In a recent New York Times article, writer, producer and director Lee Daniels dismissed the issues surrounding #OscarsSoWhite and called its supporters, among other things, whiny, reprehensible, and incomprehensible. As the creator of the hashtag that has helped to promote significant change throughout the entertainment industry in which Daniels works, I was disappointed in his comments and, frankly, a bit puzzled.
Daniels, best known for directing the films Precious and The Butler and creating the television series Empire and STAR, owes a significant amount of his success to telling stories focused on the Black experience. One would think, therefore, that he would champion the idea of enabling traditionally underrepresented communities to have similar opportunities on the big and small screens, which is the goal of #OscarsSoWhite.
For example, Daniels understands the importance of casting a trans actress as a trans character in STAR, but then states that the story is “told through a white girl’s perspective because I felt that the country instinctively, I thought, needed to heal.” It is not clear what is particularly healing about yet another TV show seen through the White lens; our movie and television screens are teeming with them already.
Further, Daniels states, “I don’t expect acknowledgment or acceptance from White America.” Yet when speaking about the titular lead in STAR, he says, “I think that this White girl is so fabulous that Black people will embrace her and White people will embrace her.” That sounds like seeking acceptance from White America to me, at least in the form of television ratings.
There are scores of people from marginalized communities, talented actors and actresses and those who work behind the camera, who would like to “go out and do the work,” as Daniels exclaims in the New York Times article. But he makes it harder when he casts a White lead specifically because he “wanted White people to feel good about being White.”
With the rising tide of White nationalism that this country is experiencing after Donald Trump’s election, White people seems to be feeling just fine. Further, it is not our responsibility to coddle them when they do not, especially when their uneasiness stems from concern about losing some of the status that they wield in the form of privilege. But when I suggest via #OscarsSoWhite that people from marginalized communities should also have the opportunity to feel good about themselves by seeing themselves on screen as fully developed characters, Daniels calls me, and the movement, “whiny.” How curious.
“These whiny people that think we’re owed something are incomprehensible and reprehensible to me,” Daniels told the New York Times. But after Mo’Nique failed to shout him out during her Academy Award acceptance speech for her role in Precious, she claimed Daniels “had a problem that I didn’t say his name the night of the Oscars awards.” Apparently Daniels thought he was “owed something” that night and rumors still circulate about whether or not Daniels was the reason Mo’Nique was temporarily blackballed in Hollywood. Reprehensible, indeed.
Despite a wealth of impressive talent and work, all too often people from marginalized communities are still overlooked. This is why Daniels seems particularly tone deaf when he says artists of color should “let your legacy speak and stop complaining, man.” When talented filmmakers with undeniable legacies like Melvin Van Peebles and Julie Dash were just invited to join the Academy in 2016, despite their seminal work for years, someone should speak out. I created #OscarsSoWhite to address these issues and will not be deterred, even if Daniels finds it “reprehensible.”
Underlying Daniels statements appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of #OscarsSoWhite. In the New York Times article, he asks, “Are we really in this for the awards?” The hashtag and the campaign behind it is not about the statue, which is tangible recognition from one’s peers of a job well done. I maintain that, whether you are a fry cook or a well-known Hollywood director, everyone seeks recognition. In fact, Daniels apparently seeks this acknowledgement as well, despite his dismissive question. When Empire failed to receive an Emmy nomination for best TV drama series last year, Daniels took to Instagram with Jussie Smollett and yelled “F you MFers” to Emmys voters (expletives deleted). He later attempted to downplay this statement by saying it was all in jest, despite the hashtags #canfinallypostthis #timetoberealagain and #emmyniceguyoverwith on the post.
Too often celebrities and public figures attain a certain amount of status and then seemingly forget the struggle that it took to get there. Daniels appears to be steeped in class privilege or, as my grandmother would say, “He forgot where he came from.” The goal of #OscarsSoWhite is to make the struggle that Daniels overcame a little easier for those who are still climbing the ladder of success. It’s a shame that Daniels is selective in deciding when he wants to be supportive of this endeavor.
To Daniels’ credit, he recently stated at a roundtable, “I don’t know what gives me more pleasure: watching my story unfold or going in and watching a room full of Black people talking for me and writing words for Black people. I hate White people writing for Black people; it’s so offensive. So we go out and look specifically for African-American voices.”
This is exactly the point of #OscarsSoWhite: the film or TV show always starts on the page. Therefore, it is imperative that people from traditionally underrepresented communities are given an opportunity to tell stories from their frames of reference as screenwriters and scriptwriters.
#OscarsSoWhite isn’t just about race, and it isn’t just about actors and actresses. Instead, #OscarsSoWhite champions the idea that people from marginalized communities should have a more inclusive role in the entertainment industry so that they can continue their journey of discovery and self-acceptance. It is about ensuring that audience members who reward studios with TV ratings or movie ticket dollars are able to see their beauty, complexity and nuance as they watch the screen.