The worlds of Hollywood, Broadway, and everything in between are experiencing some major growing pains. For some reason, we are constantly toeing the line between creative and downright offensive, and we can’t seem to hit that sweet spot. But with an #oscarssowhite part 2 happening in less than a month, I must voice what the problem is in the worlds I vicariously live through: Modern day media cannot tell the difference between colorblind casting and actual inclusivity.
I’m new to Fandom Following as a writer, so I will mention here and now that I am a huge theater and acting buff. I graduated from a theater program, I design shows in my head, I volunteer as an usher, and I cast myself in any show I deem interesting and compelling. Currently, I am doing my best to make this dream a reality.
But as a black woman, I find myself dream casting about 90% of the time, mostly because I (and many other casting directors) cannot see myself as many “traditional” roles. Now, please don’t think of this as me complaining. There are still numerous roles out there for me to play, but the list is remarkably short in comparison to my lighter counterparts. And recently, for them, their pool of possibility seems to have gotten bigger- but not necessarily better.
Everybody knows about the train-wreck that was Exodus– an Egyptian movie almost entirely made up of white actors. In 2015. Not middle eastern, and definitely not black…besides the servants…which was strange, but not uncommon to say the least. POC have been played by white people for generations, whether due to racist depictions of us being okay due to time period, lack of access, or lazy casting.
But you can’t blame everything on a lazy casting team. There’s a point where people cross the line and move from “blissfully ignorant and accepted” to “blatantly discriminatory”. A prime example would be the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. No offense to one of our favorite secret agent actresses, but this is nowhere near her territory. However, I feel that fandom has a lot to do with this decision. To me it feels that sex appeal was the driving force that led to this conclusion (although I wonder if Lucy Liu, Rinko Kikuchi or any actresses of Asian descent were even asked). It’s not an uncommon trope that sexiness can outweigh accuracy when appealing to a fandom, but it also brings important points to my attention: when POC are cast, does the sex appeal/viewership automatically go down? Was this casting decision really choosing the right actor to do the job, or does it come from a place of slight bigotry?
I’m no stranger to arguments about casting choices and race, but it’s extremely hard to keep my cool in the face of unnecessary bigotry. Take for example, the recent battle of Star Wars franchise. Since the premier of the trailer, (mostly white) threw up their hands in frustration and yelled “boycott” to the film, believing their beloved franchise was being impeached upon by “political correctness”. To which I say: yeah, okay. If you say so.
Bravo to that casting team for starting an uproar that, despite the haters, resulted in one of the highest selling movies of all time (with Avatar right alongside it, another movie with a WOC lead). I don’t know anybody who actually adhered to “boycotting” it, and whoever did missed out on great talent. Obviously the sales weren’t centered on the shades of our new trio, but I will say that the movie made brand new Star Wars fans out of many people (including me) simply because of the inclusion into an otherwise alien world.
When POC are cast creatively or accurately to a story, the criticism is expected and overwhelming, with fans coming out of the woodwork to disprove or condemn the character choice. I was positively shocked and will always be angry about the treatment of Rue, mostly because people did not expect her to be black and actually felt less sympathy for her when she died because of it. WHAT??!?!? HOW?? EVEN SUZANNE COLLINS STATED THAT RUE AND THRESH ARE AFRICAN AMERICAN, THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN ZERO CONFUSION. MORE IMPORTANTLY HOW UTTERLY IGNORANT DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO NOT FEEL SAD ABOUT ANY 12 YEAR OLD’S DEATH BY SPEAR?? I just…yeah. See how easy it is to get angry about that?
And that was a case of accurate casting. Fans somehow could not read 6 more words of their beloved series and realize Rue was supposed to be a REMINDER of Prim, not a clone. A more recent example of creative freedom was the casting of a black actress as Hermione in Jack Thorne’s “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”. Not only did it shake the fandom as a whole, but it brought the bigots out to play. I’ve never seen so many people combing the books for definitive proof of Hermione’s whiteness, to little avail. They only stopped when J.K. Rowling typed her Twitter stamp of approval. Personally, I couldn’t help but rejoice and think “FINALLY, someone I can play who I’ve related to for most of my life!” It shouldn’t have felt like a victory, but god it was so sweet.
I will state that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with imagining Hermione as white. It’s almost a subconscious mechanism for North American and European born people to do this with any character. Which brings me to why I must talk about colorblind casting and why it exists: we do not live in a white world, but Hollywood would like for us to think so. The practice of colorblind casting originally worked to destroy that mindset while simultaneously providing diversity and opportunity. Those “traditional” parts slowly came into reach for actors of any race or creed. But somewhere along the line, that practice became…warped.
Two different instances while scrolling through my Facebook made me wonder if the worlds of performance were falling back into a dangerous practice. First, a run of The Mountaintop at Kent State University (with a white MLK) and the very recent casting of Joseph Fiennes (yes, Voldemort’s brother) as Michael Jackson. In these instances, both theater and film committed grievous wrongs to two black men who were the epitome of blackness, and would both be rolling in their graves to hear news like this. In fact, a 1993 interview confirmed that MJ said that he would never want a white person to play him. These casting choices were both blatant publicity stunts, disrespectful to these legends, and a true combination of laziness and trying too hard to be edgy. Two more opportunities taken away from men of color, which may be why the Oscars are usually so white.
This is where I draw the line on colorblind casting. Because there was no statement to be made in these casting decisions, only controversy. Katori Hall, the writer of The Mountaintop, had to go back and edit her play to include the note that MLK MUST be cast as a black man. In 2016, I am both annoyed and not at all surprised that someone would attempt this in the name of “colorblindness”. The erasure of black men who revolutionized our culture is a sin I cannot forgive. Somewhere along the line, the term “colorblind casting” stopped benefiting people of color and fell in with the same league as the painfully vague phrase “artistic freedom”.
I do find solace in knowing that writers such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Shonda Rhimes, and Lee Daniels exist to present us with amazing storytelling full of color. The writers of Hamilton, How to Get Away With Murder, and Empire all proved that POC leads can be multi-dimensional, important, and most importantly, marketable. These shows shattered records in both television and theater, and while Hamilton does purposely cast our founding fathers and supporting characters as almost entirely POC, it is never done out of disrespect. Miranda wanted the show to be about immigrants making their mark in America, which reflected the plot of his original smash hit musical, In the Heights. He made the choice to have the cast be made up of many races to remind people, in a way, about who really founded America and who is spearheading it today.
It may seem hypocritical to be ecstatic that a musical such as Hamilton is selling out faster than tickets are being sold, and a show about our “founding fathers” is being almost played exclusively by POC. It may seem odd for me to allow one historical figure to be played regardless of race, and condemn a few others. Hermione being black may shock and scare many, but it only encourages me, and so many others (I could definitely see an Indian Hermione, can’t you?). I’m not entirely sure I care about people’s feelings in this instance. While I respect the opinions of die-hard fans and those who gave the series the popularity in the first place, our word cannot be the end all be all. Personally, all I see is opportunity. I hope the term “colorblind casting” slowly becomes obsolete as my fellow actors of color are either welcomed, or force their way into the worlds of Hollywood, Broadway, and everything in between.