Colorblind casting

So, Jerry Coyne has a post up talking about an article in the NY Times about colorblind casting, which I can’t read because I can’t get free articles and there’s no way I’m subscribing to them, since I don’t even subscribe to newspapers in my own country and so prefer to get my news from more reliable sources, like innuendo and small children. Anyway, all I can do is rely on Jerry Coyne’s references to the article, but for the most part I don’t want to get into her — Maya Phillips — views on why it’s wrong, but instead simply want to focus on my own thoughts on the matter and when it’s a good thing and when it isn’t. Let’s start with the definition, at least summarized by Coyne:

“Colorblind casting” is defined in this New York Times piece by culture critic Maya Phillips as “performers [inhabiting] characters of racial backgrounds that [differ] from their own.”

So let me dispense with the extreme ends that could end up as strawmen. On the one end, we have cases where the script has a loose idea of what race a character is or should be, but when casting don’t find themselves limited to that race because the race of the character doesn’t actually have any bearing on the plot. They may have conceived of the character as being a certain race and even mentioned it in the script, but none of that is important to the plot or characterization and so they are open to the best actor for that role no matter what their race. One typical example might be someone who read for a character where race was a more important factor but who didn’t get in, but in the auditions seemed to have a voice or cadence that really fit the other character, so the powers-that-be decided to give the role to that actor and change the race of the character to fit the actor. This is obviously perfectly acceptable and might even be something that they should do: even if they have an idea of what race the person seems most like to them, open it up to all races and let the best actor win, and then adjust the race accordingly.

On the other end, we’d have the case where a character has a set, defined race in-universe and key plot and characterization points depend on them being that race, and those points cannot be changed. If the character is going to be referred to in-universe as being of a certain race, then I think it completely obvious that casting an actor of a different race for that part isn’t going to work, unless you’re going to try some kind of subversion (like the notes in the original article about “Hamilton” making some of the Founding Fathers black). You can try those sorts of things, but you have to be prepared for it to fall flat. So, no, in general you aren’t going to cast an actor that is at least obviously not of that race (races that are at least superficially similar can work if done properly). This should be uncontroversial.

Or perhaps not:

I’ve never had a problem with people of any race or gender playing anyone, as the whole point of entertainment is to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, as I already noted, “colorblind casting” used to be “colorblind” just for whites, so that we had whites playing Asians or Arabs (i.e., Alec Guinness in Lawerence of Arabia). This reduces the opportunity for talented actors of color to play roles; it was a form of discrimination.

Now, this really sounds like saying that anyone can play anyone of any race and gender at any time, which is ludicrous. He does soften it later to more closely align with the obvious case I outline above:

One other exception: when race is really important in a role, then one should cast appropriately. For example, Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockinbird must surely have to be black, for blackness is essential to his role. Likewise, it would be bizarre to cast a black person play, say, David Duke, for in that case it would be very hard to suspend disbelief!

But then he also adds this:

What a can of worms she’s opened here! An act of minstrelsy! Does that mean that blacks playing the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are minstrels? Does this mean, as Bill implies in his piece below, that any non-Jew playing Shylock in Shakespeare is an “act of minstrelsy”?

Well, this section focuses more on “cultural”, but for Jews racially that would fit into my notion of “close enough” above but black people playing people who are defined in-universe as white fits exactly into the sort of thing that I consider obviously wrong and something that we cannot suspend disbelief over. I can see why in “To Kill a Mockingbird” it would obviously be a problem — the work itself makes key plot points out of the race of the character — but don’t necessarily see why casting a black person to play David Duke would be more a violation of suspension of disbelief than doing that for a character that the work constantly refers to them as white or Asian. Coyne here seems to be conflating the two cases above, but ignoring that in the first case above it’s not a white actor playing a black character or a black actor playing a white character, but instead is the writers changing the race of the character to match the race of the actor. So the character changes from a nominally white character to a nominally black character, for example. This, then, wouldn’t be a case of actors playing characters of any race, and so while it’s acceptable, it’s also not what’s happening.

In short, the obvious case is the case where the character is clearly identified as having a certain race. In such a case, you can’t put an actor of a different race in that role unless you are trying to subvert or parody something.

