On Race, Class and the Hollywood ‘Whiteout’

February 16, 2011 | 7 books mentioned 19 5 min read

covercoverIn Sunday’s New York Times, inspired, I suspect, by Black History Month, movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis had a long piece on the glaring absence of black writers, directors, and actors in this year’s Oscar nominated movies. They refer to this phenomenon as a “whiteout.”  Some might say that Scott answered his own question—why there are no major movies this year by or about black characters (never mind the rest of America’s non-white racial panoply; Scott never mentions them)—with his rather insightful piece of a few weeks back, “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” which argued that in the wake of the financial crisis, in the midst of mass unemployment, mortgage defaults, and forecloses, many American filmmakers became preoccupied by class, and that some of the best of this year’s movies (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Town) were about working-class and underclass lives, the kinds of lives that the dominant American class mentality—we’re-all-middle-class-here—doesn’t acknowledge or examine all that often.

Yes, I know: there are still a great many statistics that demonstrate that race and poverty’s fault-lines still mirror each other, still have a causal rather than accidental relationship, and thus that class is not the new race: that race is the new race and the old race. But, it’s Hollywood we’re talking about, and we can’t ask them to attend to too many weighty aspects of American life at once.  So, at least for this year in American movies, the answer to the rhetorical question in “Hollywood and the Year of the Whiteout,” “Is class the new race?,” is yes: For Hollywood this year class was the new race.

That doesn’t mean that this year’s “whiteout” isn’t a problem. But neither the problem nor the answer to the problem are quite what the authors here take them to be, though they touch on the real answer fleetingly.

The problems with the argument? First, and most obviously, when there’s a whiteout year in Hollywood, black isn’t the only color that’s missing.  And, second, the solution to the whiteout is not, as is suggested, a new black indie cinema movement—a few new Spike Lee/Lee Daniels-style black moviemakers. Or, at least, that’s not the full answer.

coverMy sense is that the way out of the whiteout requires something more subtle, something unprecedented. The answer isn’t just a new coterie of black directors making movies in the line of Do The Right Thing or Precious. More serious films about black American life in our yearly cinematic output would be great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something else American cinema needs more now—something we’ve only had accidental and fleeting glimpses of thus far.

What we need are more serious movies with multiracial characters/casts that aren’t SCARE QUOTES MOVIES ABOUT RACE END SCARE QUOTES. We need more movies that simultaneously are and aren’t about race: movies that are dramas and comedies, about love, death, the usual human plots—and also happen to be about race. We don’t need only highly self-conscious, politicized movies about race, but movies that look at race the way Ben Affleck’s The Town look at class: askance—Affleck uses a popular genre, a crime-thriller, to smuggle a story that’s really about class onto the big screen. This is also how Lisa Cholodenko asks us to think about sexual orientation in The Kids Are Alright: The movie’s lesbianism is sort of incidental. The movie is about a marriage undergoing a crisis brought about by a daughter’s departure for college–oh, and the couple happens to be gay.  Cholodenko does not tell us that gay love, marriage, or family exist in a special category of experience unfelt and un-feel-able by heterosexuals: She tells us that the struggles marriage and children involve are a basic human experience, whatever the sexes of those involved.

I’m not saying that we as a nation have arrived at an idyllic, post-racial (or post-sexual orientation, or post-class) age in which we do not need MOVIES ABOUT RACE, but we could also use a less melodramatic, less strident cinema of race in the vein of The Kids Are Alright that’s just about sort of normal human plots inflected by the post-racial-ish reality that has come to define more and more of our lives.  Because in some American communities, in some American homes and workplaces—more and more, I think—a version of the post-racial age has arrived and it’s not because we have a biracial president. We’re married to and related by marriage to and work with and hang out with people of other races and nationalities, and at the end of the day our relationships with these people aren’t really all that different from our relationships with those of our own races. It’s sort of mundane, actually. Bi-racial marriages and friendships are actually pretty much like any other marriages and friendships most of the time.

Are there moments of fracture sometimes—a sense that your partner of another race is experiencing or feeling something you can’t? Yes, certainly. And are there strange moments in bi-racial relationships in which you suddenly feel as if your marriage/friendship is some sort of radical political choice—that you’re poster-children for something (usually caused by other people’s delighting in/awkwardness about your biracial-ness)?  Again, yes. And I hope that this new cinema I imagine would capture and explain such moments with the subtlety they deserve. But most of the time in interracial relationships, it’s all the same laundry-on-the-floor, bills, celebrations, in-laws, dishes, fights, compromises that the same-race couple next door are dealing with.  And I hope my new cinema would capture this too—how normal and humdrum inter-racial relationships can be.

