General Question

gorillapaws's avatar

Should casting be color-blind?

Asked by gorillapaws (24687points) July 9th, 2019

I’m just wondering if you think casting should be colorblind (i.e. casting without taking the race of the actor into account) or not? Are there times when it is and isn’t appropriate? What are those for you? For example, I would have a hard time watching a film with Meryl Streep cast as Harriet Tubman. Streep is very talented, but I don’t think any white actress could pull off Tubman in a believable way, but maybe you disagree.

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33 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

As you noted, it depends on the material.

There are stories where race/ethnicity are central to the plot. There are others where it makes no difference.

And, there are instances where not strictly adhering to a racial make up enhances the story in an alternative way, such as in Hamilton.

gorillapaws's avatar

@zenvelo If you had to codify it, where/how would you draw the lines? I’m having a really hard time figuring out when it is/isn’t appropriate in my head.

“There are stories where race/ethnicity are central to the plot”

I’m not even sure if it needs to be central to the plot. It could be tangental or marginal at most, but still be important. For example it would always be inappropriate to have white people playing slaves as extras in a film that takes place in the antebellum South. I mean you could have a play about the life of a poet in the South, but one white guy in chains in the background would be a big distraction.

kritiper's avatar

Yes and no. There are times when it doesn’t matter and there are times when it does. Making it all colorblind is too politically correct. People want to be with people who are like themselves despite who they may or may not resemble, and they have that right.

canidmajor's avatar

Well, Ariel being brown is no big deal, but Chris Hemsworth playing Martin Luther King Jr would really skew the power of the character and context.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@zenvelo said it very well. I once cast a black woman as Cleopatra. It worked out very well. Another theatre group on the island used black face in a production, and I will never return to their theatre. I just saw Indecent, a play about Jews. Since it happened here in Hawaii, the cast were Asians, Filipinos, and whites. It didn’t bother me a bit. That’s typical for productions here in the islands.

Zaku's avatar

I think it should be up to the producers, but there are some potential pitfalls.

Films about history and where part of the character includes their cultural situation, have reasons to cast people who are plausibly of the ethnic group in question. I don’t think they should be required to do so, but I think they risk not working well as portrayals of their subject if they cast someone of another ethnicity in a role where the ethnicity of the character is significant.

Some cross-cast productions (even historical ones or ones with traditional character ethnicities) can work really well, or even become something new and great because of intentional cross-casting. For example, I saw a great production of Oklahoma! where the male lead is female, and there were mixed races, and it was a great contrast and counterpoint to the original all-heterosexual white-oriented cultural context of the original.

But I also don’t think productions should be required or expected to cross-cast.

JLeslie's avatar

It depends.

I’d say for fictional characters it doesn’t matter at all unless race is pertinent to the story. Skin color, hair color, none of it matters much for most stories.

If the story is about some kid who becomes a NeoNazi, then I’d say it’s reasonable not to cast an actor who appears to be a minority to the audience, unless it’s live theatre and the available actors are all minorities.

I think movies done on a large scale, big budget, are different than local theatre or low budget movies, but the producer and the person in charge of casting certainly can do whatever they want.

Even when I think casting someone who is the same race or ethnicity as the character matters, I don’t care if they aren’t really that race or ethnicity. If someone who identifies as Welch easily passes for Hispanic, and the part calls for a Hispanic character, I don’t feel like the actor must be Latin American or Spanish. There was some backlash when Catherine Zeta-Jones was cast in Zorro.

I remember when there was an uproar when the movie Selena was being filmed and people were upset that Jennifer Lopez was Puerto Rican (really Newyorican) and Selena was Mexican-American. People even get pissed within the same category of ethnicity.

Sofia Vergara had trouble getting cast in Hispanic roles, so she started dying her hair black, and everything changed. She has a very strong accent, so getting casted as an American born and raised in America wouldn’t work for her.

I think since the American movie, TV, and even live theatre has been dominated with “white” people there is a desire to have minorities get parts that have traditionally been given to white people. I agree with this for many reasons.

As far as the recent Mermaid upset, the actress looks like the mermaid to me. Her race was completely irrelevant to me, I didn’t even notice, or think of the actress as a black person. But, I tend to not notice race in a lot of situations where people do, although I admit to noticing ethnicity in some situations when some people don’t. Ironically, I’ve recently discovered that some black people take really big offense if you don’t “see” them as black, but that’s for another Q.

LostInParadise's avatar

If race is essential to the identity of the character then it is best not to cast someone of a different race. That leaves open the question of when race is essential. A rule of thumb would be that, if in doubt, it is probably okay to open a role to different races.

gorillapaws's avatar

@LostInParadise “race is essential to the identity of the character”

Just to play devil’s advocate, I could certainly see it being argued that race is always essential to every character’s identity. Race informs our perception of other people and ourselves. Certainly it would shape the actions and motivations behind a character as well right?

gorillapaws's avatar

I just wanted to add that there have been some great answers so far. I just find this subject so interesting precisely because it is so fuzzy. On most topics I can usually figure out where the boundaries should be, but every time I come up with a “rule” I can think of counter-examples that show why that rule doesn’t work so well.

For example, would it be offensive to cast people of Polynesian descent as Holocaust victims? I would argue that race is an important factor in that scenario. But if you’re on an island with a limited pool of European Jewish actors interested in participating, is the alternative of not performing such a work even worse than doing so with the actors you have available? I honestly don’t know.

canidmajor's avatar

^^^Which really tends to highlight the idea that context is everything.

