Stew and I watch the Oscars, a day or two after they actually take place, with the invaluable aid of a recording machine that allows us to zoom past commercials, logorrheic acceptance speeches, clips of movies we’ve already seen and other time-wasters, and effectively condense the three-hour marathon of self-indulgence into a more bearable package, one hour or less.
Day-after news coverage also helps us pick out special moments we might otherwise miss. We’d read that Spike Lee’s acceptance of the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman” had sent President Trump into a Twitter spasm. Got to watch that. Also Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s rapturous performance of “Shallow,” from “A Star Is Born” was reported as a must-watch. It was.
What was clear to us, even with our jerky fast-forwarding and random pausing, is that the Oscars, and apparently the movie industry, have gone through a crash program of racial, ethnic and gender integration, even if some would question the depth and breadth of that transformation. There were so many varied slices of humanity on stage that white males often seemed to be in the minority.
The Oscar for Best Actor went to Rami Malek, a slightly bug-eyed and odd-looking fellow, whose parents migrated from Egypt, was raised in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and spoke Arabic at home until he was about four years old. Malek portrayed Freddie Mercury, who was gay and perhaps appropriately, the lead of the rock group “Queen,” a factoid Malek mentioned. How much more diversity can you cram into one Oscar acceptance speech?
|You go, girl.|
My interest, though, focused on Yalitza Aparicio, who played Cleo in the Mexican movie “Roma,” directed and written by Alfonso Cuarón. Cleo was one of two maids working in a household of a quite tormented white and middle-class family in the Mexico City neighborhood by that name.
I thought her performance was stirring and exceptional, though I can’t say whether she should have won the Oscar for Best Actress, because I haven’t seen all of the films nominated in that category.
The scene when Cleo’s boyfriend walked out in the middle of a movie, after she told him that she was pregnant, and she sat stunned on the curb in front of the cinema, was one of the most tear-inducing moments I’ve ever watched on film recently. If I’d been walking by, I probably would have stopped, held Cleo’s hand and asked her if I could help.
Aparicio’s non-acting background—zero—and her indigenous roots in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states of Mexico, made her star turn all the more amazing. Her physical appearance—round-faced, short and brown-skinned—also set her apart from people in Mexico’s screen and television industry, who are almost all white, including Cuarón.
Liberal circles in Hollywood are in the middle of a rush of self-congratulation following the breakthroughs that have put more women, in addition to African-Americans, Asians and other minorities in the ranks of Oscar nominees and winners in almost all categories.
In particular Mexican directors—all white—almost seem to own the Oscar for Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu for “Birdman” (2014) and “The Revenant” (2015); Cuarón for “Gravity” (2013) and “Roma” (2018); and Guillermo del Toro for the “The Shape of Water” (2017).
Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal—both white, handsome and bilingual—also have found acting careers in Hollywood, after their roles in “Y tu mamá también,” a 2001 hit directed also by Cuarón and co-written with his brother Carlos. Luna was one of the presenters at this year’s Oscars.
There was well deserved and universal acclamation in Mexico for their achievements.
But reaction in Mexico to Aparicio’s stardom, initially a choir of oohing-and-ahhing, quickly turned snarky and nasty. A fellow actor called her a “f*****ng Indian.” Nice. Another questioned her acting ability: Aparicio just played what most people of her social station are in real life—a maid working for white people. How much skill or talent does it take to portray what you are in real life? A few others dismissed her success as fleeting; just her fifteen minutes of fame that she would be hard pressed to duplicate.
In fact her singular achievement deviated into a discussion of the rampant racism that still grips Mexican society.
I hope Aparicio has many more star turns, and her appearance on screen will encourage others from far-removed corners of Mexican society to aspire to stardom too.
But I’m not so sanguine. She doesn’t speak English, so she can’t as easily slide into Hollywood fame, like García Bernal and Luna. And most problematic, Aparicio, beautiful and talented as she may be, is short, Indian and brown-skinned, no matter who many designer gowns they hang on her.
I hope Aparicio’s fame, even if fleeting, helps bridge the racial divides that still govern Mexico and keep indigenous people trapped at the bottom.. That would be great, but I wouldn’t break out the expensive tequila just yet.