By Mohammad Mazhari

Hollywood has painted itself into a hypocritical corner: researcher

April 8, 2022 - 17:20

TEHRAN – A cinema researcher, who explores racism, class politics, internationalism in world literature, architecture, music, and global cinema, says that Hollywood with its violent history is suffering hypocrisy.

“Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have painted itself into a hypocritical corner,” Anthony Ballas tells the Tehran Times.

“I’d argue that blackface, redface, and these other examples are violent, even if they’re not ‘violent’ in the sense we typically define the word: there is systemic and ideological violence wrapped up in these kinds of depictions,” notes Ballas, who teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Ballas believes that Hollywood has an incredibly violent history itself, and not only with regard to the contents of their films.
Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you see the repercussions of Will Smith Oscars slap on American public opinion?

A: Let me preface my answer by first saying that I neither personally have an opinion about this event, nor do I think we need to float yet another opinion out there in order to try and “uncover” the truth or get to the bottom of this or speculate on the consequences of this thing. It’s probably a waste of time to have an opinion on a feud between two individual actors. (I should also admit that I don’t watch the Oscars, so I received this “news” secondhand). I actually think the whole thing is rather boring, even though I’m never really surprised when the public or the media obsess over trivial matters like this. I certainly understand the fascination. People want or may even need tabloids in some sense, and celebrities certainly offer an easy escape from our everyday lives, and so forth. To my mind, there’s really nothing abnormal about stuff like this. It’s not an aberration. 

American public opinion seems split, though this is no surprise either. One camp claims that Will Smith was justified, while others firmly believe that Chris Rock didn’t deserve it. I’ve heard opinions ranging from the idea that Rock deserved to be slapped for making light of Jada Pinkett Smith’s disability, to Rock deserving it because he should know better than to make a joke about a black woman’s hair. On the other side, Smith has been condemned as violent by many, and also for a display of male chauvinism, essentially that Pinkett Smith didn’t need a man to defend her honor. Also, we shouldn’t forget that many people simply don’t care about the whole thing. All of these perspectives exist at once. All this is fine, though I’m sure we all can probably think of some other comedians and actors who deserve to be slapped for other, more pressing reasons — especially those who have been exposed to serious sexual crimes and so forth. Americans, I think, are especially used to what we might call the spectacle of celebrity gossip. It’s simply normal at this point, and difficult (if not impossible) to escape from. 

Smith’s actions may have repercussions, or may not, who’s to say? But also, who cares? The better question, I think, is what might this moment expose about popular and institutional opinion on violence? Even the definition of violence seems to be on the table. What does the public consider to be violent? How does Hollywood classify violence? The reactions themselves are far more interesting than the event — and this basic metric may actually apply to much of American popular culture. I think for many, stuff like this marks a way in or a point of access to the political — it’s almost a form of populist reason, insofar as everyone is expected to have an opinion and take a side on elite figures like Smith and Rock. My wife observed something rather interesting the day after the slap. We were out at a café, and nearly everyone was discussing it, and some quite passionately. The public gathers around events like this. They’re a kind of imagined community. 

And of course, it’s probably best if we resist the lure of tabloids whenever possible. It is undoubtedly distracting, but not for the typical reasons one might think about. Some have made an extremely unjustifiable comparison between the slap and what’s going on in Ukraine right now, suggesting that the slap is a distraction from the war. Anyone who feels the need to openly juxtapose a slap and a military conflict is not to be taken seriously. Such comparisons or juxtapositions are merely convenient. They are only made available because the Ukraine conflict happened to overlap with this year’s Academy Awards. Other than that, these things have nothing to do with one another (until, perhaps, someone like Steven Spielberg or whoever else makes a film about Zelenskyy). And furthermore, there’s never been a scarcity of pop culture moments that we might think of as potentially distracting, taking our attention from the equally ubiquitous global violence that we have at our disposal to make such comparisons in the first place. These comparisons and juxtapositions are idiotic and don’t tell us anything. 

I am reminded of a line from one of MC Sole’s old raps, “most white rappers sound like they’ve never been punched in the face.” I think the same probably applies to most people in Hollywood. A lot of white pundits took to the news media and social media to express their shock and disgust or whatever, as though they have never seen someone get hit in the face before. 

It’s easy to be appalled or shocked or entertained by the violence of any sort. Is this violence? Sure, maybe. But Hollywood specializes in this very thing in fact. If the idea is that things like this “slap controversy” distract us from real atrocities around the globe, then I suppose Hollywood should just close up shop altogether. This is especially ironic because most Hollywood narratives follow a similar formula: they often simply amount to one character slapping another one for an hour and a half or so. 

