Power & Privilege at the Movies

There is a story about a Native American elder and a white man visiting the reservation.

“I notice,” says the white man, “that your songs are almost always about water. Not having enough of it must be a real problem for your people.”

“That’s true,” says the elder. “And I notice that your songs are all about love.”

You can tell a lot about a society from its songs and stories, both what they’re about and what they’re not. Since movies are our most popular form of storytelling, it’s worth noting which get singled out as being more important than the rest.

Like any story, a movie plot is told through the lives of characters, which raises the question of not only what is the story about, but whose lives are used to tell it. Who are the human beings having these human experiences? And who, in being left out and made invisible, are not?

In a society organized around various forms of privilege—white, male, nondisabled, and heterosexual—with rare exceptions, the dominant stories are told through the lives of dominant groups. When subordinate groups are featured, the story will be about their subordination, not being allowed to be just human beings in the throes of being human. They will be marked by their subordinate status—the black woman, the gay man—unlike the straight white nondisabled man who gets to be just a human being.

As a feature of systems of privilege, all of this has consequences. For subordinate groups, it underscores their social invisibility and their status as outsiders. For dominant groups—men, in particular, and especially white men—it sets them up to expect to always be at the center of attention and to be larger than life, a standard that the vast majority are unable to meet. The effects of this are all around us, especially in violence toward others and themselves, whether it’s domestic violence, suicide, the mass murder of children, or the readiness for war.

Here are the Best Picture winners from almost fifty years of Oscars, with occasional notes as needed for clarity. In all that time, there has not been a single Oscar winner that has told the story of a person of color or someone with a disability where the story has not been about race (Twelve Years a Slave, Crash, Driving Miss Daisey, In the Heat of the Night), or disability (The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man). The occasional film that violates the whites-only rule is often set in another country and another time, which keeps it from challenging or upsetting U.S. audiences by reminding them of their own society today.

No winning film has told the story of someone who is LGBTQ, whether the story is about that or not.

Straight white women without disabilities fare somewhat better (Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment, The Sound of Music), but not by much when you consider they account for more than half the population.

Here’s the list, by the year in which the film was made:

2015   Spotlight
2014   Birdman
2013   Twelve Years a Slave
2012   Argo
2011   The Artist
2010   The King’s Speech
2009   The Hurt Locker.
2008   Slumdog Millionaire
2007   No Country for Old Men
2006   The Departed
2005   Crash
2004   Million Dollar Baby (the main character is female, but a boxer, no less, who is ‘managed’ by none other than macho Clint Eastwood)
2003   The Lord of the Rings
2002   Chicago (women, yes, serious story, no)
2001   A Beautiful Mind
2000   Gladiator
1999   American Beauty
1998   Shakespeare in Love
1997   Titanic (a film about a ship that was conceived, built, controlled, and sunk by men)
1996   The English Patient
1995   Braveheart
1994   Forrest Gump
1993   Schindler’s List
1992   The Unforgiven
1991   Silence of the Lambs (The FBI agent is a white woman, but whose name comes first to mind, Hannibal Lecter, the white man who eats white people, or . . . what is her name?)
1990   Dances with Wolves (most of the characters are Native American, but the story is about the title character, a white soldier ‘going native’)
1989   Driving Miss Daisy
1988   Rain Man
1987   The Last Emperor (an exception to the whites-only rule, but set in China, a long time ago and far far away)
1986   Platoon
1985   Out of Africa (a rare woman-centered story, but also about white people colonizing and exploiting Africa with not a hint of doubt. Note the irony that in the same year The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won not a single one)
1984   Amadeus
1983   Terms of Endearment
1982   Gandhi (another exception to the whites-only rule, but, again, set in India in the past and about no less a figure than Gandhi. And, of course, it’s about race)
1981   Chariots of Fire
1980   Ordinary People
1979   Kramer vs. Kramer
1978   The Deer Hunter
1977   Annie Hall (Annie Hall may be the title character, but, like all Woody Allen films, it’s really about Woody Allen)
1976   Rocky
1975   One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest (in the novel on which the film is based, the point of view belongs to Chief, a Native American, unlike the film in which it’s all about Jack Nicholson’s white character, McMurphy)
1974   The Godfather, Part II
1973   The Sting
1972   The Godfather, Part I
1971   The French Connection
1970   Patton
1969   Midnight Cowboy
1968   Oliver!
1967   In the Heat of the Night
1966   A Man for All Seasons
1965   The Sound of Music
1964   My Fair Lady (emphasis on the subject of the ‘my,’ being a man betting another man he can turn a cockney speaking Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady)
1963   Tom Jones

If we compare the most recent ten year period (2005-2014) with the ten years that begin this series (1963-1972), we could simply reverse the two with the same result. We have had a black man as president for five years, and his successor may be a white woman, but in the stories we tell about who we are and what it means to be a human being, privilege and power still call the tune. A UCLA study released just last week found that although men make up less than half the population, they account for 75% of lead actors, 95% of directors, 87% of script writers, and almost 100% of those who head major movie studios.*

Eons from now, an archeologist from another planet would have no trouble concluding from this record that the ‘real’ human story in this society was about straight, white, nondisabled males, with everyone else being little more than bit players in supporting roles whose stories were not worth the telling.


If you liked this post, you also might want to read “So Yesterday” and “What Is a System of Privilege?

*To access the full UCLA report, click here.

2 responses to “Power & Privilege at the Movies

  1. Anne Batterson Friday, March 6, 2015 at 7:41 am

    This is a chilling list. Obviously, there are many more stories that need to be told. Thank you.

  2. vherrick Friday, March 6, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Thank you for emphasizing the importance of the stories we tell (and honor) about ourselves.

    I thought “Slumdog Millionaire” should count as an anomaly, re: race, but, as you observe, occasionally men of color take center stage when the setting of the story makes it implausible for a white man to be the lead. Interestingly, in that case, the story is about the Indian youth’s pursuit of what is quite recognizably the “American Dream” — a house in the suburbs with his devoted sweetheart. Also, of course, the women in that story — as in so many of the stories we tell (and especially the ones older white men choose to make prominent) — are objects for men to compete over, fight over, and ultimately win — along with immeasurable wealth. It gets back to the overarching imperative of our culture of control. The main female character in that movie has little or no agency, and that’s all too common. The hammering of this theme in fiction and popular music has a devastating effect on the minds of young women. (The book “Reviving Ophelia,” though it might need updating at this point, springs to mind.)

    While the distressing tendency to take movies into the world of Marvel Comics is on the upswing, I want to point out one of the greatest and most progressive writers of dramatic fiction today is an author of science fiction and fantasy: Ursula LeGuin. Long before anyone else thought to do so, she created a planet of perfect androgyny in “The Left Hand of Darkness.” The main characters in many of her more recent novels, such as “The Other Wind,” are women with agency and power, who navigate in a world of complex emotions and use persuasion, connection, and collaboration to triumph. I notice no one from Hollywood is beating down her door!

    (I also notice the egregious absence of Ava DuVernay, the young black woman who directed “Selma,” from the list of Oscar nominees for Best Director.)

    Thank you again for your insightful analysis!

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