And The Nominees Are…‘Django,’ ‘Beasts’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ for Fulfilling Racial Tropes
Three films featuring people of color have earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, including “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Django Unchained.” Their critical and commercial success might have indicated a shift toward a broader range of characters in film, similar to the growing acceptance of LGBT characters on television. Critics hailed “Django” and “Beasts” for being “powerful” and “brilliant,” while “Thirty,” though met with rave reviews, inspired racist and Islamophobic threats on Twitter from white viewers.
Nationalistic hatred empowered audiences to react to “Thirty," but white Americans’ relationship to Americans of color differs.
Audiences can stomach “Django” and “Beasts” because the characters fulfill racial stereotypes and act out a narrative that redeems white viewers.
In “Django,” Jamie Foxx’s rendition of a revenge-seeking no-longer-enslaved man kills white slave owners with gusto. The violence is palatable because, unlike the people of color in “Thirty,” Django is not the “other.” The film exposes viewers to a mediated take on the brutalities of slavery, allowing them to sympathize with Django and leave the theater feeling good about feeling bad about slavery. This, Beth Brodsky, a senior film student at Boston University, said is partially what makes "Django" popular.
“It eliminates white guilt,” Brodsky told Campus Progress. “I saw ‘Django’ with a vocal audience that had a wide variety of races represented. When the slaves rose up and began killing white people, there were plenty of people that cheered and applauded.”
“Beasts,” meanwhile, covers nearly every racial stereotype with its characters of color. Wink, the main character’s father, is hypermasculine and aggressive, both sexually and otherwise, toward women. Most of the women are hypersexualized and reflect black female archetypes, from Jezebel to Mammy, a template for the “maid” role that earned Hattie McDaniel in 1939 and Octavia Spencer in 2012 one-third of the Oscars ever awarded to black women. Audiences’ discomfort with characters of color who fall outside stereotypes reflects their privilege, said writer T. F. Charlton.
“It’s often couched in arguments that non-stereotypical depictions of characters of color aren’t ‘realistic,’” Charlton told Campus Progress. “But often what that really means is that they don’t fit with how white viewers are accustomed to seeing the world.”
Charlton says the depictions and omissions of people of color are cyclical.
“The rationale is that movies with a lead character who’s of color, or that don’t have a white hero can’t do well at the box office, so they don’t get green lit,” she says. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Movies that don’t get made can’t make money.”
In 2009, 93 percent of filmmakers were white. Last year, the racial and gender makeup of Oscar voters was 94 percent white and 77 percent male—not promising demographics for improved representation of people of color. With their capital, however, audiences have the power to dictate Hollywood’s agenda. Demand for normalizing characters of color who reflect the diverse experiences of real individuals could help end the affirmation of racist tropes in film.
Molly Savard is a reporter for Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @mollicules.