The Problematic #OscarsSoWhite and ‘Naatu Naatu’

Was the Oscars “Naatu Naatu” performance an example of #OscarsSoWhite? It depends on what you consider White. But just saying it is so doesn’t make it so. Diversity isn’t just Black and White.

This week should just be a reminder that April Reign or @ReignOfApril isn’t a journalist and missed some issues of diversity when she first fired off her #OscarsSoWhite missive in 2015. She did backtrack to try to be more inclusive, but remember that Black/African American only make up of 13 percent to the national population and less than that in the Los Angeles County. In 2016, the Oscars was forced to apologize when Oscar host Chris Rock took the #OscarsSoWhite theme, he also made children of East Asian descent the butt of a joke. Chris Rock, last year, sparked some outrage by highlighting the one African American production member  (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) of the winning documentary (“Summer of Love”)  dismissing the other three men as four “White” men although one of them was proudly Asian Indian (Joseph Patel) and the other two were Jewish American (Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein).

So the question becomes just who is White? Is an Asian Indian person White? Is a Jewish person White? Are East Asians honorary Whites?

In 2015–when Reign first tweeted #OscarsSoWhite, the Best Picture was won by a Latino (Alejandro G. Iñárritu–shared with John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole). The Mexico-born Iñárritu also won Best Director. If one was going by the WASP categorization, the Best Actor nominees (Winner Eddie Redmayne, Steve Carell for “Foxcatcher,” Bradley Cooper for “American Sniper,” Benedict Cumberbatch for “The Imitation Game” and Michael Keaton for “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”) would not all fit into that category of whiteness. Steve Carell and Michael Keaton were raised Catholic. Flattening out White people as a monolith seems rather simplistic since there has been historical prejudice against other Europeans in the US and England. Not all of this prejudice is ancient history.

As it turns out, in the 2015 Best Supporting Actor category, one of the nominees, Edward Norton, was recently revealed to be a descendent of Pocahontas (Amonute, known as Matoaka) on “Finding Your Roots” this year.  Is Norton White?  Another, Mark Ruffalo attended a Catholic school and has dyslexia. There are other aspects besides perceived race when one considers diversity in representation such as religion and disabilities.

The winner of the Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette is part Jewish and her father converted from Catholicism to Islam.. Keira Knightley has dyslexia.

In 2016 with Chris Rock as the host, when “Spotlight” won Best picture, one of the producers was Jewish (Nicole Rocklin). The Best Director was again Alejandro G. Iñárritu for “The Revenant.” Best Actor winner was raised Catholic (Leonardo DiCaprio). Fellow nominee Sylvester Stallone was raised Catholic, but is also part Jewish (mother). It bears remembering that Italians (as well as Greeks, Poles, Hungarians and Slavs) were not originally considered White during the early 1900s.

But the 2016 Oscars also galvanized Asian Americans because of Chris Rock’s skit. And then in 2022, Rock showed his sloppy categorization of Asian Americans wasn’t exactly an accident. As Reign already has shown that she forgets about Latinos and Jewish Americans (as well as those who suffer learning disabilities) in her diversity paradigm, so when I saw this tweet, I had to wonder.

It’s not really clear who the “white” in this week’s tweet by @ReignOfApril references. The producers of the show were Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner. Are these two men the Whiteness that Reign is referencing? Is she sure these two men are not Jewish? It’s one thing to make all lump White Anglo-Saxon Protestants with White Anglo-Saxon Catholics, but as there’s still a lot of anti-Semitism around, isn’t there?

Who was involved in the “Naatu Naatu” dance number?

According to, one of the producers was Raj Kapoor, who was born in New Delhi, India but raised in Canada. Kapoor recounted:

As soon as the nomination was announced, we asked for the involvement of choreographer Prem Rakshith since the choreography is so iconic to the impact of this musical number.

Originally, the two leads were going to be the stars of the number alongside the singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava. The show was very instrumental in helping secure working visas for their team to be able to come to the U.S. to be a part of the performance.

Prem and his assistant provided a video breakdown of the audition choreography, which we sent out to the biggest dance agencies in Los Angeles. Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, known as Nappytabs, were brought in to help stage the number and shape it for television using the original choreography from the movie. Once we had the musical edit approved by M.M. Keeravaani, we did late night Zoom calls with the choreography team in India and Los Angeles. We shared casting choices, costume design ideas, and stage renderings with the team from India.

In late February, we were informed that Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. would be attending the Oscars, but they did not feel comfortable performing the live number on stage.

