Updated: Dec 31, 2020
It is without doubt that the early history of filmmaking in the Western world has been littered with certain racist undertones in the depiction of minorities. The first movie, Birth of a Nation, promoted the actions of the Ku Klux Klan as righteous, something that President Woodrow Wilson, a Southern segregationist, must have surely taken into account when he allowed it to be shown at the White House during his presidency. Blackface was notoriously used in Birth of a Nation to depict African-Americans as decrepit, while Asians were offensively caricatured in both animated and live-action films, particularly during the Second World War. The filmmaking industry, spurred on by the racial attitudes of the early 20th century, unfortunately created works that would offend many people of color today.
However, as much as the way we view race has changed for the better in the last 100 years, and along with that the way we represent minorities in film, we must bear in mind that ultimately those who would express attitudes that might seem controversial through film, and indeed might be offensive, are still entitled to their views. The First Amendment to the Constitution provides that Congress cannot restrict the freedom of expression. Later decisions by judicial bodies of the Union have established that while the right to expression can be controlled in the manner, the time, and place that the expression occurs, it cannot be restricted on the basis of its content.
Further, the Declaration of Independence promises to protect the right to the pursuit of happiness that rests within the common people. By adopting a capitalist economy with a comparatively free market, the Founding Fathers kept that promise by eventually allowing companies such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, as well as other household names such as Campbell’s to grow. So too, did they and their successors allow the arts in any and all forms to prosper, giving scriptwriters and directors control over their subject matter and adhering to their stipulated respect of artists’ freedom of expression as in the social contract.
So it seems rather disappointing that the Academy Awards - one of the most esteemed institutions with regard to filmmaking, and the entertainment industry as a whole - would set four representation standards in order for movies to be eligible for an Oscar in Best Picture (these movies only have to meet two for eligibility). Some of these standards include:
Now, I will concede that these standards are set with good intentions - there are indeed issues with both the number and manner of represented minorities(whether they are depicted as antagonists or protagonists, how many, etc). And in a world that is beginning to call for structural reform to the way communities engage with one another, this may perhaps seem like the right response to these calls.
But the restriction of the right to the expression of the minds of those who spend so much of their toil into making a movie, as well as to consequently deny them the fruit of their efforts, is a line that the Academy simply cannot cross. Such a move cages the creativity of these artists and forces those who are already creating projects that may not fit these standards to throw out their work if they are to win this award.
Who is to say that in some future world, a movie carefully forged by the brightest movie makers of the time may be denied an award for their efforts because it does not meet these standards? Who is to say that a wondrous idea may have to be scrapped because the highest prize will only be awarded if a movie can pass four questions on a checkbox? If we place restrictions on how artists can express themselves, how will we then be any different from a command market economy such as North Korea, where the Workers Party determines everything that goes about and robs the common folk of their ability to dream? Where art serves the Party and only the Party?
Will we live true to that promise to protect the right to pursue happiness by denying it all the same? Can we then, truly say that we are continuing the implementation of the First Amendment, and giving those who may disagree with us the right to be heard?
George Orwell once said that “if liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”And while the Academy is certainly a private organization that has the right to set its own standards, such an important organization restricting those who vy for the greatest prize the film industry has to offer, even if they may be things that some would rather wish taken off the airwaves, should not be warranted. While there is still time, considering that these guidelines will not take effect until the middle of the decade, the Academy should withdraw these guidelines - and focus its efforts on putting the talent and toil of each team and cast first. Restricting that talent and denying a reward for that toil is not the result that the Academy should hope for as a consequence of their guidelines.
Sammy Baek is a junior at Naperville North High School in Naperville, Illinois. He is a 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Silver Medalist for his prose piece, "Hoist the Red Banner High." Having loved history from a young age, he is also a finalist at the 2019-20 Chicago Metro History Fair Senior Division, as well as at the 2019 Martin Luther King Oratory Contest. He is currently a two-year member of his school's Model UN club, and was the Outstanding Delegate, representing Bolivia, in the Organization of American States at the Carl Sandberg MUN X tournament. He runs the Plvs Vltra Blog that presents his take on history and political affairs.
Kate Ma is a high school senior from North Carolina who is passionate about music and art. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, playing clarinet and piano, as well as singing (very poorly). She also loves to read and write her own stories, and she had a very severe Wattpad phase during which she published multiple stories that she has now taken down out of embarrassment.