Taika Waititi Nails The Problem With Diversity In Hollywood… Almost
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Taika Waititi’s keynote speech at The Hollywood Reporter’s Raising Our Voices event is everywhere. The award-winning Māori filmmaker makes some poignant points, but to me, struggled to grapple with some nuances.
After greeting the audience in te reo Māori, Waititi begins his speech with a cheeky, “as you can tell, there’s a writer’s strike on so I didn’t write shit!” This is the first of many times Waititi alludes to the WGA’s strike, even going so far as to include a bit in which he admits he asked ChatGPT to write his speech for him.
“I said ‘Hello. Can you please explain to me how Hollywood is failing to address and remedy the issue of diversity and inclusivity in film and television?” he says, snorting. Waititi says the answer the AI gave him “scrolls for ages” and included key points relating to gatekeeping, performative activism, stereotyping and, whitewashing. “If AI can do that in eight seconds and it gets it, what’s taking so long?”
With his trademark sense of humour in tow, Waititi hits the mark almost instantly, calling for “decolonising the screen” and moving beyond the presence of diversity. The term, he says, was coined by his mentor, pioneering Indigenous filmmaker Merata Mita, and aims to systemically overhaul screen practices away from white supremacy and tokensim within white supremacist systems.
“It’s great to see your own face on screen, but don’t, please, not on my account, don’t put a Polynesian in your thing just cause you feel you need to. It has to make sense.” He said, “By decolonising the screen, what I mean is just don’t make it so white.”
Waititi also called out how people in power feign ignorance to issues surrounding systemic exclusion in Hollywood. The filmmaker’s disdain for how marginalised folks tend to be made the face of a problem we did not cause was clear.
“Stop asking us what to do, how to fix things, alright? I’m so tired of this stuff; the diversity conversation, the inclusivity conversation, all the conversations. All of us want to be working and not having to come and do fucking panels and speeches in the middle of our day.”
Waititi continued, “You wonder why there’s no Indigenous shit out there? This is the shit you got us doing! Making us come and talk about the problem and tell you how to fix it. You fucking broke it, you fix it!”
In an apt metaphor, Waititi compared asking people of colour to fix racism to being like asking burn victims to rehabilitate arsonists. “It’s like someone coming into your house, stealing all your shit, and burning your house down, and then saying, ‘OK, we need to have a talk about this.’ And then saying, ‘now you’re gonna rebuild your house, and what can we give you to rebuild your house that we burned down?’ You build the fucking house! You burned it down.”
These critiques echo what many Black activists and scholars like the late bell hooks and Stuart Hall have written about for decades; Hall in his works such as Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices and hooks’ in her works such as Black Looks: Race and Representation. Both reiterate that the film industry, like any industry, is a reflective microcosm of the system in which it is built to serve. Representations of non-white and other marginalised peoples on screen are not indications of progress, so much as they are often tokenistic efforts to reinforce a false reality in which decolonisation work, conveniently, does not need to be done.
Waititi is right to connect systems of colonisation to media. After all, one is the arm of the other. However, where Waititi’s argument faulters, at least in my opinion, is when he calls out colonial divide and conquer methods.
“Another colonial trick is to pit us [minorities] against one another, ‘who had it worse?’, ‘oh yeah, but you were…you didn’t have it bad until 1759’, ‘you didn’t have it bad until 1492!’ It doesn’t matter we all had it bad,” he says. “And the trick they like to do is, ‘Well, fight it out amongst yourselves, who had it worse, and then you get in line for who gets to have representation.’”
It’s here where Waititi loses me. He’s not wrong in pointing out how colonial states perpetuate attitudes like the Model Minority myth to pit certain minorities against one another. In fact, I agree and see what he’s getting at. But, ultimately, this attitude shouldn’t be used to dismiss and homogenise the unique struggles facing certain groups.
While all people of colour face racism and exclusion, this exclusion operates differently for distinct groups. For example, historical and global anti-Black policies relating slavery led to intergenerational wealth disparities that are unique to Black communities. Likewise, diasporic Middle Eastern communities face cultural orientalism and Islamophobia that is unique to their community, despite it coming under the general umbrella of “racism” and “colonialism”.
Every community marginalised under white supremacy experiences is impacted by white supremacy differently. As a First Nations person myself, I have experienced anti-Aboriginal racism from both white folks and non-Aboriginal people of colour. Colonial privilege and white privilege, while intersecting, are not interchangeable. Therefore, a key element of decolonisation and anti-racism work will involve both white people and settlers — regardless of race — supporting the unique fight for sovereignty and self-determination that Aboriginal peoples face. And this will include all settlers addressing their role in it.
By the same token, as a lighter skinned person of colour, it would be disrespectful of me to act as if my struggles with racism are akin to those more visibly non-white. For me to dismiss the struggles of others with darker complexions by claiming “we all have it bad” would be all but ensuring issues of colourism faced by those with darker complexions go unaddressed. In order to reach a decolonised post-colonial way of life, we should strive to, at least in part, humble ourselves in relation to our differences if we’re ever going to make a world where diversity means something more than a buzzword.
I have an immense respect for Waititi as a creative. I was privileged enough to interview him last year for Thor: Love and Thunder and so, do not wish this to be seen as an attack on Waititi himself. Rather, I want to use Waititi’s poignant speech as a jumping off point to propose that deprogramming racism and white supremacy in any industry will come with acknowledging the different challenges faced by different marginalised groups. It was white supremacy and colonialism that divided white people and people of colour into an inadequate binary.
We should not validate that kind of division by acting like everyone experienced that division equally. We decolonise by de-homogenising, acknowledging, and celebrating and embracing difference where it was once unwelcomed. Because its not just that we all had it bad in the past, but that we all want a better future that gives us all what we need.
Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry.
Main Image Credit: Getty Images