Notes on Hail Caesar: Not a black face in sight

When the acclaimed directors Joel and Ethan Coen, were asked about the lack of diversity in their newest film Hail Caesar, they were defensive. Ethan said, "It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity -- or it might not." And Joel said, “It’s an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made to single out any particular story and say, ‘Why isn’t this, that or the other thing [included]?’”

For the most part I agree. The most important part of any film is the story that it tells, and more frequently than not, stories do not come with the thought that every race must be represented in their telling. However, it is one thing to make a film where all the characters with speaking roles are white, and it is another to build a world where people of colour simply do not exist.

This is the case in Hail Caesar. It is set in the 1950s in Hollywood. If the world they depicted is to be believed, the only people who were not white in Hollywood at the time were two Asians who worked in a Chinese restaurant.

I was slow to come to this conclusion. I had gone through about three quarters of the film before I realised that there was no one that looked like me in it. It would not have bothered me if the film was one of those dramas with only four characters and one location, but this was not the case. Of the 231 people that were featured in the film, only two did not appear to be white.

When people argue for diversity in film, there are always some quick to warn against the dangers of tokenism. Some skip the tokenism argument in its entirety and say, "well we looked, and we didn't find any that were suitable." If we were to consider these points as reasons why films aren't diverse then we would have to consider the following.
  • There were no people of colour in Hollywood in the 1950s.
  • There were no extras of colour available at the time. 
The very suggestion that those two are true is ridiculous. It's like you turning up to a class at university to find that your lecturer is a goat who believes that the world is flat.

This is one of the weird ones without any conclusion because I'm still stunned that I didn't see a single black face in two hours. Usually, there's a pimp, a prostitute, a drug dealer, a waiter, or a corrupt African junta from a fictional African country with a South African accent even when we know that the fictional country is somewhere between Gambia and Cameroon. So today I thank the Coen brothers for teaching me that there is something worse than being typecast and misrepresented and that's not being represented at all.

Happy Days,

1 comment:

Nedoux said...

Hi Afam,

Well written and articulate as always.

To be honest, while I appreciate your fine perspective, not all aspects of it resonate with me.

Sometimes when I see complaints by a group who feels unfairly left out, I do something that I like to call a "Put The Shoe On Another Foot" test.

Using this movie as an example, no Black was cast in it, but if no White were cast, would it feel as unfair?

Another case, feminists might protest about a movie that had an all-male cast in it, but with a movie that had an all-female cast, would it feel as unfair?

A real life example is the recently debated Benetton advert, a taller white kid rested her elbow on the head of a shorter black kid and the racial bias complaints came rolling. In comparison, a year ago, Benetton released a similar ad but this time, it was a taller black kid who rested her elbow on the shorter white kid's head. There was no outcry then because for some reason, it did not seem as unfair.

I'm learning to be picky when I choose my battles, or maybe I've become too jaded to even care. Lol

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