from Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls (2010)

Q: Why were the Academy Awards this year such a total white-out?

A: Because films by/about people of color just aren’t good enough. Did you see Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? Gawd.

Replace “race” with “gender” and we get the same answer — except using Jennifer Aniston’s The Breakup as evidence — and, with that, we all die a little inside. You’re just not good enough. In this conversation I feel like I’m talking to a film critic version of Stephen Colbert: someone who claims “not to see race” (or gender) and is solely concerned with the merit of a good film. The reason why Hollywood keeps rewarding films by/about white dudes, we learn, is simply because the rest aren’t good enough. This is the flip side of Natalie Portman’s “I just want to be perfect” line from Black Swan that I wrote about in January (most viewed post ever!) — isn’t it interesting that wanting to be perfect and not being good enough are the fates of women and minorities, not white dudes?

from Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010)

This subject has been on my mind for a while, since reading a thoughtful lament by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in the New York Times, but even more after seeing the tepid Oscar tribute to Lena Horne by Halle Berry. Berry is the first and only Black actor to have won an Oscar for Best Actress (for 2001’s Monster’s Ball), yet her lines for this tribute didn’t mention race at all (and let me note that I doubt Berry had a say in writing those lines). “Lena Horne blazed a trail for all of us who followed,” she said. “Thank you, Lena Horne: we love you and we will never ever forget you,” she said, blowing a kiss to the screen. Ah, Hollywood, your racial anxiety is showing. By us did Berry mean people of color? And where exactly is that trail for Black actors in a year of all-white winners? 

from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008)

One might argue that this is a problem of metrics: it’s not that Hollywood is racist, but viewers are. The Wire was the best show ever on TV but it never made much money for HBO because, reportedly, shows about African Americans don’t sell well either domestically or overseas. And if you think it’s tough to sell films about American Blacks, just imagine trying to find an audience for a film about Black people who don’t speak English. Which leads me to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s extraordinary film Sugar (2008) — which is secretly where I’ve been going with this post. Tracing the career of a Dominican baseball pitcher, Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) who arrives in the US with the hope of making it into the major leagues, this film is really about how hard it is to believe you’re good enough.

Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar (2008)

At first it seems that Sugar’s future is golden. He stands out in his Dominican baseball academy and gets plucked to participate in spring training with the (fictional) Kansas City Knights, where he’ll have the chance to prove his worth to the big club. He begins to glimpse there the uphill battle before him:  many terrific players who lose their confidence or get injured orjust aren’t good enough. So when he again moves up the ladder to the Knights’ Single-A feeder team in Iowa, he has to face those pressures in a lonely, rural environment where few speak Spanish. “All the players here are really good,” he tells his mother on the phone to keep her expectations realistic, to no avail. Even the kindly white family who take him in bark rules at him in that patronizing tone: “NO CERVEZAS IN THE CASA,” they say. “NO CHICAS IN THE BEDROOM.” It goes without saying that there’s also no familiar food, salsa dancing, or girls to flirt with without cultural pushback. It’s horrible — and what if he’s not good enough?

The fact that Sugar’s a pitcher makes his plight all the more believable. More than virtually any other position on the team, pitching is a lonely, mental game: when you stand on the mound you feel the other players’ expectations, the coaches’ critical judgment, the powerful need for precision and self-control. When it all comes together, he feels like the golden boy he was in the Dominican Republic — but tug at a loose thread and suddenly it starts to come unraveled. One bad game can bleed into another bad game. Add to that the language barrier and Sugar starts to become a different guy than he used to be.

It’s a beautiful, smart film. Boden and Fleck earned a pile of prize nominations for this film, fewer than for their magnificent Half Nelson (2006) but then, that was mostly about a while guy who speaks English (and is played by Ryan Gosling). Most of their nominations for Sugar came from indie festivals — because, perhaps, it just wasn’t good enough for the Oscars? At it has a whopping 93% approval rating, yet David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (with only a 72% approval rating) edged it out for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Benjamin Button was better?

Race in Hollywood is the flip side of gender in Hollywood — god forbid you try to film while being Black (or female), as we’re still worshipping at the altar of the white male teenager and his penis, as Helen Mirren put it. But rather than deal with the implications of that prejudice, let’s just stick with our pronouncement that women and people of color just aren’t good enough. In the meantime, can someone please tell me why Paul Giamatti keeps getting so many roles as despicable shlubby men who score fabulously beautiful women when I don’t even want to think about him, much less watch him on the screen?

I found myself so surprised, and so impressed, that the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasekathul won best director at Cannes for what sounds like a beautiful film, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”  Directors who hail from countries like Thailand — that is, countries seldom recognized for having vital film industries — have had a hard time there; all the more reason to celebrate Weerasekathul’s beating out an array of international powerhouses.  But because this is a blog about women and movies, I have to point out that none of the 19 films in the main contest at Cannes had female directors.  None.  There were 19 films, by 19 men.  Nor is this really a new trend.  Of the 212 films that have been in competition during the 2000s, only 17 were directed by women.  (That makes 92% of all films in competition during the last ten years male-directed.)

Damn it all, woman (you might ask):  what do you want, some kind of positive discrimination on women’s behalf?  Actually:  yes.  I was told recently that I needed to add a man to my all-female panel for an academic conference; why can’t these damn film festivals offer even a gesture of gender equity?  It sends the wrong message to do otherwise — on a variety of levels.

First, there’s the thorny question of “quality.”  Having zero women directors in competition suggests that “we’re just not that into” films by women — maybe because they just aren’t that good, and maybe because they’re presumed to address a niche audience.  (Only one woman has won the Palme d’Or for best director during the 60 years of the festival:  Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993.)  Yet no one really thinks that the 19 films chosen for competition were all measurably “better” than any film directed by a woman; no one felt it important enough to make the argument for a female-directed film.

Second, there’s the issue of how women get themselves behind the camera at all for great scripts and projects.  In a now-famous interview on last year, the New York Times’ chief film critic Manohla Dargis ranted about the absurd sexism that reigns rampant in the profession: “This business is really about clubby relationships,” she explained.  “If you buy Variety or go online and look at the deals, you see one guy after another smiling in a baseball cap.  It’s all guys making deals with other guys.”

But she goes on to make an even more germane point about the industry overall.  It’s not simply that women are being prevented from succeeding, but that they’re not given the latitude to fail some of the time.

“Do you think that a woman would have been able to get forty million dollars to make a puppet movie the way that Wes Anderson has been able to make, bringing to bear all the publicity and advertising budget of Fox?  After two movies that didn’t make a lot of money?  I think this is true for a lot of black filmmakers too – they’re held to a higher standard.  And an unfair standard.  You can be a male filmmaker and if you’re perceived as a genius – a boy genius or a fully-formed adult genius – that you are allowed to fail in a way that a woman is not allowed to fail.”

This is a wholly exasperating situation.  At what point can we make the argument that by not improving the situation for female directors, writers, and actors by the year 2010, the international film industry is actually getting worse for women?