Posts Tagged 'whitewashing'

Casting aspersions.

This post, written back in 2017, is the last in my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series. After today it’s back to our regularly scheduled, completely uncontroversial programming.

Recently, in my hometown paper, I read about a local production of the play Belfast Girls, by Jaki McCarrick. The accompanying photo showed five young women in 19th century period costume, four of them white, one kind of brownish.

belfast girls peninsula productions 2017

Belfast Girls, Peninsula Productions, 2017. Image source: Vancouver Sun.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Must be that ‘race-blind casting’ you sometimes hear about.”

But on skimming the article, I found that the casting had in fact been acutely race-conscious: one of the Irish characters has a Jamaican mother. “[T]rying to find someone to fill that role here in Vancouver wasn’t as easy as it might have been,” the director commented.

According to Wikipedia, in 2016 white people made up a tad under half of Metro Vancouver’s population, with East Asians a further quarter and the remainder a hodgepodge of the world’s other ethnicities – mostly Indo-Canadian, with a smattering of Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, blacks, and others.

If the goal were merely to cast someone who could convincingly portray a half-Irish, half-Jamaican woman, then many Indo-Canadians, Middle Easterners, and Latinos ought to have fit the bill. But I suspect the director was further constrained by the necessity of finding someone with a mixed-race black-white background. There seems to be an elaborate unwritten code governing which actors are allowed to take which roles, variously and contradictorily justified by the primary imperative of maximizing racial diversity:

1. A white person should not portray a character who was written to be, or customarily has been performed by, or was in real life, or in another medium, a person wholly or partly or arguably of another race. (See controversies over Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Martian, A Mighty Heart, and Aloha.)

2. A non-white person, however, may portray a character who was written to be, or customarily has been performed by, or was in real life, or in another medium, a white person. (See Miss Moneypenny, the cast of Hamilton, and various comic book characters.)

3. The definitions of “white” and “non-white” are subject to change without notice.

Is it acceptable for a non-white actor to portray a character of a different non-white race? Hard to tell. But the director was probably smart to be cautious.

My own view is that race-blind casting is more or less appropriate where the mise-en-scène already acknowledges the artificiality of the medium, as theatre productions generally do. No-one watching Troilus and Cressida really imagines they’ve been transported back to Anatolia in the 12th century BC. If Troilus is black and Cressida is Chinese, it shouldn’t throw us any further out of the play than when either character launches into a high-flown speech in English.

However, if Troilus is black and his father, King Priam, is Chinese, we may wonder if we’re meant to infer that Troilus was adopted, and devote concentration to puzzling out their relationship that the director would prefer we focussed elsewhere.

Contarily, a production might wish to highlight the divisions between Greeks and Trojans by casting the two groups with actors of different races – a logical creative choice that race-blind casting forecloses.

Unlike in theatre, in film and television we generally demand a greater degree of “realism” – which nevertheless accepts conventions like foreigners who speak to one another in foreign-accented English, or space aliens who are just humans with bumpy foreheads, or action heroines who somehow maintain their bouncy hair and smooth-shaved legs through every adventure. There’s no obvious reason we couldn’t adapt just as well to the convention of race-blind casting.

And yet the conventions just mentioned aren’t generally seen as good things in themselves, but as necessary concessions to audience prejudices, the limitations of special effects, or the demands of the marketing department. Now that technology has made it cost-effective, we increasingly see directors opting to create aliens who look genuinely alien. I’ve noticed a similar trend in favour of foreign characters actually speaking their native languages, with subtitles, and even lowbrow flicks are more likely to contrive an in-story reason for the foreigners to switch to English. (I doubt movies will ever tire of depicting beautiful actresses with bouncy hair, but who knows.)

The old convention of white actors portraying people of other races is now demonized as racist, but it got started for similar pragmatic reasons. A lot of youngsters don’t seem to realize how small the pool of, say, Asian-American actors would have been in mid-20th century Hollywood. [1] Blacks and non-Hispanic whites together made up 97.5% of the U.S. population in 1950; Asians were less than a tenth of the remainder. In the absence of a taboo against the practice, casting directors naturally wished to expand their options beyond the tiny number of actual Asians available to play Charlie Chan or the King of Siam or whoever. Generally they tried to find people who looked vaguely Asian already, creating openings for mildly exotic actors like Peter Lorre and Rita Moreno. [2]

peter lorre mr. moto

Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto.
Image copyright Fox Home Video.

rita moreno deborah kerr the king and i

Rita Moreno (and Deborah Kerr) in The King and I.
Image source: Pinterest.

Sometimes they piled on makeup instead, and the results look pretty outlandish to us.

mickey rooney breakfast at tiffany's

Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Image source: Wikipedia.

Now that there’s a sizable population of Asians around, of course it makes sense to cast Asians in those roles – if realism is what you’re going for. But lately realism seems to have been elevated from a guiding principle, to be balanced against other principles, to an unbreakable commandment that actors must be a perfect genotypic match for the roles they take on. So you wind up with absurdities like the mixed-race Zoe Saldana being condemned for putting on a prosthetic nose to portray Nina Simone. Meanwhile…

robert de niro raging bull

Robert De Niro, Academy Award for Best Actor, 1980. Image source: Zimbio.com.

nicole kidman the hours

Nicole Kidman, Academy Award for Best Actress, 2002. Image source: The Makeup Gallery.

charlize theron monster

Charlize Theron, Academy Award for Best Actress, 2003. Image source: The Makeup Gallery.

steve carell foxcatcher

Steve Carell, Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor, 2014. Image source: Tribute.ca.

I suppose you could classify that as “white privilege”.

M.

1. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a young Chinese-Canadian actor here in Vancouver years ago. He complained that when he went out for roles in locally-filmed TV shows, he was unlikely to be chosen even for parts that had specifically been listed as “any race” – because casting directors worried that the writers might decide to make the character a regular, which might necessitate casting the character’s parents or grandparents – and they might then be hindered by the tiny number of older Asian actors available. My acquaintance seemed to view this as a nuisance, but an understandable one. Nowadays it would be a crisis requiring immediate mobilization across all social media.

The bias has probably diminished as more Asian actors like my acquaintance have grown to an age suitable for parent roles.

2. In case you missed the link above, it’s worth watching this video of Rita Moreno discussing her casting as Tuptim in The King and I. Apparently there was a half-Vietnamese actress up for the role, but unlike Moreno she had no musical background; also, unlike Moreno, she wasn’t a contract player whom the studio was eager to promote.

My recent post about transtextuality included some thoughts on race-swapped superheroes; in 2017 I observed that screenwriters could justify every implausible story development with the mantra because that happens; and way back in 2008 I defended the movie 300 against one of its more unhinged critics.

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