ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
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:
2013 Twelve Years a Slave
2011 The Artist
2010 The King’s Speech
2009 The Hurt Locker.
2008 Slumdog Millionaire
2007 No Country for Old Men
2006 The Departed
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
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
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)
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)
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)
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
1969 Midnight Cowboy
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.
*To access the full UCLA report, click here.