I recently showed my husband a photo featuring an Asian extra in one of The Hobbit films tweeted by Daniel Dae Kim. The photo was accompanied by Kim’s argument for greater diversity in media in general and in particular for more color-blind casting in films like Lord of the Rings. My husband (who is both Chinese American and a huge Tolkienite) burst out laughing: “But it’s Lord of the Rings!”
We have an automatic assumption that a leading character will be white – call it whitespectation – thanks to our continued consumption of the ludicrously narrow, heterosexual cismale white standard in the media. Tolkien, as a British white guy writing in the 1940s, probably was writing about white (albeit non-human) persons.
In a controversial article Deadline had the bad sense to publish, editor Nellie Andreeva notes the increase in programming featuring actors of color (Empire, Fresh Off The Boat, etc). She then jumps erratically to a poorly-substantiated claim that major studios are now mandating 50% of television program roles be filled by minority actors. The underlying logic seems to be that because there are more minority roles in shows like Fresh and Empire, that other programming should continue to emphasis white actors – as if the average role on television were somehow specific to the Caucasian race and as if everyday reality, as it is portrayed in a drama or sitcom, is somehow inherently white. In the hands of casting directors, whitespectation becomes dangerous indeed.
I’m not particularly interested in responding to Andreeva’s article, because 1) I seriously doubt such a quota exists and 2) If such as quota does in fact exist, great. But I am interested in the question of true color-blind casting, in which roles are open to actors of any race.
In cinema, realism prevails and is increasingly necessary for the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a production. Suspension of disbelief refers to our ability to set aside certain truths – for example, the fact that elves do not exist – in order to enjoy a film or television show. The relentless search for realism on screen has led to the development of new special effects techniques through the history of film, ultimately leading to the modern day prevalence of CG. If you’ve ever laughed during an old-time-y horror flick, it was probably because the chocolate syrup failed to convince you. The production’s intention – to frighten you – never materializes, due to the lack of extreme realism to which we have become accustomed. You find the suspension of your disbelief impossible and are incapable of experiencing the film the way it was intended.
There is no suspension of disbelief necessary to watch a movie about a mythical hobbit from made-up Middle Earth who happens to be Asian. It is ludicrous to suggest that we can engage in a suspension of disbelief long enough to entertain the idea of a wizard but not the idea of a Latina hobbit. There is nothing about hobbits that necessitates their race in any direction, because hobbits don’t exist. They are ours to imagine as we like.
The rule of disbelief is the primary question a casting director ought to ask him or herself in regards to a potential character’s race – does a color-blind casting truly fail to uphold the suspension of disbelief? In the majority of productions today, the answer will be no, and it is therefore misguided and wrong to bar actors of color to these roles.
Productions based on real-life people and events ought to take their cues from reality in regards to the race of the actors. Notice that the suspension of disbelief rule does not necessitate that the actor look exactly like the real figure, but does necessitate that he/she be of the same racial background as we understand it today. For example, when Tom Hanks was cast as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, he was encouraged to channel the “spirit” of Disney, rather to attempt to imitate the icon visually. Hanks certainly does not look like Disney (although incidentally, Ryan Gosling happens to look exactly like a young Walt). As an extreme contra-example, imagine the disastrous results if Hanks (or any white man) were cast as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. This is a violation even Hollywood is unlikely to commit. Such a casting makes no logical sense to anyone and ignores all the realities of King’s life; the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down around us.
Non-fiction productions like Selma represent one extreme of the spectrum, in which a minority role should always be reserved for actors that can play the role within our cultural understanding of race. The same can arguably be said to hold true in reverse: to cast Thomas Jefferson as a black man might be an interesting (and less offensive) thought experiment, but it ignores the historical realities of Jefferson’s life (read: slaveholding) and essentially becomes an alternate history – a work of fiction.
Closely related to the non-fiction production is the fictional one that, for legitimate plot purposes, dictates the race of the actor. That is, if a work of fiction is intended to depict Japanese persons, the casting ought to reflect that. To ignore this dictate kills suspension of disbelief quite quickly. An excellent example is the 1957 film Sayonara. The film primarily cast Japanese actors for Japanese roles, with the exception of Nakamura, a character who has an implied romance with a white woman and was cast with the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. Whether we are aiming for historical accuracy or sensitivity to racial realities, the racial identity of the actor clearly matters, and these are generally not the genres for color-blind casting.
At the other extreme is the completely fictional production, in which race has no logical connection to the society represented. A classic (and perhaps definitive) example is the 1997 film adaptation of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. Brandy is an African American singer/actress, as is Houston. The prince is played by Filipino American actor Paolo Montalban, his mother the queen by famous African American actress Whoopi Goldberg, and his father the king by Victor Garber.
The film, which was made for The Wonderful World of Disney, a television program airing on ABC, garnered the station its highest ratings in sixteen years. Cinderella is so clearly an exercise in color-blind casting for the sheer novelty of it that the film doesn’t actually bother to ground its setting in reality at all: the fantastical, colorful kingdom the characters inhabit is more reminiscent of Who-ville than 17th century France. Cinderella’s kingdom is pure fantasy, as if to encourage the audience’s disbelief to float on up, suspended and unobtrusive.
Moving away from the fantastical along the spectrum, we approach a world more like our own. Here too, however, the test of disbelief holds and for the most part, none is necessary. Suspension of disbelief holds just fine if an actor of color is cast in a romcom, or action/adventure, thriller, or any number of genres. Our society is diverse, and it hardly strains belief to suppose that people of color can, like the white male, have adventures, fall in love, and maybe even become superheroes.
One of the ideal genres for play in these fictional middle spaces is the superhero genre, a highly fictionalized but generally familiar world (the occasional excursion to Krypton aside). Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about the changing role of people of color in superhero comics and a lot of debate surrounding the social and political implications of taking a traditionally white superhero and casting a remake with an actor of color. Fans have taken to Twitter, that great university of the millennial mind, to delight in the possibilities and freedom offered (but so little exploited) by the format of the genre itself.
The superhero genre almost by definition has multiple cannons and (in the Hollywood tradition) multiple screen adaptations for every hero, which lends itself well to modern updates. One of the best re-imagined castings suggests Steven Yeun for Peter Park(er). Peter is nerdy: he wears glasses, is un-athletic, and excels in the STEM fields. The recasting puts today’s pervasive stereotype (the Asian nerd trope) to work in a positive light. Not so difficult to suspend disbelief. And what better reclamation of the trope than SpiderMan?
If there is a loophole in the rule, it is the tradition of whitewashing, in which a story originally intended to depict minorities is rewritten in such a way as to allow white actors to convincingly play the roles and thereby pass the rule of disbelief. Until the playing field is truly level (and contrary to what Ms Andreeva might believe, this will be no time soon), this loophole ought to be tied off completely.
Whether a fiction production is based in Manhattan or Middle Earth, the truth remains that these are imaginary worlds, not realities grounded in fact. Color-blind casting has the power to help halt the vicious cycle of whitespectation. It might very well catch our attention, it might shock us, it might even make us laugh with surprise (or delight). But whoever went to the movies to be less than astounded? Whoever hoped that a film might meet expectations and do no more?