No Oscar for redface–but is that progress?

In Uncategorized by Adrienne K.9 Comments


I half-heartedly watched the Oscars last night. There were definitely years when I was younger where I eagerly looked forward to the night, waiting for the red carpet coverage, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the pretty dresses…but once I became a grown up who thinks about race, racism, white privilege, and representations of Natives all the time, it was like the shiny Oscars had lost their glow. Now, to me, they represent the perfect microcosm of society–an institution with a long history of discriminating against People of Color that now pretends that racism is a thing of the past, while continuing to discriminate against People of Color.

As you may remember, there were a couple of Oscar nominations that rubbed me the wrong way a few months back (Here’s the full post). The Lone Ranger got nominated for “Best Makeup and Hairstyling,” when the only “makeup” going on was Johnny Depp dressed up in redface. Then there was the best song fiasco for “Alone Yet Not Alone”, which is a colonial-christian-fantasy film that paints Natives as evil savages, but luckily that got taken care of on a technicality.

Last night, when the category came up for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, I held my breath. Luckily, the award went to Dallas Buyers Club, which had an overall budget of $250 FOR THE WHOLE MAKEUP FOR THE WHOLE MOVIE (ETA: Dallas Buyers Club is not without controversy over representations as well. There are folks in the trans* community who are very unhappy about the ways their community was portrayed in the film). Not that it looked like Lone Ranger spent any more than that with JD’s day-after-halloween-slept-in-your-facepaint look. But anyway.

So does that mean anything? Hooray, a movie didn’t win an Oscar for its brilliant use of redface? Not really, but it does bring to light some bigger issues. Before and during the Oscars, a group of Native activists organized a “twitter storm” using the hashtag #NotYourTonto to focus on the ongoing issues of misrepresentation of Native peoples in Hollywood. The series of tweets from everyone last night was really powerful, and shows how in 2014, the one-sided stereotypes that represent Native peoples in mainstream film really haven’t progressed at all. In 1973 Marlon Brando famously refused his Oscar and had Sacheen Littlefeather take the stage to protest the treatment of American Indians in Hollywood, and I think this portion of the speech, which didn’t air, is incredibly pertinent:

Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don’t concern us, and that we don’t care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.

I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

1973. Forty one years ago. And those are words I could have easily written on my blog today. Rob Schmidt from Bluecorn Comics pointed out on twitter that the image of Tonto was the only Native the entire audience would see last night.

Not that the representation for other groups is any better (click to make this awesome infographic from Lee and Low bigger).

Academy Awards Infographic 18 24 - FINAL - REVISED 2-24-2014

We did have a big win with Lupita Nyong’o winning for Best Supporting Actress (watch her moving and beautiful acceptance speech if you haven’t already), and then 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture. But I think it’s important to think about what one of my brilliant colleagues (you can follow him on Twitter here) pointed out on FB last night that 1) No, 12 Years a Slave winning doesn’t mean racism is over, and 2) “Fruitvale Station” (which follows the story of Oscar Grant, and didn’t get nominated) was a braver movie to make than “12 Years a Slave.” In his words, “It’s always easier to say ‘look at how bad things WERE” as opposed to “look at how bad things ARE.'” Things were really bad in regards to race and racism, and despite what many people would have you think, things are still really bad.

What am I saying here? A few things. Mainly that Hollywood has stagnated in representation of non-White folks, representations of Native peoples in mainstream haven’t budged since the 1970’s, and the Oscars is just a super white institution that represents deeper issues in society. I just think about how many people tune into the Academy Awards each year, and how invisible and misrepresented People of Color are in that space. But none of that is new.

As I’m going over this reality in my head today, I keep thinking about this ignorant comment on Jezebel’s article about Matika Wilbur and Project 562 yesterday, which pretty much sums up (I think) what most of America thinks of Native folks:

For starters, the whole problem is that they’re not modern or successful people. There are a lot of issues in the Native American community that have nothing to do with the mostly accurate* way that they’re represented in the media…

*mostly accurate because let’s face it, the majority of native people are poor and uneducated. On reservations there is widespread substance abuse and people who pine for a lifelstyle that is not really all that compatible with the modern world.

Yeah, so many layers of effed up with that quote. Especially as I sit here and think about how many amazing, successful Natives I know, and how many counter-stories exist to that tired narrative of poor-stuck-in-the-past-addicted-Indian. THIS is why representing ourselves is important and matters deeply.

Given all that context, I think we need to recognize and celebrate all the amazing things that are going on in Native film and media. We just had the awesome Indigenous New Media Symposium in NYC which has me thinking about all the opportunities that these forms of social offer in terms of pushing back. I also think about Matika, about Tracy Rector and Longhouse Media, about filmmakers like Sterlin Harjo, whose new film “This May Be the Last Time” premiered at Sundance (his third feature film to do so), and new films like “Drunktown’s Finest,” written and directed by Native folks, that provide perspectives and stories Hollywood can’t even imagine. These were just the first few I thought of off the top of my head, the list goes on and on and on. Activist Jacqueline Keeler has a running googledoc she was using for her #NotYourTonto tweets last night, if you’re interested in more Native film festivals, actors, directors, and films.

