What price respect? Omari Newton on the #CollegeCheatingScandal

What price respect? Omari Newton on the #CollegeCheatingScandal

When news of the US college admissions scandal broke on March 12, my initial reaction was probably similar to that of many:

“Lori Loughlin? Really? She seems so nice.”

Loughlin’s public persona as a kind, wholesome, nice person was originally established during her years on Full House, where she played Aunt Becky. Millennials grew up watching Aunt Becky share sensible – if conventional – wisdom with her TV family, and by extension, with viewers at home.

Loughlin leveraged her nice, “good girl” image into a thriving television career that has extended several decades. She became one of the stars on the Hallmark Channel’s slate of original content geared towards predominantly white, Christian, socially conservative audiences.

This is where my connection to Loughlin and this admissions scandal takes on a slightly more personal bent.

Like a large number of people connected to Vancouver’s film and TV industry, I’ve worked with Loughlin. As a matter of fact, I worked with both her and one of her now infamous daughters. I say this not in an obnoxious, #SetLife, humble-brag way. I mention it because working with Loughlin is – well, was – almost inevitable if you work in Vancouver’s booming TV industry in any capacity.

For the last few years, Loughin has been a fixture on local sets as the star of a multiple Hallmark original shows. Her wildly popular family drama When Calls the Heart has filmed multiple seasons here. She is also one of the faces of Hallmark’s Garage Sale Mysteries TV movies. She’s starred in multiple Hallmark Christmas movies.

Again, I refuse to be one of those actors who pretends to have profound insight into the character of people who I’ve worked with for only a few days. Film sets are a strange, hierarchical world where actors at a certain level of fame and importance to a project typically keep to themselves. There’s no hard rule about this; it’s just sort of how things go.

This is usually most evident at lunch. Crew members sit with crew members, extras with extras, local actors with local actors – and leading roles with other leading roles, if not alone in their trailer. I can however say that one thing that stood out to me about working with Loughlin and he daughter is how generally, well, nice they seemed.

Loughlin sat in her chair between takes and engaged in pleasant small-talk with her fellow actors. She had an easy laugh, and always seemed to be in a good mood. She was everything you’d hope Aunt Becky would be.

Her daughter was also quite pleasant. She appeared to be confident, energetic, and prepared, and seemed very comfortable on set. What was even more notable to me, even at the time, was that particular Hallmark movie was her first acting credit (at least, according to IMDB).

Now, going into the same business as your mother or father is not uncommon – but what I did find interesting was the size of her role. She was ranked number 3 on the call sheet, which means she had the third-largest role in the film.

The only two people higher than her on the sheet were the leads, one played by a veteran TV actor with dozens of credits as a series regular, both recurring and guest star, and her mother, an established TV star with decades of experience on hit shows.

Several veteran actors, myself included, had considerably smaller roles than she did in this film. While I have no insight into exactly how Loughlin’s daughter landed this role, I can say the following: I auditioned for my role, and the director, a fair and decent man who has hired me again since that first project, cast me after what must have been a good audition, despite having no prior relationship with him or him having any knowledge of me. In fact, I can’t even remember if my role even specifically called for a Black actor.

I mention all of this to establish that I know this director in particular generally casts who he deems the best actor for the role, regardless of race, or personal connection. I have no specific knowledge into how Loughlin’s daughter was cast in her role. It is possible she got an audition on her own, and the first professional role she ever landed was a large supporting in a movie that just happened to be starring her mother.

But I have my doubts.

I remember my first TV role. It was a one-line part as “Slave Number #2.” I was incredibly nervous on set and felt completely lost – so much so that I missed lunch by sitting in my trailer after I was told it was lunch time, not knowing what this meant, and was too embarrassed to ask. 

I can also count the number of times I have had the opportunity to read for a role ranked number 3 or higher in a project on one hand, and this is after decades in the business, with multiple leading roles on stage, and 50-plus television credits on my resume. It would be highly irregular for an actor with zero credits to land a role that size as their first-ever role without an inside edge.

The stories above are just a few samples of the passive nature of the privilege at the heart of this admissions scandal. Humans are divided into two different worlds: one for the wealthy and powerful, and one for everyone else. It’s not that any of these people are evil or bad in the traditional sense of the words. In fact, one of the trappings of a proper upbringing when raised in the ruling class is an early and innate understanding of the power of being pleasant. Smiling, looking people in the eyes, shaking hands firmly – these are all signifiers of a certain type of upbringing generally associated with class.

Shutterstock image. Used with permission

Shutterstock image. Used with permission

It’s part of the reason why some juries struggle to find Black witnesses from impoverished backgrounds credible. They mistake their understandable nerves in a foreign, hostile environment as failed attempts at masking deception. Similarly, this is why many people struggle to see charming, white, attractive sociopaths like Ted Bundy as a threat. Most people’s image of respectability and decency aligned with his outward appearance, making all aspects of his life, including the ability to deceive his victims and evade the law much easier. Add wealth to the equation and you can only imagine how simple one’s life could be.

This is what is so insidious about this scandal. It has enraged so many people because it exposes what the general public, and especially people of colour, have long suspected. There are two different worlds that exist concurrently: one for the wealthy, and one for the rest of us. Watching rich people skate through life on Easy Street has always been somewhat frustrating, legal as it may be in the private sector.

But seeing irrefutable proof of supposedly public institutions like the SATs being rigged makes a mockery of anyone who busted their ass for a degree and is still paying off a sizeable student debt.

The fact that so many were willing or able to be duped so easily speaks volumes about deeply ingrained prejudices around wealth and class. If a wealthy person scores an outstanding grade on their SATs despite an unimpressive academic record, no one bats an eye – yet I remember being accused of plagiarism repeatedly in high school for handing in essays that were “too good” to be written by a young Black kid.

If a wealthy person claims to be an elite rower, the information is taken at face value, no references needed. Meanwhile, the recruiting process for elite athletes of colour often requires video highlight reels, performances being witnessed live, heavily scrutinized test scores, academic history, and character references.

Education in America is entrenched in the mythology of the American Dream. It’s supposed to be the great equalizer. No matter your background, if you study hard, you get a shot at a better life for you and your family. If you couldn’t break through on academics alone, sports have been touted as a great back door into a better life. We now have proof that there has long been a side door that trumps all of the above: wealth. Those who have access to that door are simply behaving in a way they have been groomed to since birth.

It’s not malicious. It’s not deliberately evil. It’s the way the system has always worked for the wealthy. To live life with wealth, is to be taught that anything and everything is possible for you. It instils a confidence that allows you to walk around anywhere with the effortless belief that you belong, be it a film set, a rowing team, or a college campus. Confidence can be a very powerful, positive thing that allows you to reach great heights. The college admissions scandal is a tragic example of what happens when this confidence goes unchallenged for too long. Deep down we all suspected that this is the way much of the world worked; the brazen nature of this scandal simply reveals that the system is working to help maintain the power of those who designed it.

Omari Newton photo.jpg

Editor’s note: Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19 years old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Omari won a 2018 Jessie Award for his performance in ‘The Shipment.’ Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari writes about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene. Omari directed a production of David Harrower’s ‘Blackbird’ that ran at the 2018 Vancouver Fringe Festival.

Top image: Shutterstock. Used with permission

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