Don't kid yourself, Caesar...

Oh, Coen brothers. I have loved so many of your movies. I think that Hail, Caesar! is getting more criticism than it would have had the release not come on the heels of #OscarsSoWhite.

But neither of these facts gives you a pass on your obtuse comments as reported in the Daily Beast.

It's easy to say Oscars don't matter when you already have several. For an objective answer, how about comparing the salaries of Oscar winners to nominees, or those who have never been nominated? For men, there's a big bonus. Male actors experience an 81% bump in salary after nabbing an Oscar according to Forbes in 2013. Women just see their salaries drop as they age, but that's a rant for another day.

Setting aside the straight-up offensiveness of comparing "black or Chinese or Martians" there are two main responses I have to the Coens' assertions about "how things get made."

Diversity isn't about saying "I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog." It's about letting go of the assumption that blacks, Jews, etc. must be a certain kind of character acting in a certain kind of way. When you sent out sides to casting agents - did they include "white" as a qualifier? Or is that just assumed? Do you look at all capable actors when casting or just those that "have the right look"? And why is "black" not the right look for a chemistry teacher, a judge, a neighbour?

Why can't people of colour just be people, without everything they do having to be an expression of their racialized state? Jodie Foster is famous for getting her agent to send her out for roles that were written as male, when the sex of the character is irrelevant to the plot. She can do that – because she's an established white Oscar-winner! (maybe Oscars do matter!) It doesn't generally work so well when black actors try to audition for "white" roles – although white people seem to have no trouble getting cast as everything from Cleopatra to Michael Jackson to Aang from The Last Airbender.

Now, I know how the argument goes, colourblind casting may work for, say, a modern cop drama, but with a period piece set in a time of segregation, you can't just randomly cast people of colour without rewriting the story to address how they would have been treated at the time. Obviously, if you're setting a movie in Hollywood’s "golden age" race was not a neutral factor at that time. Sure. The only stories that occur to you are those about people who look like yourself and the people you spend most of your time with.

But the next question is, who is paying for this? Out of all the ideas that get pitched to studios, how come the ones that get the money, distribution, and marketing support are all coincidentally about white people?

Having seen what goes on behind the scenes in casting, I know firsthand it's not pretty.

My experience here is more television than movie, but considering how intertwined the industries are, I doubt the system is very different for the big screen.

Ok, so casting. You send out sides. Agents send in head shots. They call to pitch their favourites. Some people get called for auditions, some (most) don't. But let's say you've got a great actor who happens to be black, and a determined agent who gets her an audition, a director who thinks she's the perfect fit, and a producer who is willing to listen to an assistant talking about how a show set in a very multi-cultural city should look like the city where it's set.

But it doesn't stop there. The producers – all those people who traded some coin for an executive producer credit so they could enjoy the power of holding sway over someone's career – they all get to air their feelings about whether the actor "looks right." But the real horrors happen when distribution gets involved. What does she look like? When you say black, you mean mulatta? What is her hair like? Can we see a photo? Oh! When you said mulatta, we thought you meant cubana, not black! (not making this up, seriously) we can't sell this in foreign markets with an afro. Can she straighten her hair?

And no, in the end, she did not get the part. The part went to a blonde woman. In fact, all the women cast in the series that year were blonde. The returning lead, a redhead, had her hair dyed blonde too. Diversity!

Yes, the Oscars are important. And no, the lack of diversity in Hollywood is not due solely to auteurs being true to their artistic vision. Maybe in the hallowed circles in which the Coens move, far above the fray, it's possible to believe that. For everyone in the real world, not so much.

So please, Coens, keep your mouths shut. Drop the silly "I don't understand the question" shtick. You're making yourselves look not just dumb, but selfish. Keep quiet so we can enjoy your movies without the bitter taste of racism to ruin it all.

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