Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is Oscar Afraid of the Dark?

On an episode of Designing Women, the character of Suzanne Sugarbaker acquired dark makeup to attempt to look more like The Supremes for a benefit concert.  The other characters were aghast at the idea of essentially donning blackface.  Suzanne was unfazed and insisted white women wearing dark makeup was in no way racist, commenting that Dustin Hoffman would wear dark makeup if he were playing Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Suzanne!" her older (liberal) sister Julia snapped.  "Dustin Hoffman would NEVER play Martin Luther King.  That part would go to a BLACK actor".  

"Well I think THAT'S racist," was her bizarre response.  "It should go to the best actor, and that could be Dustin Hoffman". 

Essentially, both have a point (though George Sanders in All About Eve would correctly add, 'an idiotic point').  Yes, Dustin Hoffman would NEVER play Martin Luther King.  That part would go to a black actor, in the same way any historic figure should be played by the correct ethnicity. The only exception I would say is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in his Hamilton: The Musical.  However, a musical (or any theatrical show) is less bound by reality than a film, so we could get away with that kind of casting.

As a side note, I fully support Miranda recreating his role on television or film...he and the show are simply too good to not let him do it, and again, a musical film is less bound by reality from the get-go.  Granted, I've never read The Federalist Papers, but I don't think Hamilton and Jefferson rapped their views to President Washington.

Warner Baxter as a Mexican in
In Old Arizona (1929)

However, Hollywood has a rather horrid record in casting.  The film industry constantly struggles to cast minorities in what should essentially be color-blind casting. 

I'm just going to pick The Big Bang Theory as example, though as someone who has seen a few episodes I am speculating a bit.  With the exception of Kunal Nayyar's Raj, all the leads are white.  Nothing wrong with that, but what about the characters in particular demands that they be played by white actors exclusively?  Could Sheldon or Leonard or Penny possibly be played by a black actor/actress?  None of the actors were famous when the show debuted, so we cannot fall back on the 'there are no black stars to draw wide audiences' line. 

Come to think on it, has there been a Hispanic character on Big Bang Theory that was part of a major storyline versus a mere guest appearance?  Am I to understand that there is no such thing as a Hispanic nerd?  There are no Latinos who are passionate about quantum physics, no Mexican-Americans who are well-versed in Doctor Who lore?

On the last one, I guess I might be the only one in existence then...

In short, nothing prevented the producers of The Big Bang Theory from selecting a wider pool of actors.  It was their chose to cast an almost-all white cast, to cast primarily white guest actors for roles major or minor.  Therefore, it was their choice to make The Big Bang Theory a show with virtually no African-American or Hispanic representation.

Going back to the past, I look at Friends.  What prevented any of the denizens of Central Perk from being black or Hispanic or Asian?  Perhaps Ross and Monica Geller (granted, the number of black or Hispanic or Asian Jews is extremely small), but even that could have been altered.  Again, none of the Friends cast were 'names' when the show debuted (maybe Courtney Cox...maybe).  Could you have cast a black person as Chandler, or a Hispanic as Phoebe without affecting storylines (unless of course, television scriptwriters do not see Latinas as particularly ditzy). 

Again and again I cannot understand why scripted television shows set in contemporary times cannot have truly color-blind casting.  There is a difference between Empire (where ethnicity is an important factor, and for the record, though I've never watched the show I am Team Cookie) and say, Elementary (where it isn't).

I find it curious that there was more outrage in the casting of an Asian woman in the role of Dr. Watson on this adaptation of a fictional character than there was in the casting of Jennifer Connelly as a Hispanic in A Beautiful Mind (Alicia Nash being from El Salvador, a pesky detail the film made no mention of). 

Charlton Heston as a Mexican in
Touch of Evil (1954)

We extend this curious inability in color-blind casting to films.  Again, if we're talking about a historic piece like Carol or a book adaptation like Brooklyn, it would not make sense to cast say Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead.  Despite Miss Mbatha-Raw's tremendous talent, the idea that a black woman could move easily through society in the 1950s is idiotic (or that Mbatha-Raw could possibly pass for Irish). 

I think we all should acknowledge that Dustin Hoffman could never play Martin Luther King.

However, I'm not talking about historic films or biopics.  I'm talking about films where race and ethnicity is irrelevant to the character.  We can look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a good example.  Finn's race is irrelevant.  Poe's ethnicity is irrelevant.  Kylo Ren's racial background is irrelevant.  I think John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver could have been cast as any of the three parts and, minus their actual acting, it would not have affected the film as a whole. 

Would it have mattered one bit if say, Edgar Ramirez and not Chris Pratt was the lead in Jurassic World?  Could Mbatha-Raw or Zoe Saldana not be as good as Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World as well?  Was there anything specifically necessary for white actors to play the leads in this massive movie?  I'm not saying that Pratt and Howard were miscast or should not have played the parts, or that Ramirez and/or Mbatha-Raw or Saldana should have been cast.

I AM saying that, as far as I know, nothing precluded a Ramirez or Saldana from taking the Pratt and Howard roles.  Nothing overtly required that the main characters be white.  They could have been anyone really.  However, again it was the film industry: the casting directors, the producers, the screenwriters, the director, and everyone else connected with Jurassic World that made the decision that the two leads would be played by white actors.

Here again, we can reject the 'we need big names, and there aren't many if any big name black or Hispanic actors' line of reasoning.  Jurassic World was going to be a hit no matter what.  It could have had rubber dinosaurs where you saw the strings being pulled and it still would have made a billion dollars opening weekend. 

I'm An Indian Too...

What was the reasoning, the rationale, to not cast or perhaps even consider black or Hispanic actors for parts in Jurassic World, or 45 Years, or Trainwreck (though I can't bear the idea that Bill Hader, a true comedic genius, wouldn't be in the film), or Spy, or Aloha?

