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JLeslie's avatar

What do you think about white actors being cast as black historical figures and vice versa?

Asked by JLeslie (59766points) January 10th, 2016 from iPhone

Like the live TV version of The Sound of Music having a black nun, Mother Abbess?

Or, if a white actor would play a black inventor maybe? Or, even lesser parts like friends, or spouses.

Casting an actor of a different race than what the writer originally envisioned in a work of fiction is one thing, but actual people in our history? Should we care whether they look like the actual person, down to skin color?

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31 Answers

Seek's avatar

A person’s race has a good deal to do with their life. It affects how they are perceived and treated by everyone around them. Whitewashing a historical figure is ridiculous at best and horrifyingly offensive at worst.

It’s bad enough American cinema has decided everyone who lived prior to 1850, no matter where, has a British accent, but to cast, say, Stellan Skaarsgard as Genghis Khan would be simply wrong. I’m certain there’s no lack of actors with the appropriate features to match the historical description of the real man.

Of course, I am still irked at the prevalent depiction of Jesus as a Renaissance body model.

ucme's avatar

Get this, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will open this summer in London’s west end, a stage play.
Hermione is to be played by a black actress, yes…really.

jaytkay's avatar

to cast, say, Stellan Skaarsgard as Genghis Khan would be simply wrong.

John Wayne is the traditional choice.

Pachy's avatar

Director’s decision. That’s why he/she is called that.

jaytkay's avatar

Hermione is to be played by a black actress, yes…really

Disgusting! Men of conscious must rise and defend the wholesome purity of our imaginary white sisters!

Seek's avatar

I always pictured Hermione as black, anyway, before the films came out. She’s referred to in one of the books as looking “very brown”.

ucme's avatar

Hard to get any more “english white rose” than Emma Watson, a stark contrast but Rowling is collaborating so if it’s good with her…

Seek's avatar

The woman who was cast as grown up Hermione played a minor character in Doctor Who. I rather like her, and I think she’ll do my favorite Gryffindor well.

CWOTUS's avatar

The only vice versa that occurs to me from your question is the possibility that white historical figures are being cast in roles as white actors. I don’t really get it, but … okay.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

If it a play or movie on a historical character, stick with the race and age of that character. If it a classic or well-established fictional character like Superman, Oliver, Huck Finn, James Bond, Luke Skywalker, you keep it the same race, nationality etc. If it is a generic character the Omega Man, or Snake of Escape from NY, then maybe anyone can be plugged in and it would still work.

JLeslie's avatar

@CWOTUS I miswrote it. It should be white actors when the person from history was black or vice versa. I flagged it a while ago, but it still has not been pulled for editing.

@ucme Potter wasn’t a real
Person I don’t think.

marinelife's avatar

Why should it matter? The very historically accurate Broadway show Hamilton about the life of Alexander Hamilton has a Puerto Rican as the title character, and black actors as George Washington and Aaron Burr. It has gotten rave reviews.

Men used to play women’s parts in Shakespeare’s time.

Why on Earth should it matter?

Buttonstc's avatar


“Directors decision” can be problematic if the author of the piece has an objection.

There was a recent case where a college director cast both a white man and a black man on alternating nights in a play about Rev. Martin Luther King.

The author of the play didn’t think it necessary to include in the stage directions the race of the actor playing King since she figured it should have been obvious.

But she does it now and sent the director of the college group a “cease and desist” even tho it’s brief run had finished.

The director wasn’t doing this frivously. He had good reason. But the author did not agree and legally her rights trump his.

It was a fascinating case and I’ll try to find it again and post a link if I can get it o work on this phone.

stanleybmanly's avatar

White men have been playing Othello for 400 years as the sultry Moor murders his pure and innocent lilly white Desdemona as an object
lesson to you white gals with progressive leanings.

But who’s to judge? If the best actor in decades is barely 5 feet tall, should he be allowed to play Abe Lincoln? I don’t know. Was Lincoln our greatest President because he was tallest? There are purists among us and always will be. It’s a legitimate debate, but thank God that we’re entering an era where it is economically stupid to allow race to supplant talent.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

It depends on the role. If it’s a portrayal of Malcolm X, or Sammy Davis Jnr then it’s ridiculous to have a white actor playing the role. Similarly, a Black Winston Churchill would be silly. If it’s a shop assistant or waitress or a role where race makes absolutely no difference such as Hermione in Harry Potter, the person who can best play the role should be chosen.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I am a community theatre director and actor. I cast a black woman as Cleopatra, a historic Greek woman. She was superb. I don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought. The production also had women playing men and men playing women.

filmfann's avatar

J.K. Rowling said she loved the idea of Hermione being black. In the books, her race is not identified.

