Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
Race and ethnicity have complicated our reactions to films since “Birth of a Nation” came out in 1910 and Josephine Baker seduced the French as the “Siren of the Tropics” in 1927. In nearly a hundred years, Hollywood still doesn't know how to handle race in casting. And no group is immune to this exclusion: Mexicans were horrified by Charleston Heston's portrayal of a Mexican officer in “Touch of Evil;” Bruce Lee reportedly lost the lead role in "Kung Fu" because he was Chinese; the Inuit Eben Olemaun became the white Eben Oleson in “30 Days of Night;” the “Prince of Persia” became the “Prince of California” with the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal; and it even goes the other way with fans of Thor expressing outrage that the Norse god will be played by black actor Idris Elba.
In the mid-20th century, African Americans were butlers, maids and nannies. In the succeeding decades, they became criminals, gang members, and pimps. Since then, they are most likely to be cops. "The Ethical Spectacle" points out that in films, "there were more black police chiefs in the movies than in all the major cities of America. There were more black mayors and FBI agents than there were in the real world. There was the black friend, the black next door neighbor, the black sidekick." These movies gave Hollywood numbers to boast about, more African-Americans were getting jobs in the movies, so that must mean racism isn't a problem anymore. Right? Isn't that right?
Not right. An African-American woman didn't win an Oscar for best actress until 2002. And the casting of white actors in ethnic roles is too widespread to be accidental. This year alone, the character Kyo Kusanagi will be played by Texan Sean Farris in the movie based on the game "King of Fighters." And then we have "21," the movie based on the popular book "Bringing Down the House." It's based on a real team of mostly Asian American MIT students led by Asian American professor John Chang. So who plays Chang in the film? Kevin Spacey. And Jeff Ma is portrayed by English actor Jim Sturgess. When challenged about this casting, movie producer Dana Brunetti said, “Believe me, I would have loved to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn't have access to any bankable Asian American actors that we wanted… If I had known how upset the Asian American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.”
The use of the word "bankable" here is telling: there is probably more marketing involved in this issue than racism. Hollywood still seems to believe that the American public can't accept a heroic Asian or an Arab as a romantic lead or a Native American as anything other than a mystical, shamanistic figure that advises the white lead and offers pipes filled with peyote. Personally, I don't think the movie execs give us enough credit. I think Israeli actor Oded Fehr is a hunk and would happily watch him in a Meg Ryan movie, and I'm perfectly ready to believe Apache actor Alan Tafoya as the president of the United States.
So now there is this boycott of "The Last Airbender," a story whose authors say was meant to represent an Asia that never existed. The names, the costumes, even the landscapes hark back to Asia for inspiration. But when it came time to cast the live action version, four white actors took the lead roles. I haven't seen the movie, as it is being released today, but it appears that actors of color have only been cast as villains in the film. A boycott was immediately called. The director, Indian-American M. Night Shyamalan, says he simply cast the best actors for the roles, regardless of race. And we got the following comments from listeners:
David Ring via Facebook
I think when it really come down to it, if we are going to get upset about a white actor playing a non-white role, we need to get upset about a Japanese actor playing Chinese, or an Arab actor playing Persian, or a Mexican actor playing Colombian. As hokey as it sounds, true art transcends ethnicity, and if a white actor can portray a non-white ...
Carrie Perez via Facebook
I wonder why this even matters. As long as one can play the part well it really does not bother me who is in the role.
I fully support the vision of a world in which casting agents are blind to skin color and eye shape. It would be wonderful to imagine that Jude Law would lose a role to Blair Underwood. But that's not the world we live in now. Almost universally, when movies use an actor whose ethnicity doesn't match the role, it is a choice of a white person over a brown one. How can it be that there are no Asian, native, black, Latino or Middle Eastern actors with the marketability of Tom Cruise. Actually, this is easy to answer: it's because Hollywood isn't giving them jobs.
I'm not outraged over the casting choices in "The Last Airbender," but I am weary. There are many roles that have no connection to a specific culture, and I can almost accept that those parts will go to white actors. But when the script calls for a Persian/Latino/Asian/whatever, please just give the role to a Persian/Latino/Asian or whatever. It's been more than half a century since Charlton Heston put on brown makeup to play Ramon Vargas. It's no longer acceptable for actors to put on black face, but it's not progress if we simply whitewash the parts in order to justify giving them to whites.