As a side note, we had a film where the 'native Hawaiian' was played by Emma Stone.  Yes, it was made clear she was only a quarter Hawaiian (and more insanely, a quarter CHINESE), but Emma Stone is as quarter Hawaiian as Saoirse Ronan.  Zoe Saldana is more believable as a quarter Hawaiian than Emma Stone.  No slam on Stone herself, but Cameron Crowe wildly miscalculated that casting choice.

If Hollywood cannot be trusted with casting someone who is a mere quarter Polynesian or quarter Asian, why would we think they'd do better in casting someone who actually IS a mere quarter Polynesian or quarter Asian?

Aloha bombed at the box office, and so did Pan (rightfully so).  Yet here we have the casting of a white actress (Rooney Mara) to play the Native American Princess Tiger Lily.  Leaving aside how awful Pan as a film was, what was the rationale to not cast an actual Native American actress in the role?  Why specifically was there a need to cast Mara?  She is not a big name (and with Hugh Jackman in the film and the subject matter itself, that should have been enough to draw audiences).

I do not think it is overt racism that causes these situations where a.) non-white actors are apparently not even considered for roles that are color-blind or b.) white actors are apparently cast in non-Anglo parts.  I think it's just ignorance and a fear that with a non-white lead, a film or television show won't do as well as it would with a white lead.  There's no rational reason for said fear, and no proof that a film or television show with color-blind casting cannot be embraced.

The Fast & Furious franchise has a multi-ethnic cast, and it's been a huge money-maker, appealing across all racial/ethnic lines (and as a side note, the same with religious-based films like War Room, which was seen by whites, Hispanics, and blacks despite being a primarily African-American cast).  None of the leads were big names when the first one was made.  Why can't a similar approach be used for non-action films?

This fear and failure to cast minorities in color-blind parts we know is not new.  We've seen it before, but you'd think that given how many in Hollywood campaigned for a black President, you'd think they of all people would jump at the chance to cast minorities in roles.  However, they are not in any rush.

I've also been cast as the
Ayatollah Khomeini

They not only fail to consider minority actors for color-blind parts, but have no problem casting white actors in non-white roles.  A good (or bad) example was Jake Gyllenhaal as the title role in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.  OK, it's based on a video game, so we don't have to be too specific in a live-action version.  However, really: the Swedish-descended Gyllenhaal as a Persian?  It was bad enough when Sir Alec Guinness played an Indian in A Passage to India (which was in 1984, really not that long ago).  However, Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian in 2010? 

Again, bad enough when white actor Tab Hunter can play Mexican Guy Gabaldon in Hell to Eternity, but at least THAT film cast actual Japanese actors as Japanese characters...and it was in 1960! 

All this leads me to the newest controversy about #OscarsSoWhite.  Out of 20 acting nominees for the 88th Academy Awards, all 20 were white.  This has led to sharp criticism and accusations of racism on the part of the Academy. 

Here's my view.

Looking over the films nominated, most are period films where the casting of a non-white actor would be off.  How could you have a black actor in The Revenant?  Where would Hispanics pop in in Bridge of Spies

Diane Houston:
the only African-American Oscar nominee 
for films of 1995
And herein lies part of the problem.  The nominated films almost all would have a hard time having minority actors in them.  It isn't so much that black/Hispanic actors are ignored (though they are).  It isn't so much that Hollywood won't cast them in parts where race/ethnicity is irrelevant (thought they don't).  It's that black/Hispanic actors aren't in these 'prestige' films the Academy oh so loves. 

Really think you could make Idris Elba into The Danish Girl?

Films where you have majority-black or Hispanic actors (say, War Room or McFarland, USA) tend to be ignored by the Academy because they aren't 'prestige' films or 'Academy Award material'.  The Academy favors such rubbish as The Theory of Everything, so they aren't going to rush out to honor Straight Outta Compton.

The Academy's failure to recognize minorities is nothing new.  Twenty years ago, there was an uproar over the fact that there was exactly ONE African-American nominee: Diane Houston for Tuesday Morning Ride, a Best Live-Action Short Film nominee.  She lost, to Christine Lahti and her film, Lieberman in Love.

How soon they forget...

The problem is not #OscarsSoWhite.  The problem is Hollywood's continuing inability or unwillingness to get past race and ethnicity when it comes to casting parts.  Hollywood stubbornly won't cast minority actors in parts that don't specifically need white actors.  Is it overt racism or merely ignorance, an effect of living in a bubble? 

I think it's a mix.

There are thousands upon thousands of actors in Hollywood, all vying for a chance.  It isn't an easy life, to be an actor.  You face rejection, you face months of unemployment or underemployment, and you face the constant call-backs, and that doesn't even mean that the show you're lucky enough to be cast in will get picked up, or that the film you're in will be released (or that you won't be edited out).

For a minority actor, it is much harder, because you have to face all that, and carry the extra burden that many productions simply won't consider you because they cannot possibly imagine that a Hispanic nerd or a black paleontologist could realistically exist.     

Ben Affleck as a Mexican in
Argo (2012)
Until such a time as Hollywood recognizes that actors can and do come in all shades, that blacks and Hispanics aren't all a monolithic group, and that unless the part specifically calls for a particular racial/ethnic actor someone who isn't white CAN play a particular role, you will continue to see The Academy Awards merely reflect the state of race in Hollywood, not create it.

Until such a time that Hollywood looks at itself and admits the problem isn't the Oscars, but themselves, you will see no difference between casting an Anglo as a Mexican in 1929...or in 1954...or in 2012.

Some things, apparently, never change.        

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