MollyMcGuire's avatar

I think it’s stupid to cast a character a race different from fact or different from how the character was portrayed in a novel. Sometimes there is no clue. In the book The Pelican Brief, Grisham never said if the reporter was black or white. I was actually surprised that he was played by Denzel Washington in the movie, simply because when I read the novel I made him white. That’s the exception, not the rule.

dappled_leaves's avatar

Well, I think it depends on the project. If it’s a mediocre film (as almost all of them are) that is a straight-up period piece about a specific event, then I don’t expect to see actors playing against the historical record. Would I be annoyed if they had? Probably not. But it might be perplexing (like… that’s where they chose to get creative? Okay.).

But if it’s a more thoughtful film, a character study, where the performance is everything, then sure, cast outside the expected race or gender. If the writing is good enough, it should be able to transcend our expectations of physical appearance. This was done to great effect in I’m Not There, for instance.

And, straying from the topic as @ucme did, if it’s not a historical piece, then hell yes, cast against expected race or gender at will. There is absolutely no reason that a black girl can’t play Hermione or Rue in the Hunger Games. It amazes me that anyone objects to those choices.

I mean, do you want all great black actors to be limited only to playing Othello within the Shakespeare oeuvre? That’s ridiculous.

msh's avatar

It’s interesting also that there are so many Australians playing character roles as Americans. Let’s get a big stick into the fight and add nationality!
To me, if the Actor can carry a part, and make you see the character that they are ‘bringing to life’ then it really doesn’t matter. For that period of time in the production presentation, they are the character, or they are not.
It drives me crazy to tout a production as being groundbreaking or ‘seen as it was meant to be’, just for the sake of – lookit us! We are…..fill in the blank….!

Twelve Angry Men- by Reginald Rose.
1957 film release. A stunning film. Incredibly intense and riveting. Acting so well done- you believe that they, indeed are their character! For me, the film should be listed on a must-see for all. Oh, almost forgot- ......all anglo actors.

Twelve Angry Men- 1997 cast. Also with the intensity of stunning acting. These actors are so very believable, despite inevitable updates in presentation, one absolutely believes each individual was born as their character. Excellent work.
The cast background? .......Multi-ethnicity.

This script is not an easy undertaking. These characters are not brought to life by what they look like. Where they came from. Not even a scrap of personal traits of the actors came through on either production. I would find it daunting to show up every day to such an endeavor. But each of both casts checked their identities at the door as they walked in.
Are the film industries caught up with current times? Your own call.
Opportunities? Again, your own tune to whistle.
Representations? Of whom? The character?
Isn’t the question more of a matter of talent and abilities as to ethnicity?
Ability to attempt or opportunities to act is…. a horse of a different color.

Buttonstc's avatar

@Earthbound_Misfit , @Hawaii_Jake, @MollyMcGuire

I would be interested in your feedback and reaction to a brief quote below from the director of the play about Rev. Martin Luther King regarding why he chose a white actor (as well as a black actor on different nights) to portray King.

When I first saw the headline of the full article I linked above, I must admit to thinking to myself “stunt casting”

However, when he explained his reasoning behind the controversial choice I changed my mind and thought it had some merit to it. If nothing else it was interesting.

That being said, the author of the play disagrees and has taken care to ensure placing a condition that King must be played by a black person into any future licensing-rights deals. Since she is the one who wrote the play then her wishes prevail so it’s kind of a moot point as far as any future interpretations go.


I didn’t want this to be a stunt, but a true exploration of King’s wish that we all be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin,” Oatman said. “I wanted the contrast … I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds.”

So I ask, isn’t this what King stood for: being judged by ones inner qualities rather than skin color.

So in the case of King it makes a certain amount of sense to me. I doubt I’d feel the same if it were a portrayal of Malcom X :)

MollyMcGuire's avatar

That’s a bunch of balogna. If you want to portray King, you must cast a black man. That hogwash you wrote is reading something that doesn’t exist.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

Rev. Martin Luther King was an African American. He was also a leader of the civil rights movement. His leadership, his goals, his aims were driven by his lived experience as an African American. That isn’t just about the colour of his skin. It’s about his heritage. His family history. His community’s and his people’s experiences.

While he wanted African Americans to achieve equality. It would appear to me that still hasn’t happened. While he may have desired a world where people are judged by their character, that wasn’t the world he lived in. His experiences as an African American shaped and influenced his goals, his aims and his actions. His life wasn’t a social experiment. It was real. Why would hearing his words coming out of a white man’s mouth give us any better understanding of anything. I actually find that idea patronising. Why would we need to hear his words coming from a white man? His words were powerful and sincere. A contrast that involves a white man isn’t required.

The other point is that most people if there is a different actor on different nights, would not see any contrast unless they saw the play twice. They’d just see a white or an African American man playing King.

JLeslie's avatar

What caused me to ask the Q is I had 60 minutes in in the background and they were talking about a new musical Hamilton, about Alexander Hamilton, and it’s set to some rap music and it looked like they castes a lot of the characters with black actors. I couldn’t rewind, because I’m in a hotel, no DVR.

A character like Martin Lither King, I think to cast him as anything but black takes away the courage it took to do what he did. The visual of his skin color matters, because of the time period.

In terms of playing Alexander Hamilton or George Washington I don’t know what I think.

