LOOK BEYOND THE BEARD, PEOPLE
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
I wish I could have simply settled into my seat Friday afternoon, downshifted from the critical hyper-drive setting in my head and enjoyed the Tina Fey transition into more dramatic fare that nearly all of my critical brethren signed off on, but I couldn’t reject the elephant in the frame—Christopher Abbot, the Girls co-star, hiding his reliable calm demeanor behind a curly bush of facial hair and ethnic garb as an Afghanistan fixer, taking care of Fey’s Baker as she attempts to adjust to life in a hot zone.
It was not so much that Abbot was brownfacing the role, although the bottom line is, well, yes, he most certainly was, but instead what got my goat was the fact that, in his sensitive and perfectly understated turn was a completely missed opportunity. I realize it is too soon to attribute this slight to a knowing desire to ignore the recent calls for increased diversity within the Academy, since the production and release of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” preceded the Oscar nomination blow-up (#OscarsSoWhite), but it serves as the perfect example of the problem.
The film’s narrative comes not from the land of fiction, but the true account of the experiences of Kim Barker, a journalist writing news copy for on-air personalities stateside who takes a desperate assignment to cover the fighting in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s. Although she is re-named Baker in the filmed version of the tale, we are led to believe that all of the other major characters and situations are still rooted in reality. Which begs the question, why whitewash the character of Fahim Ahmadzai?
Were there no Middle Eastern actors available who could have essayed that role with the same degree of respect and grace? Here was the chance to spotlight a performer, in a US production, in such a way to open the doors of opportunity. Fahim might not have been as fully fleshed out as the other white characters onscreen, but greater effort was given than most would have assumed, and the potential might have existed for a perceptive native performer to present additional dimensions and shadings.
My argument might seem specious since, I must note, I found myself captivated by the dynamic between the two characters. I longed to see more of Fahim’s life and his reactions to the presence of Baker and the other journalists in his world, especially when they intersect with his personal life—as guests at his wedding. We see and recognize a level of segregation at the wedding reception. Fahim spends no time mixing with his Western guests, his colleagues and friends. How does each side feel about this division? Inquiring minds want to know and answering such questions would have told us far more about not just Fahim, but Baker as well.
It is reminiscent, in some ways, to the issues I had back in 2002, (early in my professional career as a film critic) during the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” which could have advanced things in the battle for diversity and inclusion to the point of making this current concern moot. Imagine the role of Agatha (Samantha Morton), the key pre-cog and narrative linchpin, as an African American female, without changing a single line of dialogue or making any direct reference to her race.
I argued, and have since continued to site this example, that as much as I appreciated the work of Morton in the role, there was a degree of symbolic depth that casting an African American female would have achieved that would have been right and far truer to the thrust of that narrative. With so few black characters in the mix, the idea of Agatha being the most powerful of the three pre-cogs and a black woman to boot would have made the decision of Tom Cruise’s police officer even more intriguing, because that “minority report” would have resonated along several cultural and social registers.
Hollywood dodged a bit of a bullet with the recent #OscarsSoWhite debate and the talk of boycotting the awards ceremony, with the Academy taking the brunt of the attack. The problem, as it always has, starts with the studios and filmmakers. Spielberg and his team could have chosen to cast their film differently—How about Viola Davis as Agatha?—and, as I said, we could be further down the road in this discussion.
Chris Rock reminded us during his monologue that Hollywood is racist—fraternity and sorority racist—and even at that seemingly innocuous level, it’s a problem. But it is one that could and should be easy enough to fix. I sincerely hope that another generation doesn’t find itself wonder, WTF happened with this issue, and why haven’t we gotten past it yet.