Diversity in film and television came into the spotlight in 2016 with #OscarsSoWhite. A USC study in 2016 found only about one quarter of speaking characters belonged to non-white racial/ethnic groups. In “Reel Representation,” columnist Olivia Mazzucato discusses different issues of race and representation in media as they relate to new movies and TV shows.
My favorite Golden Globe nominee this year was “Moonlight by the Sea.” I didn’t get a chance to see “Miss Jackie,” but I heard it was good. Personally, I thought “La La Lobster” got too many awards.
Okay, that’s enough. I know “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight” are two different films. And though “Miss Sloane” and “Jackie” are female-driven dramas that both take place in Washington, D.C., they are not the same. And when it comes to films that start with the letter L, I adore “La La Land” and haven’t had the chance to see “The Lobster.”
It’s award season, which is easily my favorite time of the year. I love nothing more than binge-watching nominated films – the awards shows are my Super Bowl. Unfortunately this year, I was unable to watch the Golden Globes live, so I had to look up the winners myself. When I did, I noticed a trending hashtag: #HiddenFences.
Jenna Bush Hager, a correspondent for NBC’s pre-show red carpet broadcast, interviewed producer and musician Pharrell Williams and said, “So you’re nominated for ‘Hidden Fences’ …” Later that night, in a completely separate incident, presenter Michael Keaton named Octavia Spencer as a star of “Hidden Fences.”
The issue is that the film “Hidden Fences” doesn’t exist. The title combined two different films: “Hidden Figures,” a film about three black women working at NASA, and “Fences,” a film about a black working-class family.
Granted, these were not the only mistakes of the night. An NBC anchor mistakenly referred to the show “Transparent” as “Transgender” and Al Roker admitted to mistaking Jessica Biel for Jessica Alba. However, “Hidden Fences” became the most talked-about mistake of the night, generating its own trending hashtag, tweets and memes.
[Related: Movie review: ‘Fences’]
The “Hidden Fences” dilemma is based on two problems. First, films about people of color are seen as interchangeable because of their non-white casts. The second is the subsequent implication that the films are only valuable because of their inclusion of black characters rather than the content of their narratives.
Both Hager and Keaton have since issued apologies for the gaffe, and I don’t doubt it was an honest mistake. I don’t believe the slip-up was intentionally racist or malicious in any capacity, and I don’t think blaming the individuals addresses the root of the problem.
The pattern of mixing up people of color and their work is not a new phenomenon or specific to this awards show. At the 2013 presidential inauguration, ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos spotted Morgan Freeman on air, only to realize it was retired NBA player Bill Russell. Two years ago, a clip went viral of a reporter complimenting Samuel L. Jackson on a Super Bowl commercial starring Laurence Fishburne.
“Hidden Figures” and “Fences” were not even the first nominated films from this awards season to experience this type of mistake. The Wall Street Journal’s review of the Golden Globe-nominated film “Lion” confused lead actor Dev Patel for another actor, Kal Penn, likely because both are prominent actors of Indian descent.
The idea of “Hidden Fences” is indicative of a larger, more pervasive problem in Hollywood relating to the importance of narratives about people of color.
[Read more: Movie Review: ‘Hidden Figures’]
It’s not a coincidence that the two films in question feature black actors. The mix-up is an issue of race. Reporters and presenters were able to keep the other films straight, no matter how similar the title or skin color of the actors.
If “Hidden Fences” were simply a phonetic issue, I believe it would happen more often and we’d finally get “Moonlight by the Sea.” The films “Nocturnal Animals” and “Arrival” both starred Amy Adams and both had a word starting with the letter “A” in the title, but the films were not confused.
I find it troubling that the films are seen as interchangeable. “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” are fundamentally different films with utterly contrasting themes and tones. “Fences” is a dark family drama, while “Hidden Figures” is a more light-hearted and uplifting biopic.
Beyond the skin color of their casts, they share little in common, so why is it that they are so easily confused?
Stories about people of color are not identical. “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” tackle different aspects of identity and tell distinct stories about complex and individual characters in the same way that all films do.
The mix-up begs the question of whether the films are valued for their individual merits or lumped together in an attempt at tokenistic representation.
The conflation may represent the notion that Hollywood focuses on the fact that the films are about black people in an effort to stave off claims of lack of diversity, rather than celebrating the films for their successful and nuanced narratives.
However, some good has come from the “Hidden Fences” snafu.
Thanks to the hashtag, there’s some killer ideas out there on Twitter for new films. I, for one, would love to see “The Help Got Away with Murder” and “Empire of Scandal,” two of the jokingly suggested titles Twitter users came up with by combining titles of other popular movies and TV shows with black characters.
The mix-up may also show some progress – this year, at least there are enough films and television shows about black characters for Hollywood to confuse.