This American experience has yet to make its way onto the screen, but we catch glimpses of it: A.O. Scott sort of touches on this idea of naturalizing race when he talks about 2009’s The Hurt Locker and its focus on “the volatile friendship between two soldiers, a hot-headed white bomb-disposal specialist played by Jeremy Renner and his cautious black sergeant played by Anthony Mackie.  Race in that movie was not a theme or a problem to be solved, but rather a subtle, complex fact of life.” This is what I’m talking about.  In an ever-increasing number of American lives it’s probably this kind of representation—race as “subtle, complex fact of life”—that feels most resonant. This understated mode (friends and coworkers first; incidentally, black and white) is a norm for more and more Americans and it should become a stronger presence in our movies.  Race, for some of us now, isn’t a be-all-and-end-all melodramatically determinative fact of life, but a fact nonetheless—one that inflects our lives in increasingly subtle, nuanced ways—ways that have only just begun to be reflected in our movies.

What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. I couldn’t agree more (and would add that the “whiteout” extends into the indie scene–seen any Sundance movies lately? No better than Hollywood on this issue). I have some personal knowledge of this issue. I am an African-American writer who has had had two novels optioned for film (by white producers) for many years, both of which fall into the category you describe. Race is part of the story but not the focus of the story. My hard-working producers hang in there–but why is it so hard? I can’t help but think that part of the problem is what you describe above. I hope that renewed attention to the issue will begin, slowly to shift things. Doesn’t have to be my stuff that gets made (though I’d love that!) but there are many, many stories to be told.

  2. There’s also the stellar model of “The Wire”: it’s a show very much about race and poverty and power; but it utterly complicates these things, i.e. the characters of the darker hue play roles all over the power map, as do the white characters. At the same time it never bows to a sloppy notion that race “doesn’t matter anymore.”

  3. Dear Martha,

    A while back, I met a filmmaker on a flight to New Orleans who was working on a movie featuring a biracial relationship (white woman; Asian man) but not explicitly and heavily about biracial relationships. I’ve been on the lookout for it since, but no luck. Which is to say that you’re not alone in having Hollywood and Indieland neglect your work about/not about race. I just don’t think they know how to sell it and don’t realize that there’s an appetite for it.

    And Sonya’s right that The Wire is a prime example of a successful and highly lauded TV series that’s story first, character first, but is also attending to the nuances of multiracial relationships/communities. There was a bit of this in Deadwood too with the character of Mr. Woo and his relationship with Al Swerengen. And the all-white Friday Night Lights has also, in the past season, become a multiracial show. So there are little inklings of progress–no major feature films along this line yet, but I think they’re coming. Take heart! And thanks for reading, Emily

  4. Before comments, some examples:
    1. Devil in a Blue Dress–Denzel Washington gets caught up in late 40s racial scandal and LA politics but who is he? A WW2 vet, come to California in the Great Migration from the south, owns his own modest home in a black neighborhood of other modest well-maintained homes, which he will do anything to keep (hence, he gets into big noirish trouble when he loses his job). Race is integral to the backstory and it’s a thriller but it’s so much more than a thriller. A man newly middle-class wants to keep his home–an amazing achievement for a black man in this era. Who of whatever race cannot relate to this?
    2. Before The Wire which I agree is the best best best , there was NYPD Blue (first 4 seasons are on DVD and seasons 2 and 3 are to die for)–Sipowicz, white, racist, alcoholic cop with a conscience that drives him crazy and ultimately for his own salvation he gets a lot of help from those around him including his patience-running-thin black lieutenant boss, and a half-hispanic partner. The help comes unwelcomed most of the time.
    3. I suppose Eastwood’s Gran Torino has to be mentioned altho I didn’t like it.
    4. Mother and Child with Benning, Smits and Samuel Jackson.
    5. Immigrant stories can bridge some gaps–The Visitor, Goodbye Solo, Sorry, Haters with an extraordinary performance by Robin Wright Penn (be prepared for a surprising harrowing ending).
    6. Movies I never want to see: movies about the hood aimed at 20 year olds; feel-good inspirational with a mix of characters. Double yuck.
    7. I love the movies of Rodrigo Garcia. He gets it right. I want complex, I want subtle, I want less-is-more. Hollywood mostly: if more works, then give ’em more, and more or top of more.
    8. Fatih Akin is a director who makes German films about Germans and Turks. Fassbinder RIP made movies in the 70s about racism in Germany. There are a whole slew of North African-French directors who open up the wounds and expose the real life of multi-racial characters straddling worlds–race and class. There are many Israeli and Arab-Palestinian movies that expose what needs to be exposed.
    (Now I will look through my movie list and see a lot which I wish I had included, but this is long enough.)

