Tuesday, July 05, 2016

COLUMN: Fight the Power

I know you're all just yearning for another column about my cats or morning traffic or my undying love for Katie Holmes, but I'm afraid it's gonna have to wait. America needs me. As much as I'd like to tell you all about the zany dream I had last night or this great new recipe I discovered, there's more pressing matters at hand. I've read too much about it in the papers, I've seen too much of it on the news, and it's high time someone put a stop to it.

So I guess I need to digress a little bit and instead use this column to once and for all put a stop to racism in America.

What's that, you say? How could a single, white, middle-class male like myself have any insight whatsoever to race relations in our country? You say that racism has been a systemic problem in our society for hundreds of years and that no one person is capable of putting an end to it? It's going to take a nation of change? Hmm, well... I guess I never really thought about it that way. Drat. I thought sure I could fix things.

The truth is, I'm a little bit -- no, I'm a LOT bit -- out of my league here. I guess I'm about the least qualified person around these parts to discuss racism. Thankfully, I've had it easy. There are people out there who've spent their entire lives fighting injustice and bigotry with a resolute determination, and we're still nowhere near a solution. I have no idea what other news stories are in the rest of today's paper, but I'm certain that if you flip a couple pages to the left or the right, you'll read about someone doing something despicable in the name of hatred, intolerance, and prejudice. There are some really, really stupid people out there.

As for me, I'm lousy at talking about racism because I just don't understand it. Never have, never will. Thankfully, I was raised by two wonderful parents who taught me equality. Putting a priority on a skin color or a gender or a sexual orientation is just pointless. If you're going to pre-judge a person, it should only be based on one thing: the contents of their record collection (duh).

Whenever I read a story about racism or discrimination, I just shake my head in disbelief. I realize this mindset has all the depth of a high school beauty pageant interview segment, but I've always found the concept of racism so incomprehensible that I simply can't offer any deeper insight than that. Maybe that's where my upbringing failed me. Yes, I had amazing parents who taught me that racism was abhorrent, but I also grew up in the sticks and went to a small-town grade school where racism didn't exist because minorities didn't exist. It's hard to speak about oppression when you've grown up with blinders firmly in place.

All I can offer is this: Racism is ridiculous. Our ancestors should have known better, and we certainly should know better. With any luck, our future generations will hold the key and move us into a world where diversity is celebrated and bigotry condemned. We've made progress over the years, but for every step forward, there's a Ferguson or a David Duke trying to lure us back into the dark ages. Just last week, the struggle threatened to derail one of our most time-honored traditions.

That's right, accusations of racism almost made the Academy Awards NOT boring.

If there's one thing that people of all colors and creeds can rely on, it's Hollywood's ability to throw themselves a tortuously mundane self-congratulatory awards show that we all feel strangely compelled to watch, lose interest, and fall asleep to. But in a year of all-white nominees, the ensuing scandal threatened to actually make the awards (gasp) interesting this year. Thankfully, somehow the Academy was able to rally and even make controversy feel humdrum. I drifted off somewhere around Best Sound Editing and woke just in time for Best Documentary - Short Form.

As for the controversy itself, there remain more questions than answers. Did voters purposely ignore actors of color this year? Or did the best performances this time around just happen to come from white actors? But if that's your argument, are we then proving that Hollywood only gives its juiciest leading roles to white actors? It DOES seem kind of racist when actors of color only seem to get accolades when they're starring in movies about racism.

It's not ALL bad news. John Boyega made an awesome Stormtrooper in "The Force Awakens." There's talk of Idris Elba (who is the essence of cool) taking over as the next James Bond. The toast of Broadway right now is a musical biography of Alexander Hamilton led by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring a nearly all-black cast (and you just haven't lived until you've heard George Washington rap. Dude has mad flows, yo.) When the new Harry Potter play opens later this year, we'll be introduced to a black Hermione. In-roads are being made, but by and large, Hollywood blockbusters continue to be dominated by white actors.

For their part, the Academy has initiated a plan to double their female and minority membership by 2020. That's fine and dandy, but if the problem is a lack of diversity in casting, the solution is NOT to get a more diverse group of judges. Unless the opportunities themselves broaden, all you're fostering is an Affirmative Action mentality where good performances take a backseat to ensuring a politically correct list of nominees. Without good roles, it's a slippery slope from "committed to diversity" to "...and the Oscar goes to Martin Lawrence for 'Big Momma's House 8,'" and I think that's an injustice none of us want to see.

I don't have the answers. I can't tell you what approach is going to work. But thanks to the Oscar telecast, I can certainly tell you one approach that won't. Did anyone catch the very end of the show? Like usual, the broadcast closed with a quick goodbye from host Chris Rock, and then the end credits roll over a highlight reel of the night's winners. But in a stunning move that only brings to mind the letters W, T, and F, the Academy chose to run those highlights over a reprise of the music Chris Rock had earlier walked out to -- Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," the theme to director Spike Lee's masterwork, "Do the Right Thing" (a film, it should be noted, that the Oscars snubbed in favor of "Driving Miss Daisy.")

Yes, the Academy Awards took the most passionate, confrontational, and unapologetic civil rights anthem of our generation... and played it over a montage of white folks hugging. If this is our first step towards healing the racial divide, we clearly need better shoes. If nothing else, I guess the scandal of this year's Oscars succeeded in getting a lot of people thinking and talking about racial issues and the importance of diversity, up to and including a mild-mannered newspaper columnist unequipped and unqualified to discuss a topic this heavy. But who knows, maybe the best way to begin conquering a shallow mindset like racism is with some shallow discussion.

To that effect, my work here is done.

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