Reflections on the P.O.C in the Oscars’ “Best Films”

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As I get ready for an Oscars-viewing party this afternoon, I do so in a different light than previous years. For the first time ever, I feel like I’m “in the loop” to what’s going on this evening. I have seen most of the films nominated for Best Film (I decided to skip out on Argo, and Dark Zero Thirty), and have opinions about who should and should not win. (In my opinion, Silver Linings Playbook– while a good movie—is the underdog of this evening’s celebration in all categories, and while I have mixed feelings about Django Unchained , which I will post in the coming days, I will not deny its power).

But, let me take a step back for a minute. My intention for participating in watching the supposed most prolific films of 2012 was not to necessarily get swept away in the entertainment. As I said in my response to “Best Film” contender, Beast of the Southern Wild, I’m curious about the ways that people of color get to participate in this prestigious ceremony. Who gets to be the storytellers in American film?

As I set out to watch each film nominated for “Best Film”- Lincoln (the victory film), Silver Linings Playbook (the light-hearted film), Beasts of the Southern Wild (the disturbing ‘fantasy’ film), Amour (the tearjerker film), Life of Pi (the adventure film) Les Miserables (the romantic film), and last, but far from the least, Django Unchained (the

American hero film)—I decided to take mental notes on the number of people of color I saw in each film, as well as how they get portrayed.

Anupam Kher and Chris Tucker represent the two P.O.C's in Silver Linings Playbook.
Anupam Kher and Chris Tucker represent the two P.O.C’s in Silver Linings Playbook.

In this game of P.O.C counting (which I’m actually quite good at, as I do it often), I found that aside from Amour, and Les Miserables, each film had at least one person of color who had a speaking part. In Silver Linings Playbook, we have a jolly, Indian therapist, Dr Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher), and a drug-using, mental patient, Danny (Chris Tucker), who adds just

enough of urban humor, to remind us why he’s there.

Irrfan Khan (L) and Suraj Sharma (R)  both play Pi Patel in Life of PI.
Irrfan Khan (L) and Suraj Sharma (R) both play Pi Patel in Life of PI.

Life of Pi– a film mostly taking place in the middle of the water, but begins in India—has Indian characters, most notably, the protagonist, Pi Patel, who is played by Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan. There are a group of Mexican men who save Pi in the end when his boat floats to Mexico, but they don’t have speaking parts. There are also two unnamed Japanese reporters who interview Pi in the end.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild’s main characters are Black. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a very poor, strong child who takes care of herself, because her father (Dwight Henry), is too angry, mean, and hooked on the bottle to properly raise her. Click here for my full review.

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I found it interesting that, this year, we have two films—Lincoln and Django Unchained—that take place during slavery. In Lincoln, Black characters are placed along the margins, as they watch the white men fight back and forth with rhetorics for their freedom. Even when we learn that the 13th Amendment has passed, the camera focuses on the white men celebrating their victory, while the Black characters in the balcony serve as extras. In Django, the hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a bad-ass ex-slave turned bounty hunter, whose goal is to kill white masters, and save his wife (Kerry Washington). None of the black characters in these films addressing set during the times of slavery are nominated for an Oscar.

I find it  problematic that while there are so many background conversations about the rising Latino population, only two muted characters (Life of Pi) in all of these films appeared Latino. Life of Pi is also the only film that had Asian characters, and is the only film directed by a person of color (Ang Lee). None of the films are written by people of color.

So, as I put aside my Oscar “gown,” and get all dolled up for my friends’ Oscar-viewing party, I do so with the feeling that I know what’s going on, but my sentiments aren’t much different from what I thought they would be: people of color are very limited in films that are noted as “prolific.” With the exception of Life of Pi, P.O.C, are limited to stereotypical roles– the slave/ ex-slave, the funny-guy, the jolly person, the unparented child. And aside from Kerry Washington’s limiting role (Quvenzhané Wallis is a girl child), women of color are merely ghostly matters. But what worries me even more is that people of color aren’t the ones telling our stories. How would the roles of P.O.C look if we were the ones telling our story. If we aren’t the ones telling our stories, then how can we expect others to tell our stories responsibly?

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