Q: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that runs the Oscars, has condemned Will Smith's actions toward comedian Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday night. However, the academy has given awards to films that promote violence. How can this be justified?

A: Well, the short answer is of course that this kind of institutional hypocrisy can’t and shouldn’t be excused or justified for very specific historical reasons. Hollywood has an incredibly violent history itself, and not only with regard to the contents of their films. Sure, there are plenty of award-winning films that have been violent: Hurt Locker, Braveheart, Silence of the Lambs, some of The Godfather films, and Deer Hunter, Unforgiven, and others. Violence abounds in all forms of media, but America has a special relationship with what is called racialized violence; violence perpetrated systemically toward nonwhite people, domestically and abroad. And Hollywood’s history is certainly knotted up with American violence in a variety of ways. America’s racist and imperial legacy is well known, and so I don’t feel I need to recount it here. 

However, it’s possible that Hollywood’s violent legacy is less well known. For instance, the history of blackface in Hollywood: Judy Garland in Babes in Arms, Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, Fred Astaire in Swing Time, and numerous others donned blackface and performed as black caricatures in Hollywood films. And if you think this is some archaic practice, you’re mistaken. C. Thomas Howell, for instance, performed in blackface in the film Soul Man in the 1980s. More recently, clips have been uncovered of Jon Hamm, Jimmy Kimmel, and David Byrne in blackface. Jimmy Fallon actually donned blackface to do an impersonation of Chris Rock incidentally — not once but twice if I’m not mistaken. I highly recommend Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which is an excellent cinematic commentary on the use of blackface in American entertainment. 

There are so many award-winning violent and racist films I don’t have time to even list them all. Cleopatra, Jezebel, Out of Africa, King Kong, The Green Mile, Gone With the Wind, Green Book, Not to mention sexist, transphobic, and so on. Then there’s of course the legacy of indigenous stereotyping in Hollywood cinema: Pocahontas, Nanook of the North, The Searchers, Paleface, Ernest Goes to Camp, and so on. The latter two films feature the actor known as Iron Eyes Cody, who was famous for portraying the so-called “crying Indian” in a public service announcement on environmentalism. It turned out that Iron Eyes Cody was actually born Espera Oscar de Corti, and was of Sicilian descent, and so he was essentially performing his entire career in “redface,” as it’s sometimes referred to. Actually, Marlon Brando rather famously rejected his Best Actor Award for his role in The Godfather, using his platform to denounce the treatment of Native Americans in the film industry. In his place, he invited Sacheen Littlefeather to speak and make a statement about the abhorrent treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood, citing Wounded Knee and other exigent issues. 

I’d argue that blackface, redface, and these other examples are violent, even if they’re not “violent” in the sense we typically define the word: there is systemic and ideological violence wrapped up in these kinds of depictions, and so Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has painted itself into a hypocritical corner. It really has no credibility left to speak about itself — it has already shown everything on the screen, so it can’t really condemn anything in good faith at this point. If only it would condone good filmmaking, which it seems unwilling to do in most cases. 

The idea that a group of elite cinematic gatekeepers like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences getting together to condemn violence is neither interesting nor truthful. It’s just as easy to condemn violence as it is to find an easy justification for it: and Hollywood and the Academy have surely done both, often at the same time. It’s more difficult to seek to explain how systemic violence functions, its historical roots, its persistence over time, and how ideology contributes to the attitudes and responses to violence, and as well how Hollywood has always been entangled with and participated in these systems. Any individual like Will Smith or anyone else can be either vilified or lionized — a villain or a hero (and I think he’s probably played both on-screen). However, systemic and ideological violence are far more important to tackle I’d say.

Q: To what extent do the Oscars praise films that represent American values instead of global values?  Films that show the plights of other countries are usually welcomed at the Oscars.

A: It’s true and also well known that the Academy Awards is a whitewashed institution, and always has been and likely always will be. Western, democratic values were destined to turn up in Hollywood cinema, so long as we acknowledge that those values are racism, sexism, warmongering, coup-mongering, extortion, extraction, dispossession, and white saviorism, to name only a few. And yes, Hollywood loves to portray foreign pain: it’s an industry standard. The everyday plights and miseries experienced by people in other regions of the globe, often at the hands of American imperialism and capitalism more generally, make up a bulk of the content of Hollywood cinema, American television, and other media. 

American Sniper, which won several Academy Awards, is a great example of this. It’s a violent film depicting a sniper deployed during the Iraq War, and so you can imagine the kinds of violence and atrocities it portrays. The same goes for Kathryn Bigalow’s films, Zero Dark Thirty which I think won an award or two, as well as The Hurt Locker, which won Best Picture. These films are essentially American propaganda films, which depict the atrocities committed by the American Military in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are other examples, like Flight 93, which was nominated for an Academy Award or two, and World Trade Center, which is one of the most jingoistic films I think I’ve ever seen. There are many more examples of course.

