My Master’s thesis is now available online, but since I’m quite sure that a lot of you aren’t going to read 60 pages of text, though some have expressed interest in my topic, I thought I’d make it easier for you to find out what my thesis is about by writing this post. I apologise if this turns out way too long for anyone to read, because I literally could write 60 pages about this (cause that’s what I did) so trying to sum it up in a length that people with short attention spans might read is a challenge!
I studied the representation of African Americans in Oscar Best Picture nominees – namely the speech times of African Americans versus the speech times of European Americans. The idea from my study came from a study done by Fought and Eisenhower on Disney princess films , which showed that females speak less than men in films where females are supposed to be the main characters. Also, at the time of starting my study, the 2016 Oscars were coming up, and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy had once again gained interest. I wanted to study African Americans, because we live in a time where a lot of people don’t think racism exists anymore, or think that minorities are keeping up the idea of racism by “playing the race card”. To sum up as shortly as possible what I discuss in my thesis: racism does still exist, though it may not be as overt as it was in the past (but reading the news lately I fear racism is becoming more prominent again). Due to the often covert nature of modern racism, we have to look at ways in which racism is discreetly promoted, for instance in the media, films, tv shows etc. The main questions I want to answer with my study are: are African Americans portrayed as equals to European Americans, or are they constantly given inferior roles; how much do African American characters in films get to voice themselves, and are European Americans the focus even in films which should be about African Americans.
For my data I chose all the films from the past 25 years which have received a Best Picture nomination in the Academy Awards with central African American characters. This amounted to 12 films – only 8% of all 153 nominees during those years. The films are: Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Ray, Crash, Precious, The Blind Side, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and Selma.
I measured all speech times in the films with stop watches, dividing the characters into African American, European American and other. I would have loved to elaborate on the “other” category, but other minorities play such small roles in these films that there was really no point.
Out of the 12 films, only four are dominated by African Americans: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ray, Precious and Selma. 12 Years a Slave, The Help and Crash are all quite close to even, but the other films are clearly dominated by European Americans. The division of speech times varies a lot: from 85% by African Americans in Beast of the Southern Wild to only 12% in The Green Mile. Yes, the most central character to the plot of The Green Mile – a film with a running time of over three hours – speaks for less than six minutes. Would he have a larger and more diverse role if he was white? We will never know.
On average, African American’s speech amounts up to 47% of the total speech time, whereas European Americans make up 50% of the speech time, and the rest is speech by characters of other backgrounds. European Americans slightly dominate African Americans, even though these films are predominantly about African Americans – and are the films with the most African American characters out of all Best Picture nominees. This result may not seem radical, but if you think about films with European Americans as main characters, a lot of them have a 100% white cast. Or maybe 90% white, because there might be a stereotypical minority character thrown in there. And before you say “well, European Americans are the majority, that makes sense!” remember that white Americans only make up about 60% of the US population, so making over 80% of films with under 30% minority casts isn’t justifiable. And really, only four films with an African American majority have been nominated for the most prestigious award in Hollywood – and none of them have won?
The numbers may not say much as such, but when you look at how these films are made, and what is emphasised in the films, you start to see patterns. Selma and Ray have very logical reasons to have such high amounts of African American speech – the most prominent characters in the Civil Rights movement were African American, and especially during Ray Charles’ life most soul and RnB musicians were African American. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Precious are not mainstream films, and both have main characters that, as a type, are very rarely depicted in Hollywood. The fact that these films differ from mainstream films with a cast that is mostly minority is caused by the fact that the film makers wanted to make films on people that are often ignored. Films like The Help and 12 Years a Slave are both films that could easily have an African American majority, but both have quite a European American viewpoint. At the end of the scale there are films like The Blind Side and The Green Mile, which in my opinion simply use African Americans as a prop or an exotic addition to the film. The Blind Side can be called a white saviour narrative – and I think it grossly underrepresents Michael Oher’s abilities and command of his own life. The Green Mile is a prime example of the magical negro stereotype, showing John Coffey as purely an anomaly, not really making it clear to the viewer if he even is fully human.
One of the most interesting finds in my study was that the amount of speech by minorities correlated with the budget and the profits of the films. The biggest budgets went to the films with the least speech by African Americans, with the exception of Ray which is clearly dominated by African Americans. The profits of the films show an even clearer correlation to speech by African Americans – the exceptions with the budgets are no longer exceptions in the profits. Ray‘s profits are nowhere near the films with a European American majority. Pulp Fiction, which was made on a small budget and has a European American majority, has much higher profits than the films with African American majorities. And since this isn’t my official thesis and I can be more vocal about my personal opinions here I can say that the profits cannot be simply explained by how good the films are: like, can someone please explain how The Blind Side has the second highest profits in this set of films? I fail to think of a film right now which has annoyed me as much – the amount of white privilege contrasted with the silence of Michael Oher and how he is depicted more as someone who gets rather than does just makes me roll my eyes for the whole two hours of it.
There’s been a lot of focus on African Americans recently, and I would have loved to focus on some other minority in addition to African Americans, but especially with Academy Award Best Picture nominees, that would be a difficult thing to do. Hispanics and Latin Americans make up 18% of the US population – which is more than the 13% of African Americans, but how many Academy Award nominees or really big budget films can you think of with central Latin American characters? The same question can be asked of any other minority as well.