The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Color blind casting

"If I get your basic position, and correct me if I don't, whites playing non-white roles is a kind of lying, but non-whites playing white roles isn't. Is that it, put bluntly?"

"But Dan makes a good point. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If it's not okay to send in the white guy to sub for the black guy 'cause it's historically inaccurate, then that blade cuts both ways."

Let me address both of these comments. Whites playing non-whites and non-whites playing whites, on the surface, are completely the same. I would defend a position that says that they are equivalent, in general. The differential numbers creates some oddness, but we could leave that out.

There are some characters who could easily be changed racially, without impact ("Kingpin" in Daredevil has no real ethnic identity. On the other hand, shouldn't "Thor's" alter-ego be plausibly Nordic?) Tennyson Hardwick is more molded by his sexual past than his race. I could see a scenario in which he was cast white. "Easy" Rawlins COULDN'T be changed to white without destroying his character. Angelina Jolie playing a mixed-race woman? O.K., if regrettable. Danny Glover playing Marlowe? I found it absurd. There was simply not enough reaction to his race for the time period. This was a vanity project, and an oddity I couldn't take seriously at all.
Note something: NONE of these cases is a case of a black or Asian actor being made up to play another race (yeah, Eddie Murphy does it--as a joke). There is no equivalency to Chuin, Moto, Chan, Fu Manchu, etc. Or of white actors in blackface ("Check and Double Check", the Amos'n'Andy movie). As I've noted, as soon as white actors could not play these Asian roles, the roles disappeared altogether. So there is a bit of historical stuff here.
Still, I'd be happy for equal treatment--anything else could be considered unfair. My attitude here is the same as it is for Affirmative Action. Do I think it works? Hell, yes. Do I think there are some whites who were hurt by it? Yes, I do. Do I think that the levels of pain and pleasure are equal across the communities? Hell, no: a pinch on one side, a crippling on the other.

However, that doesn't change the fact that there are what I consider to be short-sighted historically myopic people who really don't get it. And then there are plenty of racists who hide behind the rhetoric of "fair play." So I'm not in favor of racially-based Affirmative Action, not because I don't believe it works, but because I don't pick battles I don't think I can win.

The same thing is true in film. No, I don't want James Bond cast black. It does mortify me that the last time there was a black character vaugely comparable to Bond was almost FORTY years ago ("Shaft In Africa"--good with his fists, got laid, spoke foreign languages, conversant with technology). If I really believed that roles would be cast color-blind, I wouldn't care. But they NEVER have been. Do it for real, and sure. Otherwise, I just have to haul up my rant about sexual apartheid in film for the umpteenth time, and eventually that's gonna piss me off.

So...either don't do it at all, or do it for real. Picking and choosing just gives the illusion of progress while preserving the real social boundaries.


Pagan Topologist said...

I thought the Wesley Snipes character in Passenger 57 was a James Bond-like character. Ever since that movie, which I absolutely loved, I have wanted to see him play James Bond, or at least more similar roles.

Steven Barnes said...

Yes, it was--but the "full human being" definition includes sexuality, which black or Asian men definitely lack in film. "Passenger 57" was a terrific "Die Hard" type film, more than Bond. But I own two copies of it, and love it. If only he'd gotten laid...

Pagan Topologist said...

I guess my memory is faulty. I thought he did get laid. There was certainly some sexual tension between him and the flight attendant.

Steven Barnes said...

Yes, there was sexual tension. And the implication that they might get it on later that night. Not the same as actual sex, is it? White guys get sex, black or asian guys get "sexual tension." Interesting, no?

Pagan Topologist said...

I guess I am just a bit dense on this issue. But then, I have rarely thought anyone was having sex in movies; it was just implied (except for James Bond and X-rated films.) When years later people told me that Captain Kirk had a lot of sex in Star Trek episodes, I was surprised and disbelieving, since it had never occurred to me. How is the implication of sex in Passenger 57 different from that in films where the protagonist is white? The implied sex was certainly more clear in this movie than in the original Star Trek.

Steven Barnes said...

No, it wasn't. On the original Star Trek there were kisses to fade out, and shy banter the "morning after" if I'm not mistaken.
But even if it're confusing 1960's television with a 1990's movie? That's not a valid comparison. Compare 1992's "Passenger 57" with the top box-office that year. About eight out of twenty of them had love scenes or direct sexual innuendo. Interestingly, one of them was "The Unforgiven" with an implication that Morgan Freeman had sex. Of course:
1) he wasn't the star
2) he dies.
3) It's offscreen anyway. We don't see so much as a kiss.
So even though "Unforgiven" crossed the 100 million threshold, it doesn't count.
Movies that crossed the 100-million threshold that year that DID have sex included:
Lethal Weapon 3, The Bodyguard (gee--black WOMEN have sex, don't they!), and Basic Instinct. Plenty of sex in movies. Unless you have a penis and aren't white.