Rachel M Brown (rachelmanija) wrote,
Rachel M Brown

IBAR Week: Some Approaches to Multicultural Casting

Welcome to International Blog Against Racism Week!

If you would like to participate, here's what to do:

1. Announce the week in your blog.

2. Switch your default icon to either an official IBAS icon, or one which you feel is appropriate. To get an official IBAS icon, you may modify one of yours yourself or ask someone to do so, or ask oyceter to do so as she has agreed to make a custom one for everyone who asks, or go to her LJ and take one of the general-use ones she put up.

3. Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of a race that isn't yours, portrayals of race on TV, review a book on the subject, etc.

Basically, the idea is that by fostering open discussion right now, future discussions will be less fraught and everyone will feel more comfortable talking about the subject.

There are a number of discussions going on at the moment regarding the portrayal of race in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I cannot comment on that movie, because I haven’t seen it. This post is about multicultural casting in general, by which I mean both the issue of writing roles for and casting minorities (as opposed to not writing about and casting them), and how doing so may or may not be done in a stereotypical manner.

My intent is to demystify the process by which dramatic media (plays, TV shows, and theatre) end up with the casts that they end up with, and in which minority actors end up playing memorable and unique characters, or are forgotten in the background, or play embarrassing stereotypes.

Once I get past the introduction and begin to discuss methods of casting, I will touch upon all the relevant issues: artistic, practical, and political.

(I will discuss similar issues in prose fiction in a different post.)

This is a subject which is quite complex and interesting, both artistically and politically, but which tends to generate discussions in which more heat than light is shed. However, I hope we can get past our natural defensiveness regarding a touchy subject, and actually talk about the issues at hand without insulting each other or resorting to straw-man arguments like, “You’re saying that a movie is racist unless 51% of the cast is black.”

I have faith that all my regular readers can do that. However, posts on touchy subjects tend to attract drive-by commenters. In the Pirates debate, I was particularly startled by several totally non-sequitor anti-Semitic remarks like it's like some of the Jewish people thinking that all white people are neo nazi supremecists because EVERYTHING in some way comes back to anti-semitism. and our teacher was so Jewish even the Jewish kids thought she was weird. Not to mention the astonishing display of chutzpah by the latter commenter, who attempted to prove that she was not only not racist, but had been oppressed more than anyone ever, by claiming that her ancestors had been oppressed by slaves.

Given that, let me give fair warning to anyone who might drive by: any comments along those lines will not be deleted, but will be mercilessly mocked and preserved for all eternity, so little children who pass by will cry out, “Dear God, what is that thing?!”

Before I start, I will address a couple of points in advance, as they will certainly be brought up in comments if I don’t, and they tend to drown out discussion of more interesting issues.

(Note that I am mostly referring to American media, because that's what I'm most familiar with. The default for a hero in India, say, is not a white man, but an Indian man. If you are not American, please mentally substitute locally discriminated-against groups where appropriate. Also, while I am primarily talking about racial minorities, much of this is also applicable to women and non-racial minorities.)

1. Why should a movie have to put in a minority actor, solely for the sake of having a minority?

Why should the default be that everyone is white? Seriously: why?

If the story is intended to be realistic, most places and eras were not entirely white; if the story is fantasy, then why must an entirely made-up world be inhabited solely by white people?

2. Movies and TV are just entertainment. Please don’t ruin my light entertainment by forcing it to make a political statement by casting minority actors.

Why should entertainment be any less entertaining because there are minority actors onscreen?

Why shouldn’t minority audiences be able to enjoy light and fluffy entertainment that shows people like them, and isn’t spoiled for them by the inclusion of insulting stereotypes about them?

Finally, racial stereotypes, like non-racial stereotypes, are boring and predictable. If you avoid them, your work will be more entertaining, not less.

3. If you’re white and you write about minorities, you get criticized for stereotyping. If you leave them out, you get criticized for that. You can’t win!

Yes, this is a touchy area. Minority writers also get criticized no matter what they do. (If a minority writer writes about her own group, she may be criticized for making them look bad, or look unrealistically good, or by failing to address every possible angle, or of locking herself into a ghetto. If she doesn’t write about her own group, then she’s contributing to the lack of portrayals of that group.) Also, no matter how well anyone writes, they will get at least one bad review. No one is immune from criticism, nor should expect to be.

