Monday, March 9, 2009

A History of Representing

Ozkirbas posted last week his thoughts on the "token" characters in television and film, which, as an actress, is a subject near and dear to my heart.

The truth is, a huge portion of main characters in television and film (especially film) is white, and male. As Ozkirbas pointed out, this could simply be an issue of white, male writers (who make up a large part of the successful screenwriter population) writing what they know. Or white, male producers (another majority) funding projects to which they can relate and connect on a personal level. Or maybe it's habit.

Whatever it is, the general practice is that if characters are generic, they are white men. Females and ethnic minorities almost always have to be specified in the script before they can be cast. For the moment, however, I'm going to leave females alone because at this point in history the public is way too squirmy to consider sex-blind casting an option in most situations.

But minorities. Skin color. Now THAT is something that should not be an issue for generic casting. And I'm going to go ahead and say this before you get your hackles up, I know the world is not as yet color blind and for some things color blind casting is simply not an option. West Side Story, for example.

Which brings up an interesting point. West Side Story, when it first came to Broadway in 1957, cast actual latino actors in the Puerto Rican parts, historically the first Broadway show to put latinos onstage at all, let alone in major roles. When the movie came out in 1961, however, Natalie Wood and others (like George Chakiris, who played Bernardo) were put in brown face for the roles, and then Natalie Wood's singing voice was dubbed over. So I mean, it's not like she was cast for her talent.

What I'm trying to show here is where we're coming from. 1961 was not that long ago, although sometimes it feels that way. Producers and casting agents put onscreen what they think the general paying audience will be comfortable seeing, and that is beaming white faces with their black (or sometimes, but not often, brown) friend. Don't even get me started on where Asian and Native American actors fit in (they don't.)

Which brings us back to Ozkirbas' post. Television has made leaps and bounds in this subject within the last few years. Dexter, The Wire, Heroes (season 1), Degrassi: The Next Generation, Battlestar Gallactica, The Office and The BBC's Dr. Who are all examples of a fairly even playing field of multi-dimensional characters of many ethnicities given about the same amount of air time (equal air time is not actually true of The Office, but they make their own effort at exposing racial stereotyping so I included them.) Television is also the best place to go right now in which female and gay characters can get strong, layered, interesting, less stereotypical roles.

So, film. I'm not even picking on the Oscar nominees because most of the nominees this year were historical and thus more racially motivated. I won't even say anything about the fact that historical does not have to mean white (though it so often does); it was their subject matter to choose and some really great movies came out of it.

But really. All I'm asking is for people to start asking "Why?" and "Why not?" Would you still sing along to Mamma Mia! if Sophie and her mother were black, or latina, or dare I say, Pacific Islander? Would Jack Bauer be as badass if he was Chinese? Why is everyone in WALL-E's future so pasty? Did 700 years really go by with NO integration?

Race onscreen is an issue because it's unconscious, for the most part. It doesn't occur to people that something might be wrong with casting, so it stays the same. As Julia Louis-Dreyfus so perfectly put it as Christine in The New Adventures of Old Christine, "[I like everyone], whether they're black or regular."

So just, you know, keep it in mind.

5 comments:

Jackie said...

I'm not sure I agree with this.

Primetime TV Shows with non white leading actors [to name a few]:

Better Off Ted, Buzz Hunters, Cupid, Grey's Anatomy, In the Motherhood, Lost, Private Practice, Ugly Betty, Scrubs, 30 Rock, ER, CSI, Cold Case, Desperate Housewives

And this is just NBC, ABC, and CBS.

Movies that aren't solely white actors released in 2008 [only those that grossed over 100 million excluding oscar winners]:

One Missed Call, First Sunday, Mad Money, Meet the Spartans, Over Her Dead Body, The Eye, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Step Up 2, Be Kind Rewind, Vantage Point, Semi-Pro, College Road Trip, Never Back Down, Meet the Browns, 21, Street Kings, The Forbidden Kingdom, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Iron Man, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, The Love Guru, Wanted, Hancock, Meet Dave, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, Death Race, The Long Shots, Traitor, Bangkok Dangerous, The Family That Preys, The Women, Miracle at St. Anna, Blindness, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Max Payne, The Secret Life of Bees, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Soul Men, Cadillac Records, Nothing Like the Holidays, Seven Pounds, The Spirit

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for giving everyone no matter their race, gender or sexuality the equal chance of getting roles but I think their is more diversity out there then you give credit to.

B.Graham said...

My point is not that there do not exist minority roles in Hollywood, my point is that generic storylines in which race is not a factor more often than not go to white actors.

Hancock (along with many of Will Smith's movies... several of which you listed) is a great example of color blind casting, because the movie does not have anything to do with race, and the role simply went to the best actor (or the best name, depending on your opinion of the movie). Be Kind Rewind, High School Musical and Vantage Point are also pretty good examples.

The Secret Life of Bees, Soul Men, The Forbidden Kingdom and Cadillac Records are all examples of movies that cannot be color blind cast and are therefore inconsequential to this argument.

Diversity definitely exists, but color blind casting often does not.

Jackie said...

I understand where you are coming from but I think the bigger problem is not the writers but the audience.

There can only be color blind casting if audiences themselves are color blind. The problem is they aren't. Even all the shows you listed have primarily white actors. If people really want diverse entertainment then they actually have to watch diverse entertainment. People need to ask themselves 'How many tv shows/movies do I watch where the lead actor isn't a white male?' If less then 50% are, then aren't you just fueling the business of choosing white males for parts?

You said it yourself that diversity is out there but in order for that diversity to change into being color blind then people actually have to watch entertainment that is diverse.

Max Nova said...

I think when it comes to casting, as well as any profession, you need to look at the bigger picture. What's the breakdown of minorities and women in drama schools, in film schools, in med schools, in business schools? What are the breakdowns of testing amount whiles and minorities in elementary and middle schools?

Oh right, we know the answer to last one, that there are still big issues to be tackled all the way down.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be looking at the top of professions, since Will Smith is the most bankable actor on the planet right now. But every step of the way is going to indicate whether things will really change from the better in the next generation, and even in the one after that.

Max Nova said...

I think when it comes to casting, as well as any profession, you need to look at the bigger picture. What's the breakdown of minorities and women in drama schools, in film schools, in med schools, in business schools? What are the breakdowns of testing amount whiles and minorities in elementary and middle schools?

Oh right, we know the answer to last one, that there are still big issues to be tackled all the way down.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be looking at the top of professions, since Will Smith is the most bankable actor on the planet right now. But every step of the way is going to indicate whether things will really change from the better in the next generation, and even in the one after that.