Lee Daniels' Rant About #OscarsSoWhite Reeks Of Exceptionalism

Photo: Donna Ward/Getty
Lee Daniels loves a “rags to riches” story. His hit series Empire is based on a family of drug dealers who transform into hip hop moguls (and crime bosses). His new show Star uses the same recipe to follow two sisters from the foster system on their way to music industry fame. He was also attracted to the inspiring (but honestly unlikely) happy ending in Sapphire’s novel Push, which he helped morph into the 2009 film Precious. Now it appears that Daniels’ fascination with improbable social mobility and success are clouding his judgement.

The New York Times asked Daniels for his take on #OscarsSoWhite — a dialogue started on Twitter by April Reign that criticizes the Academy Awards for their lack of diversity. The movement resulted in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences implementing a series of “historic” changes to their membership. Despite the accuracy and effectiveness of this conversation, Daniels doesn’t find it to be anything more than “whining.”

He ranted to NYT, “Go out and do the work. Oscars so white! So what? Do your work. Let your legacy speak and stop complaining, man. Are we really in this for the awards?” He continued, “If I had thought that way — that the world was against me — I wouldn’t be here now.” And he did not mince words about those supporting the #OscarsSoWhite cause, either. “These whiny people that think we’re owed something are incomprehensible and reprehensible to me. I don’t expect acknowledgment or acceptance from white America. I’m going to be me.”

It’s obvious to me that Daniels has written one-too-many Cinderella stories. He thinks that people of color in Hollywood should focus more of their energy on being exceptions to the effects of racism and exclusion, instead of confronting the oppression head-on. This is called exceptionalism, and it’s an ideology rooted in classist respectability politics. It asks disenfranchised groups to accept that nothing about their circumstances will change so they should try harder to join the ranks of the privileged minority instead of building a more leveled playing field for everyone. Relying on his own exceptional success in the entertainment industry, Daniels is feeding into this problematic stance. It’s ironic that a man who has been so intentional about bringing diverse narratives and identities into the fray of a television landscape dominated by whiteness can oversimplify a movement demanding representation for people who carry those identities in real life.

And questioning the importance of awards to those who work hard in the entertainment industry denies the possibility that Daniels might not have been able to make Empire or Star without the Oscars received for Precious and Monster’s Ball. It’s like suggesting that people of color disproportionately affected by student loan debt are putting too much emphasis on degrees as the marker of education, success, or intelligence. As long as people of color are working in Hollywood, they deserve to be treated fairly by the entities that support that industry.

Should individuals from marginalized groups strive to overcome the barriers placed before them like Daniels argues? Sure. But in their efforts to do so, should they not be critical of the fact that those barriers exist? Absolutely not. People of color should not be expected to wear “I had to work twice as hard to get the same thing that was handed to my colleagues” as a badge of honor forever. Calling out institutions that support the entertainment industry for not being diverse is not begging for “acknowledgement from white America.” It’s holding them accountable.
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