However, I do see the point some are making that it shouldn’t matter. Men have played female roles, and women men, but they dress like that role I think to appear at list to try to remind the audience the character was a woman even if a man plays her. Are these actors wearing make-up to appear black? Or, white? Which ever represents the character in history?

If they did a movie about the men who made medical advances is it fair to portray the man who discovered blood types as white? Probably, the majority of people in America assume he was white, but he wasn’t. Without the visual we might be letting the wrong assumption continue. Should it matter. Idealistically it shouldn’t. I like being idealistic, but I’m not sure for that time in history we should overlook it was a black man.

Stinley's avatar

Slightly off the topic but it did annoy me that Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher who is described in the books by Lee Child as a ‘giant of a man’ and is supposed to be 6’5” and have a 3XL coat size and 35” inside leg. Is Tom Cruise even 35” in height?

JLeslie's avatar

Sorry for all of my typos above!

Buttonstc's avatar


You ask some very valid questions. And, yes, you heard correctly in the 60 Minutes piece. Hamilton is definitely a big hit so apparently people are not put off by who is what color. If they were it would have been a flop shortly after opening night.

Regarding the man you mentioned who made successful transfusions possible, I think it would be a great disservice for him to be portrayed by a white person simply because so many are STILL unaware that this life saving discovery came from a black person.

But everybody knows that King was black so I don’t really see the two as parallel.

BTW: In the college case I referred to above, I forgot to mention that BOTH the director of the play as well as the author were black. Does that make a difference that the director who made this controversial choice is black as well?

Well, I have trouble imagining that a white director could have made that choice without there being protests in the streets over it. That’s just my opinion.

I thought what he chose to do had some genuine thought behind it. It was not just frivolous stunt casting. Obviously others disagree including the author.

But interestingly enough they both had a cordial dialogue about it and the author raised a few interesting points.

One was that more of the director’s intent would have been realized had there been some type of forum for discussion either before or after the play. This would have ensured that multiple points of view, pro or con, could have been heard. As it is, it was just over and done without any further opportunities for learning and dialogue.

If one is going to make that controversial a choice then some responsibility comes with that.

Anyhow, I just found the whole thing to be very interesting and different.

JLeslie's avatar

@Buttonstc Funny that I have said before that I’m not keen on black history month or teaching black history in schools, because I feel it is all just part of history. We can learn about famous people in history who are black all year long. Separating out a month or a special chapter in a text book seemed odd to me and promoting the idea of separation into the future. History is usually taught chronologically, and that should be sufficient in my mind.

But, then I think of producing a movie or writing a book about the Tuskegee black airmen, and I just can’t deny them the acknowledgment that they were black, during a racist time, and made amazing accomplishments for our military and country, and to give credit to the people in our government and military who supported their recruitment and service. To strip them of their “race” in that situation is difficult for me.

However, all stories about history, struggle, pioneering, invention; we certainly can look at people as simply people. Be colorblind, religion blind, ethnicity blind, and just hear or see the story.

I’m not sure where I stand in the end. I asked the question, because I’m not sure.

I think some people make it about giving actors a fair shot at work, but I don’t care about that I don’t think when it comes to history. For fiction, whether it be dramas, comedy, mysteries, I think we should almost never limit ourselves to race for a character. Maybe there is one or two exceptions. For times in history where race is a central issue, I find it harder.

Although, look at To Kill a Mockingbird. Could the black man accused of rape have been Jewish, and the story is the same? Or, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese? What about just another “white” man?

JLeslie's avatar

One more thought.

There is a difference between changing a characters race, and an actor playing a character of a different race.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I am writing about theatre. I am not writing about movies.

We are missing a vital point. Theatre is art. Theatre is not history, in which writers attempt to relay facts about given situations and events without imposing their own bias. I have a degree with honors in history, and I am a theatre artist. Theatre does not attempt – in most productions – to reproduce a historically accurate portrayal of the subject. The playwrights do not write in such a way either. It is inherently subjective, whereas history attempts to be as objective as possible.

Art often challenges us to look past our first impressions and explore our own reactions to what we see. Art is ultimately about ourselves as we experience the art and less about the art itself.

Personally, I do not have a difficulty seeing a white actor portray King. If I’d had the opportunity, I would have seen both performances of the college production. It would have been illuminating. Perhaps our reluctance to see King as anything other than a black man has more to do with the short amount of time since his death. The events of Hamilton are farther removed in time allowing for more detachment. I would love to see the musical Hamilton for its merits. Its color-blind casting is not one of its merits in my opinion.

When an actor builds a character in a play, they dig into the script. They must get the clues about the actions and the motivations from the script. If the character was a real person, the actor can go secondly to the historical record, but this must not overshadow the motivations assigned by the playwright in the script. A playwright is writing fiction. It is sometimes based on actual people and events, but it is necessarily fiction.

This is a good discussion. It draws attention to our preoccupation with appearances, with surfaces. I believe what’s happening in a larger context in our world is an evolution past this shallowness. I hope that eventually we will evolve in such a way that there is only the human race.

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