Save for Chris Rock's highly anticipated opening monologue, it seems like the Oscars So White debate has finally mellowed out after initial cries from Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the ceremony to other celebrities saying problematic things. Basically we're at the point where you're either defending the Oscars as not being the problem, or blaming it as the pinnacle of what's wrong with film in 2016. However, there's been one recent viewpoint that's been expressed that seems prescient. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Carol, Rooney Mara had an interesting year last year for a different reason. She was attacked in playing a Native American in director Joe Wright's box office bomb Pan. When asked recently how she feels about the Oscars So White issue, she spoke the familiar cry of equality while also preaching a certain level of regret.
Over the past month, Oscars So White has been almost more distracting for The Oscars than the Anti-The Revenant crowd. It is definitely an important cause, and one that will hopefully get better before it gets worse. However, the one thing that is arguably just as controversial is the choice to "whitewash" films, or cast white actors as varying races (or in the case of The Danish Girl, other genders). While it has died down heavily, there's still filmmakers (such as Ridley Scott last year with Exodus: Gods and Kings) who ignore this for the argument that it's easier to finance and profit off of white actors. In fact, it's made the system a little more problematic.
Among the more high profile whitewashing of recent years was Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger; of which he claimed to be a fraction of an Indian genetically and thus was qualified to play Tonto. While Mara isn't known for taking controversial roles, Pan put her in that circle thanks to a strange casting decision. With a Razzie-nominated performance as Tiger Lilly, she was seen as problematic. It's a given that there's not enough Native American actors being recognized in the past few decades, but still the argument came up once again when Oscars So White overwhelmed conversations.
Much like her competitors, she was forced to comment on the Oscars So White movement. It is a tricky question given her recent career decision with Pan. However, she did respond with a certain frankness that may be somewhat redeeming for a talented actress with a noteworthy blemish on her resume. In an interview with The Telegraph, claiming:
“I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”
Fair enough. As contrived as it sounds, not every whitewashing performance is done with malice. She would later elaborate that she isn't too happy with having to be asked these questions in general:
“I feel like that is what is happening. It is being turned into pull quotes and headlines, and that isn’t opening up a conversation so much as pointing fingers at people and taking their awards out of context. I don’t want to step into the conversation in that way.”
She would also elaborate that when she took the part, she had no intention of playing a Native American despite the character's rich history as such. Still, she comes across as someone who is looking more at the conversation and hoping that whatever she says isn't turned into a "sound bite." Much like the ongoing conversation, she believes that it will take time to solve this problem and that there's no one person at fault. Her competitor Kate Winslet (Best Supporting Actress - Steve Jobs) also claims that she is more willing to recognize a great year for film this upcoming Oscar Sunday instead of pointing out a notorious issue.
For what it's worth, Mara is a rare case in this Oscar conversation. With two nominations to her credit, she definitely would seem to be above giving pull quotes. However, one could look at the rich history of whitewashing and wonder why actors like John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn, Peter Sellers, or even Christian Bale never came forward to express the one little splotch in careers by respectable talents. Even if Mara's work offended someone, it's at least noble that she came forward to admit the faults. To me, people who can admit mistakes are far more worth respecting than those who claim to be infallible. Here's hoping that this isn't just a coincidence and that Mara actually does learn something going forward.