Oscar the Golden Boy

The issue at the core of the Oscars' racial polemic is best summed up in the Los Angeles Times piece about drama being defined as "white men facing adversity." True. Hollywood was created and run by white men who didn't question this assumption. Of course, as soon as I write this I think, define white men.

The silents used stereotypes like the All-American Boy (that's a guy who didn't look like me) and the Greaser (that's a guy who looked like me, except for the hair oil). Then, the Latin Lover (that's a guy who looked like an idealized version of me, plus the hair oil). The Latin lover has had a long screen life, all the way up to Antonio Banderas. Is the Latin Lover a white guy?

What about a half -Latin guy who started out as a lover of sorts? Or at least a guy whose first screen persona was predicated on looking like James Dean, a white man facing adversity if there ever was one. Martin Sheen. What about his very non-Latin looking son who has always gone by the irrepressibly Latino name Emilio Estevez? More recently, we have the hottest Latino, Oscar Isaac, who's made his mark playing very non-Latino roles. And Bobby Cannavale, who's as true bringing up his Cuban side (The Station Agent) as his Italian side (Boardwalk Empire).

Then there are the Jews. Here I have to backtrack and recall that Hollywood was the land of Great White Fathers like Cecil B. DeMille, until it became Jewish. It's been pointed out that the Jewish studio heads kept up and even revved up traditional Americanness to keep their background in the, well, background. What was going on in Europe was not conducive to making any fuss about their identity. The focus was on actors and these were all putative (many a Jewish actor went by a WASP name) Gentiles, the given of American popular culture. But it begs the question, are Jews white?

The Irish are another matter. The screen brimmed with Irishness in the days of all those sergeants in John Ford westerns. And the Irish are white, aren't they? Well, not every one thought so always. Still, there's no mistaking the brogue that pours from those sergeants' lips.

The "men" side of the formula is not as vague. Sure, we now have trans characters, and the debate over whether they should be played by straights or trans? But for the most part, it's either men or women. There have been plenty of films about women facing adversity (anything with Bette Davis) and great actresses to portray them. Still, it has been and remains mostly a man's world.

What is meant in this debate is the issue of black protagonists. Even a very integrated film phenomenon like The Matrix trilogy had a white man facing adversity at its core. On the other hand, I look at popular action films starring Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes and their blackness is seldom an issue -- their ability to kick ass is. Black actors now play black roles and roles where race matters little or nothing. In some "color blind" casting black actors are seen in roles that defy any kind of reality. 

Spike Lee is the most famous black director, his films now and earlier always in the middle of the Oscars' racial controversy. I'm not a big fan, though I have to ask myself if the reason I like his 25th Hour best is because it's precisely about a white man facing adversity. There are no easy answers as soon as we step out of narrow political parameters. Are The Odyssey and Oedipus Rex about white men facing adversity? Were the ancient Greeks white? Certainly not in the current sense. The Bible is two books. One about men and women and, in fact a whole people, facing adversity. Another about a man facing adversity of such magnitude that Christians believe in its transcendence. Were the Jews white? In the first book each warring nation considers its adversaries Other. In the second, the ruling Romans and the subjugated Jews don't like each other much. In the tradition that followed, religion replaces race or nationhood, or is supposed to but never does. And the persecution of the Jews, from which the whole Christian world is spiritually descended, begins.

The Oscars' show cares little about such historical pondering. It's part silly ritual, like a beauty pageant, part celebrity ogling, part homage to talent. It would be irrelevant if we didn't like movies so much -- and because we like them so much, movies didn't make tons of money. So we watch it. The racial and gender issues become part of the spectacle.

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So here's some apocryphal trivia. It's rumored, and undoubtedly not true but who cares, that the model for the Oscar statuette was Emilio "el Indio" Fernandez. You know him, General Mapache in The Wild Bunch. A film talent who had successful careers in Hollywood and the Mexican film industry, where he was also an important director. In his youth he was athletic and dashingly handsome, a true Latin Lover. So just think, every time a winner raises the Oscar in triumph, he is celebrating -- and fondling -- a naked Mexican.