Must-Watch: Oscar Nominees George Clooney and Viola Davis on Race and Manufactured Audiences in the…

By  · Published on January 26th, 2012

Must-Watch: Oscar Nominees George Clooney and Viola Davis on Race and Manufactured Audiences in the Minds of Hollywood Producers

“There becomes this idea, this narrative that says, ‘Well, it’s going to be 13–30-year-old white men which is the target. Because we want to open.’ Because everyone makes their money opening weekend. Well that’s actually not the audience. There is an audience for all of this. We’ve just forgotten it.”

That’s George Clooney discussing the condescension inherent in the mindset of some executives in the studio system. His comment comes after a question to newly minted double Oscar nominee Viola Davis (The Help) is asked in the Newsweek Oscar roundtable why this is her first starring role. The answer?

“I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time,” said Davis. A clever turn of phrase underlining the reality that there are few roles for women of a certain color and a certain age. It’s certainly a complex issue with any number of historical, social and artistic causes, but the numbers are certainly there.

The Daily Beast’s Allison Samuels parses this section of the dialogue (that also included Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Tilda Swinton, and Christopher Plummer). Her take away is a kind criticism of Theron for interrupting Davis with a well-meaning compliment that ultimately missed the point and shifted the conversation off of the weight of Davis’s claim. Samuels asserts that its the particular brand of naivete that Theron exhibits there that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to argue against that considering Davis’s polite response.

As to the bigger issue, Clooney’s ultimate villain in all this is Hollywood Math. He argues that the broader mindset in the studio world (and he uses “we” here) is that there is no influential audience outside of teenage and twentysomething males.

It’s a reflexive, self-sustaining argument. Put out a movie aimed at young men, make a billion dollars, (profit), and cement that catalyst for the next green light. What’s ironic is that it takes more people than young males to spend all that money, but studios have yet to understand how to release large films aimed at anyone else (unless it’s a built-in audience rooting for Team Edward). That inability colors judgment. After all, if you and the marketing team have no idea how to sell something, and are unwilling to take on the challenge of learning, approving a movie becomes highly improbable.

What’s fascinating here is that this all might be another symptom created by The Blockbuster Mentality. Admittedly, the issue cannot be reduced down, and it might be impossible to prove any sort of speculation about what causes it, but it’s not hard to imagine a world where the sentiments growing out of the Civil Rights Movement never had time to grow to fruition in a Hollywood that formed at the end of the late 70s as a factory of large-scale projects. All of the sudden there was a formula for making movies that placed minorities in secondary roles, and breaking out of that comes at the perceived risk of losing millions if not billions. If Movie A works that well, and Movie B looks exactly like it, why wouldn’t it succeed too?

It’s this kind of thinking that poisons the well of creativity and innovation. It also, presumably, could block out anything that isn’t the norm.

This comes out alongside the open letter from Red Hook co-writer by James McBride called “Being a Maid” where he outlines the irony in our first black president giving the state of the union on the same day that Davis and Octavia Spencer were nominated for Oscars as maids – the same role that won Hattie McDaniel her Oscar for Gone With the Wind 73 years ago.

The letter must be read in its entirety, but here’s the money quote:

“But this kind of cultural war puts minority storytellers – Blacks, Asians, Latinos and people of color – at a distinct disadvantage. My friend Spike Lee is a clear example. Three days ago, at the premiere of Red Hook Summer at The Sundance Film Festival, Spike, usually a cool and widely accepting soul whose professional life is as racially diverse as any American I know– lost his cool for 30 seconds. When prompted by a question from Chris Rock who was seated in the audience, he blurted out a small, clear truth: He said one reason we did Red Hook Summer independently was because he could not get Hollywood to green light the follow-up to “Inside Man” – which cost only $45 million to make and grossed a whopping $184,376,240 million domestically and worldwide – plus another $37 million domestically on DVD sales. Within minutes, the internet lit up with burning personal criticism of him stitched into negative reviews of “Red Hook Summer” by so-called film critics and tweeters. I don’t mind negative reviews. That’s life in the big leagues. But it’s the same old double standard. The recent success of “Red Tails” which depicts the story of the all black Tuskegee Airmen, is a clear example. Our last film, “Miracle At St. Anna,” which paid homage to the all-black 92nd Division, which fought on the ground in Italy, was blasted before it even got out the gate. Maybe it’s a terrible film. Maybe it deserved to bomb. The difference is this: When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic. But when Spike Lee says it, he’s a racist militant and a malcontent. Spike’s been saying the same thing for 25 years. And he had to go to Italy to raise money for a film that honors American soldiers, because unlike Lucas, he’s not a billionaire. He couldn’t reach in his pocket to create, produce, market, and promote his film like Lucas did with “Red Tails.”

But there’s a deeper, even more critical element here , because it’s the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens.”

It’s important to note that what McBride is doing is another form of Hollywood Math – something that reduces the effect down to either one or not nearly enough causes to get a meaningful idea of why a movie works or does not. However, it’s tough to argue with him about the reactions to Lucas and Lee. Maybe Lee invites this kind of scrutiny because he’s a powder keg of quotable anger, but they’re both essentially saying the same thing: Hollywood studios weren’t interested in a military action movie about a bunch of black airmen/soldiers.

Even though studios are gun shy over dishing out $58m to finance a movie, why not this one?

Obviously it’s a deep, cultural question that can’t be answered easily, but it’s still important to discuss. In a world where 2 out of 10 Actress Oscar Nominees is black, are we still fundamentally rooted in the world of 1939?

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