The unbearable wokeness of the film industry

Stew and I are avid movie watchers—this year we had seen most of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture—but we are also impatient with the notoriously long-winded award ceremonies. We record the broadcast so we can zip through the endless commercials, meh comedy skits, acceptance speeches that turn into orations, and other chaff that consume half the air time, and may be one of the factors why viewership keeps shrinking.

To that complaint, I’d like to add the morning-after insistence by the media and movie critics to view so many of the films, and even the Oscar ceremony itself, through the prism of race, sexual orientation and other so-called “woke” concerns. 

Stew and I saw, and thoroughly enjoyed, Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, even though it bombed at the box office both in the U.S. and Mexico. In particular we loved the performance of Ariana DeBose, as Anita. We would have given her two Oscars.  

DeBose in her glorious star turn in West Side Story

Yet instead of focusing on her distinguished acting career, in several Broadway productions, and the shelf-full of awards she has received, many of the media accolades centered on her being queer, “of color,” and Latina, her ethnic background in fact being an ethnic minestrone consisting of having a Puerto Rican father, a white mother, plus “Italian and African-American roots” and growing up in North Carolina. She mentioned this during her acceptance speech.

I say let’s applaud her talent and stellar performance in West Side Story, and skip over her sexual orientation, convoluted ethnicity and the all-too-obvious color of her skin. Yet The Guardian newspaper felt obligated to cover her Oscar win with the headline “Ariana DeBose makes history at first queer woman of colour to win Oscar.” 

Yeah, and who cares about all that? Do we mention the sexual orientation or pigmentation of other Oscar winners?

Then came the unscheduled Will Smith vs. Chris Rock kerfuffle, over Rock’s snide and inexcusable  joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia, an immune system condition that has caused her to lose most of her hair. Will Smith clenched his teeth at first, but when he noticed the grimace on his wife’s face also, charged the stage and slapped Rock. 

The best that can be said for this bit of low drama is that at least it took our minds off Ukraine and the endlessly mutating Covid virus, albeit for only one 24-hour news cycle.

The coverage could have revolved on the low-grade humor that pervades much of the Oscar skits, in this case delivered by Rock, or Will Smith’s disgraceful response. A classier guy, Black, White, Latino or whatever, could have just looked at his chagrined wife, clasped her hand for comfort and just let the jejune and offensive joke pass, instead of lingering days afterward as it has.

Will Smith’s wife, Jada.

Instead, Will Smith got himself tangled up in a meandering and tearful five-minute acceptance speech for Best Actor, plus tweets the day after, with more apologies and so on. Smith received standing ovations for his acceptance speech. Were the attendees applauding his speech or justifying his behavior?

The media chatter then went on overdrive, attempting to analyze the whole ridiculous event as a racial incident, focusing on both men being Black, and how it might have been perceived differently by White or Black audiences. One commentator provided a lengthy analysis of how hair is particularly important to Black women and so alopecia is especially traumatizing event for them. 
Suddenly losing one’s hair is an awful experience for anyone of any race or gender. I don’t think white women would dismiss alopecia as minor contretemps, even if they ended up looking half as stunning as Will Smith’s wife. She has apparently written extensively about her condition and the suffering she has endured, and we can sympathize, her race being incidental to her trauma. 

Great flick but the cast
was not dark enough.

Finally we have the Lin-Manuel Miranda film adaption a year ago of the Broadway musical In the Heights, about the mostly Dominican neighborhood at the foot of the Washington Bridge in Manhattan. 

It’s a phenomenal musical, Stew and I loved it—though, like West Side Story, it bombed at the box office. It appeared here at a Queretaro movie house for exactly one day, before it vanished. (Maybe our liking a film is the kiss of death.) We managed to see it on TV during a limited engagement on HBO Max, but its extravagant dance production numbers would shine most brightly on a big movie screen. 

Heights is about the different Latino groups in the neighborhood and their sueñitos, or “little dreams.” It premiered at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival in June 2021, and received very good reviews—until the politically correctness police charged Miranda, who is Puerto Rican, with a newly minted form of bias I’d never heard of, called “colorism.” 

It seems that although the cast and the plot line of the musical takes into account the various Latino groups in the U.S.—Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans and what-have-you—it failed to portray sufficient number of Black Latinos. The Times published a lengthy panel discussion of the omission

Anthony Ramos

Regrettably, Miranda mumbled some apologies for his supposed oversight, which to me, diminished his tremendous contribution to putting Latino faces, of any color on the movie screen by making In the Heights. He also wrote and starred in the hit musical Hamilton, which had a multi-racial and -ethnic cast and was considered a breakthrough in that regard. Just last night Stew and I watched Encanto, a lovely Latino-theme animated feature, for which Miranda wrote all the music, in the vein of Coco, except it’s set in Colombia.

Among Latinos, especially those from the Caribbean, the lines between White, Black and the vast multi-ethnic racial middle are often blurry. Anthony Ramos, one of the stars in Hamilton and the lead in In the Heights, is ethnically Puerto Rican but probably has some African blood in him, and so do several members of the cast whom critics deemed not dark enough.  

But again, why should it be a concern if he is a Puerto Rican starring in a film about a neighborhood called Little Dominican Republic? Or his exact racial background?

In the Heights was directed by Jon M. Chu, who is Asian and also directed Crazy Rich Asians, for which he was praised, but also criticized, for not casting the exact blend of Asians and Asian-Americans (the lead in that film is Henry Golding, who is biracial.)

Perhaps what I find most bothersome about the ethnic and racial nitpicking is that it overlooks the inroads that Latinos have made in the film industry thanks recently to the notable contributions of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a white Puerto Rican, if you must ask. We are a long ways from when the role of Maria in the original West Side Story was played by Natalie Wood, and Marlon Brando played the lead in Viva Zapata! in 1952. 

As some Times readers remarked in letters to the editor, even if the cast of In the Heights didn’t have precisely the right color mix, can’t we accept it as a great portrayal of the varied mix of America’s Latino community? Must perfection trump the perfectly good?


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