For some, casting a white actor to portray a person of color is the epitome of racism. I’ve come across this concept in the past, but recently saw a few articles on this topic in rapid succession. The theory is that any role that is identified as a specific ethnic group must be portrayed by an actor of the same ethnic group -or else, it’s inherently racist. This topic comes up often, usually when a Korean actor is portraying a Chinese person in a role. That MUST be racist, right? While it sounds logical at face value, the theory of race representation in theater is itself a racist philosophy.
Many famous minority movie roles have been portrayed by white actors. Articles such as “Top 10 White Actors Who Played People of Color (and Why this Needs to Stop)” at Buzzfeed.com explain this practice as insulting and racist. Allowing Elvis to play a native American, or Nataile Wood to portray a Puerto Rican is not authentic, and insulting to any particular ethnic group when there are so many available actors to fill these roles who originate from the ethnic group in question. There may be, yet the article’s author wants to force a form of social justice that simply has no basis in reality. The reality is that movies are made for the sole purpose of making money for the investors. Movies don’t get made for generosity, or out of the goodness of one’s heart. That may be the purpose of screenwriters or some directors, but the backer who bankrolls the endeavor expects to get a return on the investment. Big names draw movie ticket sales, and unknowns are, well, unknown. In the investment world, betting on a proven, big name earner is less risky than dealing with unknown variables who may or may not make back the investment at the box office. So, the decision becomes, who can we hire to make sure we get our money back and maybe make a profit – not how can we be racist and insult people of color. It’s not a personal affront, it’s a business decision.
Well, boo hoo, you say. Profits should not outweigh the need to be racially representative and accurate. Sorry, but they outweigh anyone’s right to demand to be an armchair casting producer. Especially in the world of “make-believe”. Never forget that the entertainment industry is a platonic world of imagination, where actors don costumes and makeup to pretend to be other people. That’s why they’re called “actors.” It wasn’t that long ago that all actors were male, and portrayed all female parts. Was that sexist? Yeah, but so what. IT just says that women were too smart to travel the countryside with a bunch of smelly men who wore dresses and makeup. An actors charge is to make you believe they are someone else. If you want Angelina Jolie to be replaced with a Cuban actor in A Mighty Heart(2007) get off your couch, write a script, hire an actress and bankroll your own flick. Wait, is Cuban an ethnic group? According to the Buzzfeed piece, yes. Following this logic, Israelites must now only be played by Israelies. Floridians must now only be played by Floridians. Panamanians and Chileans too? Yes, in order to be properly represented and proportioned says contemporary wisdom. So, race has been superceded by geographical origin and it’s under-representation is equivalent with racism. Can’t we just group all these people into Latinos? Sure we can, but not of you’re a white person- that would be racist against the brown people. The problem is that I’ve been to other “latino” countries and not all people are the same shade of brown – especially in Cuba! “Latino” races are an amalgam of a rainbow of peoples and have no business being labeled as a race. You should now see how this has become an exercise in fantasy and not a serious discussion about race representation in film.
This bodes the question – do races have specific features that make them different? Of course -that’s how you tell if someone is from a particular ethnic group! How do you tell if someone is Cuban or South African? Are they black? Could be, but not necessarily, whatever being “black” means. Do they have big lips or broad noses? Are their eyes slanty enough to be representative of their race? These requirement are ridiculous, of course, as we know every ethnic group has a wide variation in features, yet The Buzzfeed article constantly reminds us that the actors hired don’t have the right features. Requiring these features is the real racist act, and that requiring a particular racially profiled actor only serves to exclude a good actor from a role unnecessarily. Any actor should be able to gain a role on their merit as an actor, not their facial features, right? Logic says that requiring a specific race for a job is an inherently racist act. But it just doesn’t make sense to have a white actor play a Chinese man, right?
For argument’s sake, let’s pretend we’re doing a historical piece on the Etruscan Empire. How many Etruscans can we find to fill the roles? The answer is none, so a bunch of people will just have to pretend to be Etruscan for a while. They were white, right? Yeah, let’s go with that. The dichotomy here is that, in any other type of job, requiring or excluding an applicant based on race is verboten to the faithful. Any discrimination against brown people should be forbidden. Except in the case of acting, though. So, it’s never okay to be racist in hiring – except for acting, and except for the beige or brown people. Maybe, just maybe, actors don’t need to have the same skin color as their roles designate. Isn’t that why we invented makeup? And makeup comes in all shades of skin color, just like people – so we can pretend to act like someone we are not.
Finally, all of this skewing of reality results in a chronic irony of insensitivity to the white “race”, specifically. There seems to be a dividing line between the white “race” and all others and it’s something, from which, I take great offense every time I’m forced to fill out a form designating me as “white”. White people are grouped into a large proto-race, one indistinguishable from the other, on the basis of the amount of melanin in their skin. As if there is an actual “white” race that all pale-faced people belong to, we are all lectured that only people of color deserve some special treatment. Should German people only be allowed to portray Germans in the movies? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. What about respect for Irish heritage, or ghetto-Polish ancestry? How about roots of the Slavs, or, Indo-Europeans? If there is a line between Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Venezuelan, Laotian, Korean, and Japanese, then there ought to be a similar line between Nordic, Celtic, and German – yet those lines don’t seem to exist in the minds of the people who think only “brown” people can be discriminated against and need to be properly represented in film. It is an inherently racist view against the grouping they refer to as “Whites”. When all is said and done, we are all people of color.by