  5. To the extent that there are fewer prominent black characters, this isn’t something that’s happening in a vacuum. There’s been an ugly change in the economics of film. Multiplex theaters are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, and the vagaries of distribution deals encourage expansive marketing campaigns that drive audiences into movies on their opening weekends. Movie attendance is so front-loaded that the second weekend gross is often only half of the opening weekend. DVD releases now follow theatrical release by as little as four months.

    Huge opening-weekend grosses on 4000 screens are driven by enormous marketing campaigns. It’s inefficient to run enormous marketing campaigns for movies that aren’t enormous, so there are fewer non-enormous movies. These enormous movies with their enormous budgets are the tent-pole products that prop up the earnings of major corporate conglomerates, so they’re engineered to be very broad, and to appeal to the tastes of the largest portion of movie viewers. This audience is primarily white and largely under 25 years of age.

    A few very powerful auteurs, like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, can make art in this space. But before “Avatar” and “Inception” were box office successes, they were viewed as unreasonable risks and potential follies by executives who could have played safer by investing in franchises and sequels. The Hollywood norm tends to look more like the output of Michael Bay. There are roles for non-white actors in these movies, but not the kinds of roles that get people nominated for awards.

    In the last couple of years, this new calculus caused the studios to shutter the specialty divisions that blossomed in the earlier part of the decade. With a few exceptions, studios are avoiding smaller and medium-sized comedies and dramas. When Scott and Dargis bring up “The Hurt Locker,” they seem to forget how that film struggled to find distribution and did not get a wide release until after it started getting awards nominations. If there are fewer good roles for black actors, it’s probably a symptom of the fact that there are fewer good movies being made.

  6. I couldn’t agree more: Hip-hop has done little more than turn black men and women under the age of 30 into little more than cliches. The lack of employment opportunities for Hispanics as made Hollywood see them only as part-time workers and immigrants. Movies and TV, more than any other media, can change this: there ARE educated, responsible, gainfully employed non-white citizens out there. If the movies don’t want to recognize this, then non-white citizens will get a raw deal.

  7. I take your point, Daniel, about this being part of larger forces at work in Hollywood and Independent film-making. And I remember reading an excellent piece–think it was in the LA Times–about The Hurt Locker’s slow, uncertain journey toward major distribution–that it was picked up after getting knock-out reviews, Oscar buzz, steady audience numbers in the few theaters that had it initially. So I’d agree that it was a one-off example. Can only hope it’s done a little trail blazing. Though we’re still a long way away from the 90’s indie/Miramax era, when it seemed like anyone could make a movie and everyone was and that those movies quite often made their way to decent distribution (High Art, The Last Days of Disco, The Brothers McMullin, Chasing Amy, Clerks, Swingers, Kids). Of course, all these titles are very white movies. But if another golden age of independent filmmaking were to come about in this decade–and how I hope one does–I think it would be different.

    But you’re right. For right now we’re stuck with a movie making and distribution system that’s profit-driven and very cautious and that this is perhaps the main barrier for the kind of films I imagine.

    And Thomas–thank you for writing. I absolutely agree that the more our culture’s books, movies, media show us non-stereotypical images of ourselves, the weaker those stereotypes become. I had a professor once who said that the tv show 24 had helped make a real black president possible by depicting a fictional one. I don’t know if there’s a way to quantify that kind of effect, but it’s definitely a provocative and inspiring idea.

    And I agree with you absolutely that very few directors can do anything approaching art

  8. Emily,

    The issue you describe is a glaring problem, not only in Hollywood, but in other environments as well. The post-racial age ideal you described does happen, but all too often non-whites are hired, befriended, etc. as if to make some kind of point. “Look, we hired/invited this black/asian/latino person! We’re a company/family/city that values multi-ethnicity! Look at us! Look at us!”.