Okay, so what about the less obvious cases? These are all cases where the character originates outside the work itself and where it originated the character has a specific race. Let’s start with the example of historical figures, like Alec Guinness for Lawrence of Arabia. The issue here is that generally the goal for any biopic is to cast actors for at least the main roles that resemble the characters they’re playing as much as possible, because the audience has often seen pictures of them and know what they look like, and if they look too different they won’t be able to suspend disbelief. As noted in the comments, one of the reasons for casting Guinness in the role is that he physically resembled Lawrence of Arabia. But if you swap the race out, there will generally be an obvious disconnect there, and this will be greater the greater the physical difference in races is (again, coming back to the “close enough” angle mentioned above). So, in general, you don’t want to have real, known people played by someone of a different race, because it will be jarring, especially for the primary characters. So you don’t do it unless you want to subvert something (which, as noted above, was indeed the point for “Hamilton”). And you have to be prepared for your subversion to fall flat and the audience to be turned off by the change. Otherwise, you want to keep the races the same.

Okay, so what about the case where the character comes from another media — a book, a comic, a previous TV show, a previous movie, etc, etc — and is being adapted to the screen or as a play. Can you cast actors of different races than the ones that were in the original work? The issue here is that making changes to a work in an adaptation for no reason can annoy the original audience, who are the audience that you are at least counting on to make your work a success. If they dislike it and stay away, then all you’re doing is appealing to the new audience who don’t know the original work and so don’t consider it to be any different from any other new work out there. So do you risk annoying the original audience to cast an actor in a role that originally had a different race? Often, and if done well, there’s no real problem with it. If done poorly, though, it can really kill a work. Remakes often get more forgiveness than adaptations (although Starbuck in the remake of Battlestar Galactica was a prime case where at least the initial introduction was handled badly), but again here it’s going to come down to how important the race of the character was to the character, but with the added criteria of the reason given for making the change. A behind-the-scenes comment that they intended to keep the character as that race but the actor blew them away is likely to be better received than a claim that they needed “diversity”. Fans of a work don’t want to see changes made to it by an adaptation for no reason, but are open to some changes if it makes sense and/or works.

So, the answer about “colorblind” casting is essentially this: you can do it if the characters are written mostly colorblind, but be very careful if they aren’t. And this should pretty much cover off all the objections and defenses of colorblind casting.

One Response to “Colorblind casting”

  1. Andrew Says:

    There are other factors too.

    Firstly, it depends on how “visual” the medium is. Theatre has more scope than movies here, because the character vs actor distinction is more key. As long as there are enough cues (often costuming), race is less of an issue.

    Example: Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado about Nothing”. None of the characters look particularly genoese, the lead noble is seriously black and his half-brother is distinctly white. Yet the story works. The costuming, characterisation and other character-appropriate physical traits carry the characters. About the only point where it would matter is a line where Benedick refers derogatorily to “Leonato’s short daughter”, which would seem incongruous if the audience didn’t perceive the character as short.

    Further example: school theatre often plays fast and loose with matching actor & character (race, sex, etc) due to a very limited pool of actors. If the costuming and characterisation is good, near enough is usually good enough.

    Also, it depends on whether the focus is to represent the situation or the story. People occasionally complain about Christian religious art “white-ifying” the various ancient middle eastern characters. But when corresponding art from Asian or African cultures is examined the same characters are often portrayed as being of the local race.

    What looks odd is when extras are chosen for their racial conformity but the leads are not (and are not near enough), or vice versa. If everyone is the “wrong” race – whatever. If you have (extreme example) a white lead playing a black tribal chief while all the supporting cast is black then it appears incongruous.

    Obviously, if racial *differences* are the point of the story then you need to be more careful about casting and costuming so as not to create dissonance in viewers.

    For example – if it’s a bunch of black actors telling the story of “Hamilton”, then a mismatch between the races of the actors and the characters doesn’t really matter. On the other hand, if you have a mostly black cast and cast an asian to play the one explicitly black character, then you better be making a point or have really good costuming or else you’ll generate cognitive dissonance in the audience.

    Finally, this isn’t a simple mechanical process. One person’s suspension of disbelief can handle that the ‘giant’ is a small girl with a squeaky voice, another can’t help but notice the incongruity. Race is similar, and sometimes people notice it primarily because they are looking for it, whereas someone of a more neutral viewpoint will go “Oh, the tall white girl and short black guy are twin brother and sister – got it” (real life example) and keep on with the story. That said, the greater the physical mismatch, the more work the script and costuming needs to do to ensure that we draw the “right” conclusions.

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