Q: Do you think the academy welcomes films that criticize the American establishment and the mainstream (government and the apparatuses that promote the American dream like the film industry)? For example, films that cast doubt on America’s foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam. 

A: That’s the thing, Hollywood really has its bases covered on this front. There certainly are examples of this: All the President’s Men exposing the Watergate scandal, Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver commenting on the trauma of Vietnam, and even the Film Noir genre as a whole in the post-WWII era. Some of these films won awards or were at least nominated for them. 

Michael Moore won the Best Picture award for his film Bowling For Columbine, which was critical of the NRA and the American gun lobby, and also the violence in American media, television, film, etc. Moore was booed, however, when he used his platform to denounce Bush’s unjustified war in Iraq. However, imagine a Hollywood film about Barack Obama’s drone strike campaign winning some kind of award? There’ll probably be a film or two about the January 6th coup in the near future, and we might even imagine it winning or at least being nominated for an award. But what about Biden’s border policy? It'll likely never happen. I’m not trying to suggest that Hollywood’s liberal bias against the right-wing is somehow egregious. Most people would probably agree, and I do, that the American far right is extremely dangerous and absolutely worth exposing and critiquing. But that Hollywood really never touches on the problematic political scandals of the Democratic Party. However, the Academy and Hollywood are pretty selective with what they’re willing to fund, nominate, and ultimately grant awards to. 

Hollywood does what it is supposed to do, and it does it well. It entertains us while also enabling us to disavow the deep-seated imperialistic core of American democracy and capitalism. But American audiences are not stupid — we know (many of us I hope) that America is rooted in violence, historically as today. We also know that Award ceremonies are bullshit. Hollywood often shows us these things directly, without disguising them. It is willing to fund projects which examine ecological catastrophe, climate change and so forth, but then will turn right around and produce multimillion-dollar films which have an enormous ecological footprint. Hollywood’s critical films don’t really culminate into anything substantial in my estimation. Hollywood cinema often convicts our wills into the action of nonaction: we feel good for doing our civic duty, becoming more aware of the problems affecting our world, violence, racism, sexism, and so forth, but this is typically the end of the line. Audiences typically aren’t going to Blow Up a Pipeline, to borrow the title of Andreas Malm’s book, just because they watched Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio talk about climate change for 2 hours. We need good, critical viewing practices to intervene in this cycle and make us think differently about film as a medium, what it is capable of, as well as its limitations. But that might be hard to do when Marvel and DC movies are what fascinate audiences the most. 

Q: How do you see the ties between U.S. cinema and the political establishment? Who funds cinema and how could it affect approaches?

A: The ties between cinema and politics are more or less ideological. I’m thinking about the revenge films from the 1980s, a couple of decades after the US’s failed involvement in Vietnam, and also in the context of the Cold War. The Rambo films were an ideological response to these things. America failed in Vietnam, and so they deployed Sylvester Stalone to go and seek revenge abroad in Vietnam, and also in Afghanistan during the Russian-Afghan conflict. In these films and others, America is represented as a chauvinistic force hell-bent on revenge against the Viet Cong and the Soviet Communists. 

It’s not enough to say that Hollywood simply normalizes these ideological positions, but rather that cinema represents what is already normal back to the public, vindicating the attitudes and perspectives already in circulation (i.e. anti-black racism, anti-communism, transphobia, sexism, classism, and so on). The money comes from somewhere; private production companies, individual producers like the infamous Harvey Weinstein, the violent rapist. There have been cases also of the Department of Defense bankrolling some Hollywood films, or at least partially scripting some of them. It’s what some have referred to as the military-entertainment complex: True Lies, several James Bond films, one of the Indiana Jones films, Top Gun, Batman & Robin, I am Legend (which starred Will Smith incidentally), Transformers, Iron Man, Wonder Woman 1984, and many others. 

I’m sure you’re going to find similarly unholy unions between every major media conglomerate and governmental agency. I’m not simply condemning Hollywood — again, such a thing is easy to do, anyone can do it. But to praise Hollywood is simply stupid. Why are we praising the material and economic engines behind the most popular form of aesthetic representation? It seems like a waste of time. We should instead turn to the art itself. Big budget films like the Marvel and DC movies require an obscene amount of funding, an unfathomable amount in fact. We should probe why this is the case, and why the Department of Defense is often willing to fund or oversee some of these productions. But we should also ask why these movies have risen to the top of the American imagination in the first place — why do we desire these kinds of films? 


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