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how we can make diversity less of an “issue” and more of an accepted reality? It’s 2011, folks. Surely we can come up with something…

  9. What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.

    This is exactly how I feel. I have no interest in either Benetton tokenism or ghettoized racial experiences, and that is the huge bulk of films (and books, and television shows) that feature people of color. As a woman of color, this is especially disheartening for me, because this means I have a hard time enjoying most things marketed as “black” works of art or “Asian” works of art or “Hispanic” works of art. Most of them end up being either tokenism or ghettoizing or “privilege porn,” i.e. lurid depictions of how “horrible” life is for the (usually black) people in said film/book/TV show.

    I agree with Sonya re: The Wire. That was one of the finest TV series ever made. It was consistently subtle and complex. It should have had more seasons!

  10. Quick note on a side point: Harry Potter is a British film, I have no idea why you are criticising it for not representing American life.

  11. Another quick side note re. Harry Potter and racial diversity: the books are full of non-white characters who really couldn’t be left out of the movies: e.g. Cho Chang, the Patel twins, Dean Thomas, Angelina Johnson, etc.

  12. Also, it seems odd to take the Harry Potter movies to task, as it is based on a book. It’s like complaining there weren’t enough Asians in Beowulf, or enough Latinos in Gunga Din.

  13. Hey Harry Potter fans–Yes, HP was written by a Brit and all of the film’s actors are British but it was made by a Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers).

    Thanks for reading, Emily

  14. Emily,
    Maybe one reason for the glaring absence of black directors, writers and actors at this year’s Oscars is because the Academy, in its rush to embrace the so-called “underclass,” overlooked a gem called “Night Catches Us.” It was written and directed by a talented black woman (Tanya Hamilton), stars two mesmerizing black actors (Anthony Mackie from “The Hurt Locker” and Kerry Washington), and deals with the racially charged hangover from the Black Panther movement in 1970s Washington, D.C. It may not be the thing that you, and I, are hoping for – namely, plausible dramas and comedies about love and death and family that also happen to be about race – but it is nonetheless and nuanced and unflinching film that deserved a larger audience and more awards attention. Given what we’ve got, I’ll be pulling for “Winter’s Bone” on Oscar night – partly because it’s a great gritty movie, but mainly because it grew out of a novel by the gifted Daniel Woodrell. Thanks for this thoughtful, thought-provoking essay.
    Bill Morris

  15. I didn’t even hear about Night Catches Us, Bill–but will certainly seek it out now that I have.

    And I’m pulling for Winter’s Bone too–am delighted that it didn’t fall under the radar–and surprised since Deborah Granik isn’t, or wasn’t, a member of the directors guild.

    Another thing this year’s critical mass of movies about the underclass and the whiteout have obscured: This year was a pretty good one for female directors with Granik and Lisa Cholodenko’s films both in the running for top prizes. I’m a big fan of Cholodenko, but think her less gritty/more bougie film is less likely to win big–though I think the writing is as good and the performances. Plus, Andrea Arnold with Fish Tank and Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways.

    And thank you for reading, Emily

  16. The cover of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue once again reflects the film biz: zero Asian-American, zero Latinos. One (token ?) black actor (Anthony Mackie), one black/white actress (Rashida Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones). White men and white women dominate the very glam 1930 era shot. (Note: To the far right is a Swede (her father is a Spaniard): Noomi Rapace of “Girl with the Dragon Tatooo”, etc. fame.)

    I’m white myself and I went: Ouch!!

    One of my favorite black actresses Angela Bassett: whatever happened to her? Halle Berry (white mother/black father) is talented but gets far too much attention in the media.

  17. Dear Jennifer,

    Just back from inspecting the cover and think I’d agree that Anthony Mackie’s their token non-white. And about that: if you’re putting Mackie in the mix, presumably for Night Catches Us, why would you not put his co-star–the ravishing and uber-talented Kerry Washington–in there too? I mean, if Rashida Jones made the cut with her short career of low comedy and that trustfund babe who used to play a lesbian on the OC–who was in some godawful robot/video game movie this year (Tron?)–why not Kerry Washington?

    But I don’t expect much of Vanity Fair–the shamelessness/thoughtlessness/idiocy quotient is so reliably high! Though they do still manage to out-do themselves, as you’ve noted. Personally, I still haven’t fully recovered from the shamelessness/hookerishness of their World Cup cover with Didier Drogba and Christiano Ronaldo. I guess the disappointment is that they could use their considerable artistic powers for good–and so often they squander them on inanity.

    Thanks for reading, Jennifer.


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