But if you make a good-faith effort to be inclusive and not be stereotypical, some people will appreciate it. Also, you will be helping to change the climate that causes so much criticism. A big reason why roles for minorities attract disproportionate criticism is that minorities are disproportionately underrepresented onscreen. Write more good minority roles, and eventually the sheer mass of them will cause each individual one to be less weighted.

4. But the movie just happened to be cast that way. No one sat down and decided to be racist, it just coincidentally happened that the Jewish characters were all greedy, the Hispanic ones all spoke in bad English, the Asians were sexless geeks, and the white characters were articulate, smart, sexy, and heroic!

It is quite possible that no one decided to be racist. However, movies do not descend from Heaven, untouched by human hands.

Every single thing in a movie is there because someone decided to put it there, and they decided to put it there for a reason. The choice to put a vase of flowers on the table, the choice to make them roses, the choice to make the roses red: there was a reason for all of that, whether thematic, plot-related, character-related, or because they harmonized visually with the heroine’s dress. And a human being also deliberately chose to either write in characters of a certain ethnicity, or cast them that way.

Now, it may be that no one thought of the implications of the greedy Jews, etc. Maybe they made the Jews greedy because of an unconscious assumption that Jews are greedy, not an active hatred of Jews. Or maybe they live under a rock and had never heard that Jews are frequently stereotyped as moneygrubbers. However, the result is the same. This is why it’s good to be aware of the implications of the choices we make. If we don’t ever question our assumptions, we may end up making statements we don’t mean to make, and be boring and stereotypical to boot.

(This doesn’t mean that you can never write a Jewish character who’s greedy, but that you should be aware that it’s a stereotype and have a reason for doing it anyway, and execute that reason well.)

5. What, I’m not allowed to enjoy anything unless it passes a political correctness litmus test?

Not at all. It is perfectly legitimate to have differing opinions on whether or not a work is racist or otherwise offensive, unless it’s something like Mein Kampf.

Also, we all love works which contain opinions or representations that we disagree with, whether it’s film noir where every woman is either an evil whore or an innocent victim, or a charming romantic comedy with a bit of vicious anti-Semitism thrown in as comic relief. It is perfectly possible to love a work and still be capable of seeing and discussing flaws in it, whether those flaws are artistic or political.

I will now discuss several different methods of casting, with particular reference to the various iterations of Star Trek.

Note that casting and writing often spill into each other— actors are cast based on a script, but scripts may be rewritten to suit the actor. The role of Ripley in the Alien movies was originally written as male, but that changed when someone got the idea of casting Sigourney Weaver.

Also, note that it is very common for more than one type of casting to be used in a single show. For instance, it may be essential that the heroine and her sister are Vietnamese, but everyone else could be cast without regard to race.

I am going to use the first four Star Trek series as examples, because they exemplify the different methods and results of the different ways of casting, and also should be familiar to many of you. (I don’t remember the fifth series at all, so I’m ignoring it.)

1. Color-blind casting. Roles are written without reference to race, then cast with the best available actors.

Advantages: You really do get the best possible actors for the roles, because you’re casting the widest possible net.

It cuts down on stereotyped casting, because no racial stereotypes are written into the script, and theoretically anyone could play any role.

Disadvantages: The people doing the casting may be reluctant to participate, may be so convinced that it’s hard to find good minority actors that they don’t look very hard, or may cast actors according to stereotype anyway because they so strongly associate certain races with certain stereotypes.

It’s usually not appropriate for stories where race/ethnicity is a crucial part of the storyline. The exception to this is a continuing TV series, in which you can do color-blind casting with the provision that the cast must be multi-racial, but without regard to who plays who, and then write storylines that suit the actors you ended up with. For example, on Homicide: Life on the Streets, the role of Lt. Al Giardello was originally written for an old Italian man, but Yaphet Kotto was so great in auditions that they changed it to a middle-aged black Sicilian, then wrote storylines to suit the new character.

It may give rise to accidental statements— for instance, if the best actor for the computer geek is Asian, the role may come across as a tired old stereotype. In such instances, if the character is minor or not much more than stereotypes, it’s probably best to cast the best person who isn’t Asian. If there is more to the character than being a computer geek, then it may be best to cast the Asian actor and hope that audiences appreciate that while the role may have stereotypical elements, it is more than just a stereotype. You may also want to consider whether the Asian actor strikes you as best for the computer geek because you’re predisposed to see an Asian as a computer geek.

