As awards season approaches, one question stands out: why are there not more films catering to white audiences? This may seem like an unusual concern in 2024, as white individuals are well-represented in major award ceremonies and the most talked-about cultural event of the year was focused on white male biopics and a jubilant celebration of the stereotypical blonde. However, it may also be seen as a misdirection of attention when there are finally serious contenders from East Asian, Black, and Indigenous backgrounds, such as Past Lives, American Fiction, The Color Purple, and Killers of the Flower Moon. Despite the increasing diversity in media, whiteness is still pervasive on screen, yet remains unseen.
The majority of lead characters, writers, directors, and executives with decision-making power in the film industry are still white. However, productions centered around white people do not often explicitly focus on their whiteness. On the other hand, works about Black Britons, Korean Americans, or Indigenous Australians typically center on their racial experiences. Whiteness gains its power through its assumed normalcy, while other races are seen as belonging to a specific category. This gives white artists a unique advantage, as noted by film studies professor Richard Dyer in his 1997 book White. They are able to claim that their work speaks for all of humanity, while racialized individuals can only speak for their own race.
The ultimate goal for achieving genuine racial equality in media is to acknowledge, define, and dismantle the concept of whiteness as the dominant cultural force. It is necessary for white individuals to establish a distinct cinema culture. So, who are the most significant and impactful white directors in the industry today? Two notable names come to mind: Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola.
The directors share more than just their fair skin, zodiac sign, and numerous Academy Award nominations. They are both highly regarded for their meticulous attention to detail and visually stunning aesthetics, which often draw influences from the worlds of haute couture and journalism. Their latest films, Anderson’s Asteroid City and Coppola’s Priscilla, exemplify this style. Additionally, they have a mutual appreciation for certain actors, such as Scarlett Johansson (who starred in Coppola’s breakthrough film Lost in Translation in 2003) and Jason Schwartzman (who is Coppola’s cousin and made his debut in Anderson’s Rushmore in 1998 at her suggestion). Furthermore, their work is often characterized as “white”.
Some people view whiteness as being characterized by a fascination with exotic cultures, particularly those of Asian descent. Others see it as a lack of representation and diversity in casting. This was highlighted in 2015 when Whoopi Goldberg jokingly handed her resume to Jason Schwartzman on the daytime talk show The View, pointing out the lack of diversity and offering her availability.
However, this is not entirely accurate. One reason is that several of Anderson’s films feature people of color, such as Danny Glover, Tony Revolori, Jeffrey Wright, and Steve Park. While it is clear that Coppola often focuses on thin white women in her work, she did deviate from this pattern in 2020 with the biracial Rashida Jones in On the Rocks and Marlon Wayans in White Chicks. Additionally, the decision to primarily tell stories about white individuals is not a unique characteristic, as many other white filmmakers also follow this trend.
Nowadays, intelligent directors who are mindful of unintentionally creating a film centered on whiteness and getting caught up in a racial controversy, understand the importance of including a level of racial diversity in their cast. Yorgos Lanthimos’s film, Poor Things, serves as a sophisticated demonstration of this, showcasing talented portrayals from Egyptian-American actor Ramy Youssef and Black comedian Jerrod Carmichael. As a result, the film is able to focus on white characters – played by Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo – without solely revolving around them.
Emerald Fennell’s highly-discussed dark comedy-horror film Saltburn also attempts to tackle issues of race through the character of Farleigh, the snobby cousin and the only significant person of color in the film. In one scene, Farleigh suggests that racism is the true reason why the family patriarch, Sir Catton, refuses to increase his trust fund, much to the shock of Catton’s handsome heir, Felix. Felix responds defensively, dismissing Farleigh’s accusation and shifting the focus back to class issues. Despite Felix’s shallow response, the audience is still inclined to side with him, as his good looks and aristocratic status make it difficult to hold him accountable. Similar to Felix, we were also unaware of the names of the Black footmen in the film, as they are barely given any screen time. This dismisses racism as a mere distraction and allows the film to focus on its main theme: class.
On the other hand, the reason why Coppola and Anderson’s films are seen as prime examples of white cinema has nothing to do with their handling (or mishandling) of race, but rather their avoidance of the topic altogether. This may involve deliberately ignoring the racial elements of the source material (seen in Coppola’s The Bling Ring and The Beguiled), creating a fantasy world of nostalgic whiteness in place of a racially charged historical setting (as seen in Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited), or portraying a specific type of soft, white femininity that is only made possible by the labor of Black people (such as the unseen servants at Priscilla’s Graceland and the Black innovators in rock ‘n’ roll). Additionally, the films overlook how the Jewish background of actors like Schwartzman and Johansson may impact their racial identities. This paradox highlights the essence of white film-making – the more oblivious a film is to issues of race, the more it reinforces whiteness. Whiteness often means having the privilege to not acknowledge race, even when it is right in front of you.
What is needed is not only white films made by white directors – there are already many of those – but also more films that can effectively and thoughtfully examine whiteness. Fortunately, there is one film in consideration for awards this year that does just that. Unfortunately, it required a director as talented, skilled, and experienced as Martin Scorsese to accomplish it.
Hollywood’s first truly “revisionist” western, Killers of the Flower Moon, approaches the relationship between white Americans and Osage natives from a different perspective than previous westerns. Instead of portraying the natives as inherently “bad,” it delves into the complex responsibility of individual white Americans. The story follows the real-life connection between Mollie Kyle, an Osage woman played by Lily Gladstone, and Ernest Burkhart, a white World War I veteran portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. It intertwines elements of a twisted love story, a gripping crime thriller, and a sophisticated commentary on settler-colonialism. What sets this film apart is its recognition of the limitations of director Martin Scorsese’s perspective as a white filmmaker. Instead of claiming to speak for all of humanity, the film acknowledges the importance of Indigenous voices and leaves room for Native American filmmakers to tell their own stories. This is already happening in other projects such as the TV series Reservation Dogs and Gladstone’s other film Fancy Dance, which explores reservation life.
In the end, we should not expect white film-makers to improve their representation by including more people of color in their films. Coppola, Anderson, and all independent film-makers should be free to create their films and cast whoever they choose. To do otherwise would be a failure in their artistic vision.
Instead, we should strive for two things: 1) The film industry should give filmmakers of color the same artistic and business opportunities that white filmmakers currently have, and 2) The film culture and its creators should gain the ability and confidence to have meaningful conversations and challenge the dominance of white cinema. Meanwhile, I am still eagerly anticipating a collaboration between Whoopi Goldberg and Wes Anderson.
The book “Screen Deep” by Ellen E Jones (published by Faber & Faber, priced at £25) can be purchased at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Additional charges may apply for delivery. On 15 February, Ellen E Jones will be participating in a Guardian Live event to discuss her book and the upcoming awards season. Tickets are available for purchase here.