You can read the full article: ‘A Love Letter to Tollywood’: Producer Raj Kapoor Discusses Bringing ‘Naatu Naatu’ to the Oscars Stage (14 March 2023)

Reign wrote that “It would’ve been SO easy to highlight South Asian choreographer and dancers” but does she really know this? Is she referencing Kapoor who began as a choreographer and dancer and has worked on the Oscars since 2017? Is she referencing the choreographers, Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo? Has she seen Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, sometimes known as “Nappytabs”?  Napoleon is Filipino. Is that by Reign’s definition “White”?

Late February is rather late to find a replacement, but the team was tasked with finding two replacements. As it stands, the original intent was to feature Charan and Rao. The choreographer was the original choreographer Prem Rakshit. He attended the Oscars. Nappytabs were more like his on-site dance captains.

The two dancers, Billy Mustafa and Jason Glover,  who resembled the two stars were brought in to replace Charan and Rao. Neither of them are of Asian Indian descent, but they could pass. From what Kapoor stated  all the choices were made with consultation with the India-based team via Zoom.

Billy Mustafa is not White, even though the US Census Bureau could consider him White, if he was a US citizen. He’s not. He’s Canadian of Lebanese descent. The other dancer is listed as mixed race. They were chosen due to their resemblance and dance skills, not based on race or ethnicity. Let’s think about this for a second before we start make labels.

Do we really want to use the term “brown-passing”? The Asian Indians didn’t used to be “brown.” They used to be “Black” like the titular “Little Black Sambo.” And who is considered “brown”? That depends. In the US, “Brown” people can include South Asian Americans, Middle Eastern Americans and Latino Americans. From that perspective, Mustafa isn’t “brown-passing.” He is Brown. If one is to go by what the first American Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1904), William Howard Taft, said, Filipinos are also “our little Brown brothers.” Taft later became the 27th President of the United States. Check out Wikipedia for a rundown of what “Brown” can cover and how it varies.

For people complaining about the lack of dancers of South Asian descent, the actual scene in the film has White people learning the dance from the two main characters. If the producers had decided to faithfully replicate the scene, there would not have been any South Asian dancers besides the leads. Yet, instead of having all White-passing dancers, the Oscars team opted for a multicultural range of dancers including people who appear Black and East Asian (Alex Wong). For this reason, it is doubly confusing as to why Reign is complaining #OscarsSoWhite.

The scene that sets up the dance isn’t exactly historically accurate or culturally sensitive when it  references dance styles that are Latin American (tango), Spanish (flamenco) and Black American (Charleston). Any ballroom dancers would tell you that while tango (International style, American style or Argentine tango) is a ballroom or nightclub dance, flamenco is not. Flamenco has Moorish and Gitano roots and originated in Andalusia, Spain. At the time period of the film, the Charleston was still considered scandalous. The respectable social dances in the UK for that time period were the Foxtrot, the Quickstep and the Waltz. The dance salsa is also mentioned, but salsa originated in NYC, according to Britannica, but came from a much later period than the film portrays. The film takes place in the early 1920s. Salsa was being developed in the 1940s and 1950s and became known as “salsa” in the 1960s. This dance isn’t from Europe and is considered to be based on Afro-Cuban music. The dance number seems to pit English colonialism against the Native Telugu people, but the very dance references are a sloppy mix up.

Just as SS Rajamouli was insensitive to the differences between these dances and their racial and ethnic connections, in the US, we need to learn to be more cognizant of the differences between Bollywood and Tollywood. Although, as someone who once worked for a Internet company (Yahoo Search Marketing), I think it is ridiculous to complain about someone who uses both as hashtags or metatags. That’s just good sense in search engine optimization.

For the stars, who declined to perform, it does make sense since there was only, according to Kapoor,  18 hours of rehearsal and one 90-minute camera blocking session. Further the film’s choreographer Prem Rakshith said:

The performers were all from the US. We couldn’t bring our guys from India because they did not get their visas on time. I myself got my visa only on the 9th. So, I used to send videos and stuff from India to help with the choreography. When I reached there on the 11th and saw the rehearsals, I was bowled over by their energy.

The Oscars was on the 12th of March this year.

To sum up, this Oscars did have a person of South Asian descent working as a producer. The original intent was to feature two South Asian actors dancing in “Naatu Naatu.” A South Asian choreographer, Prem Rakshith, was represented. The “Naatu Naatu” team were part of an Asian over representation at this year’s Oscars but does that really mean nothing has changed and #OscarsSoWhite? I don’t think so.

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