The $5 Billion Erasure of Native Americans from the “Oscars So White”

nativethemesGuest Essay

Published March 22, 2016

Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a three part essay. Part II will appear on Wednesday and Part III will be published Thursday in Native News Online.

J.K. Rowling and ‘SCALPED’ to American Indians – “No Help Wanted. No ‘Skins Allowed”

Following Hollywood’s example, the #OscarsSoWhite movement erased living Native Americans from our society. Throughout the Academy Awards controversy, American Indians were nowhere to be found. Indians simply didn’t matter.

It’s only been a few weeks, but here we go again. J.K. Rowling’s upcoming film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” pilfers “indigenous magic” to the exclusion of all Native participation. Rowling is known for her openness to fan questions but, strangely, not this time – not for a bunch of Redskins.

DC Comics (Vertigo) and WGN America are also plowing ahead with “SCALPED,” a live version of their graphic novel (authored by non-Natives) set on an American Indian Reservation. There is no indication that Natives will participate in adapting/ writing, directing, or producing the show. Haven’t these productions gotten the note yet that diversity is about inclusion and not about hiring a few token darkies to prance around on camera? Actually, none of this is a surprise. “Oscars So White,” J.K. Rowling, and “SCALPED” are all indicative of the artful systemic oppression of American Indians.

Dr. Mytton Running Wolf

Dr. Mytton Running Wolf

Mainstream film, television, and theater are the stories our nation tells about itself. They shape the ways we see ourselves, the ways we see others, and the ways others see us. These productions tell us who is valued in our society and who is not. These media events are economic and political forces. The people pegged to create and control these stories is a matter of Civil Rights, Human Rights, and social justice.

Hollywood’s film industry hauled in $38 billion dollars in 2015, television nabbed around $190 billion, and Broadway’s booty alone (not counting national tours, Off-Broadway, and regional theater) was $1.35 billion. Together, these industries grossed over $230 billion – nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars – and constituted our nation’s 2nd largest service export. This does not include new revenue from online media cash cows Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and Youtube. If Native Americans were not erased from these productions and participated in this industry in a way that is reflective of our population, American Indians would have generated $5 billion dollars from mainstream film, television, and theater production. This breaks down to nearly $10 million dollars for each one of our more than 500 federally recognized tribes. These flicks are not frivolous entertainment. They impact our economy, education systems, laws, medical fields, politics, and criminal justice system.

Yet Hollywood casting directors and studio executives reject diversity, slander college educations, and turn their media circuses into high school popularity contests. They convince themselves, and the public, that only white celebrities bring in large audiences. Then they use this deception to disqualify minority participation even though several academic studies disprove the myth that “celebrity star power” draws audiences. Powerful talent agencies conjure up false worth for their A-List clients in order to package multimillion dollar deals of trendy actors, directors, producers, and writers – contracts notably void of dark skin people.

So what actually does increase ticket sales? Hard working trained individuals solving straight-forward questions about character and story.

Students invest thousands of dollars in tuition believing that education will level the employment playing field. However, the entertainment industry slyly sabotages the value of college degrees in film, television, and theater production. In “The Hollywood Assistants Handbook,” former studio chair Hillary Stamm and Brown University alumni Peter Nowalk write, “Movie stars often become movies stars not because they trained at Juilliard, but because they look like Demi Moore. A movie’s success is judged by box office, not by its review in ‘The New Yorker’.” This smug theory is disproved by rosters full of trained artists crafting shows like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy,” “The Hobbit,” and Broadway’s smash-hit hip-hop musical “Hamilton.” Still, America believes that such college degrees are foolish art study.

Universities cut programs, eliminate graduates, and further diminish the value of higher education credentials. The entertainment industry loves this. Casting directors, studio executives, and talent agencies now get a free pass to reject qualified minority applicants. They turn to cronyism and nepotism to hire family/friends while decreeing a lack of skilled minority storytellers. Yep, circular reasoning at its finest.

Dr. Myrton Running Wolf holds masters degrees from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He completed his Ph.D. in Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University. 

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