It may be used as an excuse to cut non-white actors out of juicy roles that were originally written for minorities. Let me explain why this is a disadvantage, since it initially sounds like fair play. The problem here is that minority actors get disproportionately squeezed out of good roles to begin with, and roles written specifically for them are rare compared to roles written specifically for white actors.

So if a company decides to do a race-reversed version of Othello, no one is harmed: a white actor plays Othello, but a black actor plays Iago. But if a company merely casts a white man as Othello and puts him in blackface while keeping the rest of the cast white, that is not so good, because Shakespeare only wrote one role for a black man, ever. [ETA correction: Forgot about the Prince of Morocco and Aaron the Moor. Dammit.] (In fact, Shakespeare is very frequently cast colorblind nowadays, to the point where it often raises no particular eyebrows if Macduff is black or Hamlet is Asian.)

The Star Trek example: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager seem to have done color-blind casting. There is nothing about the characters of Benjamin Sisko, Harry Kim, or Seven of Nine that I recall that required an actor of a particular race to play them. The roles may have been written specifically for black, Asian, and white actors, or they may just have been cast that way, but you can’t tell.

I recall some criticism that B’Elanna (a Klingon played by a black woman [ETA correction: Latina, actually; sorry, you can see how long it's been since I watched the show]) was stereotypical in some ways, and Chakotay struck me as being that rather familiar character, the Mystical Indian, but overall I remember being impressed with that aspect of those shows. They certainly did a great job, especially DS9, of not relegating minority characters to minor supporting roles—a black man played the captain.

2. Minority characters are written into the script.

Advantages: This guarantees that minorities will be cast, and, if the roles were not stereotypical in the script, prevents unconscious stereotyping during the casting process.

Disadvantages: It limits actors’ participation to roles written for their ethnicity.

It may cut out some actors altogether, ie, if no roles for Asians were written in.

Stereotyping may exist within the script itself.

The Star Trek example: The original Star Trek did this. Minority characters had minor roles with about one trait each, and women in particular tended to be very stereotypically portrayed. However, I’ve heard lots of anecdotes about how inspirational it was for some viewers to see a black woman or an Asian man onscreen at all. Having a sympathetic Russian character was also very significant—not to mention the first ever interracial kiss on American TV.

(Aliens forced Kirk to kiss Uhura— a classic fanfic device, but probably set up that way because the only way the network executives would have OK’d a white man kissing a black woman was if he was forced to. Everyone boggle with me at the likelihood of the horndog Kirk really being that horrified at the prospect of kissing the gorgeous Uhura.)

So the show exhibited every disadvantage I list of this kind of casting, although it was progressive for the time. Nowadays, one would hope for more.

3. It is written in the script that certain types or groups of characters will always be cast from actors of certain ethnicities. This primarily applies to fantasy and sf (ie, all Klingons will be played by black actors) but may apply to other stories (ie, Romeo and Juliet in which all the Capulets are black, all the Montagues are Asian, and all other roles are played by actors who are neither black nor Asian.)

Advantages: This guarantees the casting of more minorities than a single token.

It may allow for a lot of different character types to be played by actors of the same ethnicity.

Disadvantages: All minority roles may end up being stereotyped (ie, all Klingons are hot-tempered warriors).

Minority roles may be limited to that particular race (ie, the Klingons are black, but all the human characters are white.)

The Star Trek example: Star Trek: Next Generation did indeed cast all the Klingons as black. [ETA correction: Most but not all of the Klingons were played by black actors. I think I need to turn in my Trekkie credentials.] This had all the pros and cons I mention above: it allowed for lots of black actors to be given juicy roles, but they were mostly the same type of role, and they weren’t much represented in other parts. There was also not much casting at all other than black and white. On the other hand, the Klingon society did turn out to be much more complex and often central to the storylines by the end of the show than it was in the beginning.

Tomorrow I will post Part II, which will look at the particular challenges inherent in casting different types of stories, such as fantasy, historicals, and remakes of old stories when the original was (sometimes arguably) racist.

In the meantime… Thoughts? Comments? Ideas? Brickbats?
Tags: race and racism, tv

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