April 2015.  Cecil Rhodes was the Prime Minister of South Africa (when it was called the ‘Cape Colony’) in the late 1800s, and he was truly an imperialist/ racist/ white supremacist.  Students, especially black students, argued that by allowing the statue to remain on their school grounds (UCT is a public school), UCT was essentially honoring a man that played a hand in oppressing the black population.

Since succeeding in the removal of the Rhodes statue through civil disobedience, occupation, throwing feces, and burning art, building, and vehicles, the RMF movement has expanded to include issues like institutional racism and “decolonising education”.  They argue that since apartheid ended and despite there have been more opportunities for the black population, things haven’t fundamentally changed for the better.

There is much to say about RMF, but with this brief background, it is also understandable as to why RMF is usually on the frontline of fighting for workers rights or trying to expand education opportunities.  At my time at UCT, they were involved many activities, including the Piketty talk, for which I was in the audience, and the #NationalShutdown.  RMF, even though there are other activist groups, are often blamed for causing disruption and provoking violence.

So, let’s move on from RMF and talk about what is happening at UCT.

The semester began about a month ago, and from what I understand, UCT was not allowing students who had debts to register for the semester, and some students were unable to receive on-campus housing.  Let’s talk about the housing situation because I think I can provide some details.  There are different reasons why there was (is?) a housing crisis at UCT, and I can’t confirm what the reason really is, but let me try to paint a comprehensive picture:

  • Some students can’t afford student housing.
  • UCT had accepted more students for admission than they could house in the residences (counting on the fact that not all students live in on-campus residences, but most students do).
  • Therefore, UCT housing was only accepting students that could, right on the spot, pay for housing.  They were not willing to house students who were waiting for financial aid to come in (arguing that students should just pay now and expect financial to reimburse them).

With those three points, UCT does not sound racist.  And before I continue, let me go on a short tangent:

In a “Table for Three” interview with Lupita Nyong’o, Trevor Noah, and interviewer Patrick Galanes, they made comments on #OscarsSoWhite (2016).  They shed light on how prejudice is subconscious and how people’s mentality is so engrained.  Ideas about race are subconscious, which is why, they point out, the movies where black people are taken seriously are usually when they play roles in “true” stories, mostly about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement.  That’s what we expect the black community to be a part of, and this is why their roles in Hollywood are so limiting.

The Academy and Hollywood is not explicitly racist.  There is not one or two people we can point to who say that Hollywood has to be this way.  That only a certain percentage of actors can be black and the rest white.  But, because of preconceived notions, biases, a racially discriminatory history, and a white-superior institution that has been compounded and perpetuated for many years, black actors and entertainers are often confined to roles to what people think should represent them (eg. movies about slavery), and certain opportunities aren’t automatically presented to them.  Therefore, the Academy makes choices not because they want to discriminate against people of color, but because the constructs of the industry make it so they are just not present in projects that are Oscar-worthy.

Let’s take it a step further and look at the list of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture for this year’s Oscars: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, The Revenant, The Martian, Mad Max, Room, and Spotlight.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 2.48.40 PM copy
Screenshot from the Oscar website

Actually, let’s look at the list from 2014 (when Lupita Nyong’o won her Oscar): 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, and Philomena.

Are there similarities between all these movies?  They are generally pretty serious movies, making a comment on the state of the world or providing insight on the people’s problems or highlighting something of the past or imagining a (hopeful?) future.  There are comedies (eg. American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street), but they are more high-brow comedies (unlike the character of movies Kevin Hart is in).  Lupita Nyong’o won her Oscar for 12 Years of Slave, which is about… slavery.  Then, Barkhad Abdi also won an Oscar for his role in Captain Phillips, for playing a… criminal… in a historical drama.

So, there’s this trend.  I’m not saying that people of color cannot win Oscars.  They can, and they are capable.  But, there’s this implicit notion that people of color are often limited to certain roles, and they meant to “stay in their lane”, so to speak.  If black people are starring in comedies, they are usually of low-brow caliber, even parodies of more serious films (eg. Think Like a Man, Are We There Yet?, Meet the Blacks, Tyler Perry’s Madea).  If they are going to do something Oscar-worthy, it is usually in a based on a true story/ historical drama/ period piece/ about the hardships of being a person of color (in the music industry, in gang life, on the streets, etc.).  Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Ray, a musical biographical film.  Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for her role in Dreamgirls, also a biographical film (and a musical!).  Will Smith was nominated for his role in the Pursuit of Happyness, which is another biographical drama.  Viola Davis was nominated for her role in The Help, which is a ‘based on a true story’ movie about segregation during the 1960s.

This is a very small sample of movies, and I’m not saying that black people haven’t been nominated/won for their roles in outside of historical, non-fiction dramas, but I am trying to make the point that their roles in Hollywood are limited.

Can you imagine a black person playing Matt Damon’s (who I am a big fan of) role in The Martian?  You probably can, but to the public, will that movie be taken as seriously as Matt Damon’s?  The Martian is a science-fiction film, and people of color are not usually nominated for their roles in fiction.  But, I don’t know the counterfactual.

Can you imagine a black person playing Joaquin Phoenix’s role in Her, a movie set in the future?

I’m not saying that Matt Damon or Joaquin Phoenix do not deserve their roles either.  They are talented actors, but statistically speaking, their roles are not really filled by actors of color.  The explanation I’m giving for this unintended phenomenon is that it’s implicit bias and institutional racism.  The people in Hollywood are not racist (generally speaking), but the institution still is.

This line of thought could be applied to what has been going on in South Africa today.

My “short tangent” became longer than I expected, so I’m going to continue these thoughts in another post.  However, I do want to know what you think about the topics I’ve discussed here.  Leave a comment below!

Over and out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s