The controversy over the lack of Latinos in the Oscar-nominated film “Boyhood” has put a spotlight on an issue that has long been simmering in the world of entertainment. For decades the question of colorblind casting has been debated. Even the term itself betrays the age of the question, as it was coined before “colorblind” became a dirty word.
The basic dilemma is that many content creators believe the race of a character affects the story being told (and in some cases not the way they want), but at the same time almost everyone agrees that it is important to provide opportunities for minority actors and to reflect the diverse world in which we live. To bridge these ideas, we need to look carefully at how we tell stories and how we cast actors. We need a few guidelines to help us understand what race means when we are telling a story.
Acting and modeling are two of the very few professions in which the color of a potential employee’s skin may be taken into account in hiring. This can sometimes be a shocking and visceral reality behind the scenes of dramatic and advertising content.
Sometimes, Race Really Matters for Casting
Years ago, an advertising company hired my theater company to develop some short scenes exploring the branding of a product. After the scripts were done, we sat with a few of the execs to look at headshots of potential actors. There was one black actor I really liked for the lead, but when I put his photo on the table I was quickly told he wasn’t what they were looking for. This black actor did not fit the target demographic of the brand. I was stunned, almost angry. But I came to understand that such decisions are not only commonplace, but that they can often make a lot of sense.
For better or worse, advertisers, keen on securing any advantage they can to make their product stand out, target products to racial groups. This usually means hiring members of those groups to play the product’s consumers. Films and plays often do the same thing. The Urban Theater Circuit for example, once known as the Chitlin Circuit, produces religious-themed musicals for the black community with black actors and is wildly successful. Race is central to their product. One of the Urban Theater Circuit’s biggest success stories is Tyler Perry, and race is just as central to his storytelling in movies and television.
The point is that, unlike almost every other line of work, there are times when taking the race of a performer into account is perfectly legitimate. However, this does not mean that a character or actor’s race must be considered in all instances. In fact, in most cases it is basically irrelevant.
When Race Does and Doesn’t Matter in Casting
In figuring out which situation is which, it is useful to break scripts into two basic types. The first is a script in which the race of the character is either specifically mentioned or which is set in a time or place that demands specific racial casting. These scripts we can call “contextually specific.” The second is a script in which no reference is made to race and the time and place set no specific demands. These we can call “contextually neutral.”
Scripts that are contextually specific are relatively rare. Most of our storytelling takes place in the present and is not focused on the issue of race. But there are still plenty of stories in which these conditions do exist. Each needs to be considered somewhat differently. In the case of historical period pieces, there is a lot of wiggle room in terms of racial casting. The hottest ticket in New York right now is “Hamilton” at the Public Theater, a musical in which a racially diverse cast plays many of the founding fathers. Likewise, the recent Broadway production of “The Best Man,” Gore Vidal’s drama set at a 1960s political convention, cast the black actor James Earl Jones as the sitting president. Obviously, these depictions are not historically accurate, but who cares? Audiences aren’t stymied by this disconnect, and actors deserve the right to embody historical figures even if they don’t exactly look like them.
This also applies to the controversy surrounding “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Ridley Scott’s use of white actors to play ancient Egyptians, especially Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh Ramesses II, caused consternation in cultural critics who saw it as a whitewashing, or a reinforcing of white privilege. But Scott cast the actor he thought was best for the role in his script. If artists choose to focus on questions of race and privilege in their work, that’s their prerogative. But it’s not what Scott was doing. Scott was telling a seminal, ancient story told by people of every race across the globe. He has no responsibility to make it a statement on modern racial politics, and nobody should try to force him into doing that.
Contextually specific scripts in which race itself plays a significant role are a different story. In “Selma,” for example, it makes no sense for a non-black actor to play Martin Luther King Jr. or for a non-white actor to play Lyndon Johnson. Those racial identities are central to the story, and there is nothing wrong with that. When a film or play is specifically exploring issues of race, it is perfectly acceptable to cast on that basis, just as it is when advertisers are targeting a demographic. This is natural and to be expected. But the fact is such stories are very much the exception, not the rule.
For Most Scripts, Race Doesn’t Matter
The vast majority of scripts and stories fall into the contextually neutral category. Most dramas, thrillers, romantic comedies, etc., are set in the present and do not specifically deal with race. In these cases, race really has no business being considered at all. Directors should just be looking for the best performer for the part. When rumors surfaced that Idris Elba, a black actor, was being considered as the next James Bond, there were a few raised eyebrows. But there shouldn’t have been. There is nothing about the character of James Bond in the twenty-first century that demands he be of any certain race. In contextually neutral scripts such as the Bond series, an actor’s race should be irrelevant in casting.
Now, some would argue that race is such an essential and incendiary element of our society that its effect can never be neutral. It can be argued that Elba as Bond imbues the story with specific and different elements for audiences. Likewise, casting an interracial couple in a RomCom could have an impact on the way in which audiences consider them, even if race in never mentioned in the story.
This is probably true. But it is not a legitimate reason for directors to consider race in hiring, for the simple reason that the impact in unknowable. For every audience member whose view of the work is profoundly affected (positively or negatively) by an actor’s race, there are audience members who don’t give it a second thought. So, since it is impossible to know what effect race is having on different observers, it is irrational to make decisions on that basis.
Another, and perhaps more important reason to disregard the potential impact of a performer’s race on audiences is that such considerations are entirely dependent on the mores of the production’s time. In 1924 when Eugene O’Neill premiered “All God’s Chillun” starring Paul Robeson, there was outrage over a scene where his white co-star kissed the black Robeson’s hand. Some contemporary writers and critics suggested recasting Robeson as a white man in blackface simply to avoid offending the sensibilities of the time. O’Neill refused. It wasn’t the story he was telling.
Give Artists Latitude to Tell Their Stories
Modern Progressive critics of “Boyhood” and film and drama in general would be wise to remember that. Our own rules about such things may be more enlightened than those of the 1920s, but they are by no means etched in un-erodable stone. Today’s artists must be given latitude, just as O’Neill was, to tell their stories as they see fit. Today’s social-justice warriors bristling at the fact that our screens and stages do not reflect the world as they wish it to be may not be as different from O’Neil’s racist critics as they imagine themselves to be.
As is so often the case with the question of race, our society ties itself in knots over issues that should be rather simple. Most of the time, there is no reason to consider the race of a performer in a film or a play. But sometimes there is a reason.
In far too many cases, marketing research and focus groups have the perverse effect of making content creators, who should be innovating, hew to the status quo. But unless there is an obvious, compelling interest for racially biased casting, it should never be done. Rather, we should trust in the power of talented performers of every race to reach out through the screen or stage and tell us stories of our world and ourselves.