Hollywood is slow to change. We also have Hollywood to thank for many of the lasting stereotypes of Native peoples we still deal with today, and institutions like The Academy Awards continue to reify and perpetuate the system of inequality that oppresses Native peoples. But we also have a voice–now more than ever, and creating our own images and own media is going to be increasingly important. So should we celebrate that Lone Ranger didn’t win an Oscar for redface? Absolutely. But I’m also beyond ready to celebrate all of the amazing ways we’re able to represent ourselves, because it’s abundantly clear that Hollywood isn’t going to do it for us.

  • jfkeeler

    Awesome post. But oh, no! You read the Jezebel comments! Don’t read the Jezebel comments! LOL

  • jfkeeler

    Thanks for mentioning our #NotYourTonto campaign BTW and thanks for all your help!

  • Brian Twenter

    I was trying to post a comment from my phone earlier, so if this is a rehash, I apologize. In an earlier tweet you noted that you were worried that the piece did not have a point. I did and the point was very well expressed.

  • Katelyn Avery

    I completely agree about Fruitvale Station. It should have been nominated for an Oscar. I’m a young white American around Oscar’s age. I was crying so hard in the theater. I wasn’t able to see 12 Years A Slave, but I can tell it must have been moving. However you can get almost anyone to say slavery was sad and awful.

  • NCC-1138

    Instead of bitching about how shitty things are, why aren’t we the Native community, doing something of more artistic merit? Are we so dependent on the white people to validate our artistry? Are there so few of us interested in creating cinema? Being an actor or a filmmaker must be so important because you place such cultural significance on its portrayal of us. They must have such power…did we have this much hate towards Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson? Did they shape our future, our way of realizing ourselves as artists and as a people so dramatically as say Depp’s Tonto has? I doubt it. I recommend you stop hating and start creating art. Stop placing your hopes for the future of our people int he hands of actors and filmmakers. If you think they are so important, make something worthy of an Oscar and push us forward.

    • Hi NCC-1138,

      I agree that creating art that comes from within a community is one of the best ways to combat stereotypes. But there are a lot of outside factors aside from raw talent that go into making art that gets a wide distribution. “Something worthy of an Oscar” is extremely subjective. My company, Lee & Low Books, created the infographic above and one of the things we wanted to show is that when you have an academy that is largely composed of older white men, you are going to see a certain type of movie funded, greenlit, made, and celebrated. I don’t know too much about Native filmmakers but I’m sure there are very talented ones out there. Perhaps a Native filmmaker has already made something worthy of an Oscar. But will the film be seen? Can they get the big studio funding? The release? The big names attached? Winning an Oscar does not happen in a vacuum, and there are huge obstacles at every step of the way that make it difficult for Native filmmakers to break in, regardless of the level of talent or dedication.

      • Susan White

        Chris Eyre has made some wonderful films that were Oscar worthy, in my opinion. Smoke Signals (with Adam Beach, Tantoo Cardinal, Adam Evans and Gary Farmer) and Skins (with Eric Schweig and Graham Greene) are two of my favorites. I love his films, but others either don’t see them or don’t understand them. I know a few non native people who watched Smoke Signals for example and had to pick apart everything. I was asked so many questions about the meaning of things. It was a story about a young man grieving for his father and for the relationship they never had. I thought that was easy to see. I hope that his future films get more distribution than these did. Thank you, Hannah for seeing the difficulties Native film makers have and understanding.

  • Snarly_Yow

    As someone who thinks the “Redskins” football team needs a name change I don’t really mind Depp in “redface.” IMHO the Lone Ranger movie was an absurd fantasy. Depp didn’t play an American Indian in any real sense, he played a fantasy caricature of one. I’d object had the film been Dances With Wolves or a film that dabbles in any sense of reality. But The Lone Ranger seemed so over-the-top and so absurd that it broke the rules of reality. Tonto was no more Native American that I am a space alien. Played by someone who’s white, black, Chinese, or Nez Perce makes no difference. His character remained firmly entrenched in a realm outside the bounds or mortal space, so absurd as to not even make me think he represented actual Native Americans in anyway whatsoever.

  • Catherine Noujaim

    I agree, but also think Hollywood is changing slowly. My sister was up for an Oscar for her documentary, (The Square) which is/has created change on its own. There was actually a small Arab presence at the Oscars, and the docs were mostly “social justice” docs. (Except for the one that won). I do wish hers had won, just because it would have really illustrated to the Academy that an Oscar can influence history and create change.