The NAACP announced the nominees for their Image Awards last month, and lo and behold, the awards, which are dedicated to the “outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice,” nominated Angeline Jolie for her role as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. When I heard about this I laughed out loud. I find it pathetically comical. Is it a sign of desperation? Are the pickings of performances by actual women of color so spare the NAACP had to celebrate a white woman for her brownface turn as Afro-Cuban and Dutch Pearl? Or is it a victory? A sign of our supposed “post-race” times that the NAACP feels free to anoint white-as-bread Angelina Jolie as a woman of color?
But the NAACP’s not the only group with questionable decision-making. Check out these photos, just released by Disney as part of their 2008 “Year of a Million Dreams” campaign. They’re part of a slew of others taken by famed fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz depicting, according to Disney’s press release, “celebrities living out their fantasies by starring in Disney dream scenes.” Apparently, Jennifer Lopez and her husband Marc Anthony, both of Puerto Rican descent, wish they were Arab royalty. And Jessica Biel fancies herself as American Indian cultural broker Pocahontas.
Now I know Disney is not known for sensitive portrayals of people of color, so it’s not entirely shocking the company’s foregone any notion of cultural authenticity in their latest ads. It’s just galling to see how little they care, how indifferent they are about their ignorance. For one, brown folks are not indistinguishable from each other, and ethnicities are not interchangeable. Even though their Princess Jasmine’s “Arabian” roots are never explicitly identified, Disney went pretty far afield casting Jennifer Lopez. And Jessica Biel’s prancing around with a deer in a torn brown frock as Pocahontas is another notch on the long-standing tally of white actresses cast as women of color. Turns out Biel is part Choctaw Indian, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard her claim this part of her heritage for anything more than its cultural cachet. She’s recognized foremost as a seductive woman, and I think that’s why Disney wanted her for the hyper-sexualized part.
Disney’s suggestions about where folks of color belong in the American fairytale narrative are egregiously offensive. And they dispense these attitudes in a two-fold manner: first by manipulating history, smushing it into the mold of a tidy American Myth, and selling it as aspirational fantasy, and then by selectively casting only folks who are white or ethnically ambiguous enough to play these roles. Disney’s ignorance burns but barely shocks anymore. If Angelina Jolie wins the Image Award though, I’ll probably stop laughing and start crying.