Dutchess_lll's avatar

@gorillapaws…have you heard of the book / movie “The Diary of Miss Jane Pittman?”
Or “Roots”?
You could not just arbitrarily throw white actors into the starring roles and expect the stories to make any sense.

Yellowdog's avatar

Even with fictional characters, race, or racial traits, are often a part of their identity.

Huckleberry Finn could quite easily be a black kid. He could still be friends with Tom Sawyer. But Huckleberry Finn is white, and everybody knows it, even though he is complete fiction and of undetermined race.

Other times, race DOESN’T matter, even though people have a common perception of a person’s race. James Bond is white in most people’s minds, but plenty of super-intelligent suave black men work for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It makes no sense to reserve this for white men.

Covertly, I can accept a black guy who looks like a tough and highly capable Marine as The Equalizer— but NOT as Robert McCall who IS the equalizer. Why? Because Robert McCall was a suave, middle-aged British WHITE guy, whose main characteristic is that as a middle aged white guy, he did NOT seem like the best guy for doing his work—as the black actor DID in the later movie. Make him the Equalizer and someone who KNEW Robert McCall, but don’t make him Robert McCall,

JLeslie's avatar

What if the part is a black historical figure, and a white person is cast in the part? Will people find it objectionable? Part of the objection might be that African Americans are being discriminated against in terms of employment.

I recently saw part of a discussion (I think it was on CSPAN) of African Americans who worked at Colonial Williamsburg. They talked about how incredibly difficult it was playing the role of slave for a prolonged time. They talked about some of the inconsiderate things visitors sometimes asked them. One of the men actually teared up talking about it. If you don’t know, Colonial Williamsburg has the staff all dressed to fit the time period, and the characters only have the knowledge of that time in history. If you ask them about a cell phone they won’t know what you are talking about. They aren’t supposed to break character.

This Q has me thinking, it would probably be very useful to have white people play the role of a slave, especially certain people.

Moreover, for some people they identify more with a character when they can see themselves, and that includes how the person looks.

zenvelo's avatar

”... it would probably be very useful to have white people play the role of a slave, especially certain people.”

Well, the history of slavery in the US is tied very much to the history of how African Americans’ have been treated, so I think Williamsburg having a white person play a slave would not only be offensive, but it would be historically inaccurate.

There were, hwoever, white indentured servants in colonial Virginia, that’s how many people paid for the voyage to America.

Dutchess_lll's avatar

The history of slavery is tied up with the color of their skin. It would be mocking them to have a white person pretending to know what it’s about.

Yellowdog's avatar

There could certainly be British and Irish indentured servants in Colonial Williamsburg. Their servitude is of limited duration, but who keeps the books and says when they’re free?

To be a white slave among whites has travails of its own. To be of the same ‘race’ as the regular society you want to belong, but to be a slave or lesser person, would be difficult. It might be kinda fun to experience life as a slave in a white colonial setting.

But as @Dutchess_lll said in an earlier reply, it is ridiculous to cast white people in historic black roles, as in roots. Hell, this is the STORY of African American history, and it makes no sense to cast anyone but a true African American, from Kunta Kinte’ to Dr. King.

JLeslie's avatar

My point was while playing the part of slave they actually “feel” the discrimination. I wouldn’t expect Colonial Williamsburg to do it with the public, to put white people in the slave role, but the reverse role play might help people understand what it’s like.

Anyway, it seems like some people might say anyone can play any role, but then if you switch it to a white person playing a black role is it different? Forget Williamsburg, what about in general? Is it similar to gay, black, Puerto Rican can have a parade, but white people can’t? I don’t support a white parade, I’m just asking the question. Is it the same when it comes to acting?

Yellowdog's avatar

The sublities (sp?) of race and culture are as subtle and intricate as learning a foreign language but not really understanding all the context, innuendo, and sublities of being a native speaker.

It is unlikely that anyone but an African American can truly understand the role.

Appearance matters, too. If they did a Lassie remake, Lassie better be a Collie. No one would accept a Lassie that was a Benji.

JLeslie's avatar

What about a Hispanic Magnum P.I.?

I wouldn’t care what breed of dog Lassie was if they did a remake.

Yellowdog's avatar

Sellick may BE Hispanic for all I know.

But Lassie is a Collie.

zenvelo's avatar

If Lassie was played by a Golden Labrador Retriever, no one would ever recall the old Lassie, and kids all over would go wild.

Yellowdog's avatar

Actually, that’s better than a collie. But we’d have to move the story to eastern Canada.

zenvelo's avatar

^^^why? Golden Labs are the most popular dog in California. And Lassie as a border collie was not set in the highlands of Scotland.

jca2's avatar

@zenvelo: Lassie wasn’t a border collie. She was a collie.

zenvelo's avatar

@jca2 @Yellowdog From Wikipedia on Lassie:

The television star was a Rough Collie, as was the star of the 1943 movie Lassie Come Home, which inspired the television series.

The Rough Collie (also known as the Long-Haired Collie) is a long-coated dog breed of medium to large size that, in its original form, was a type of collie used and bred for herding sheep in Scotland.

Yellowdog's avatar

That’s why it can’t be changed.

jca2's avatar

@zenvelo: I know what she is. You wrote above that she’s a border collie. A border collie is a different breed.

zenvelo's avatar

@jca2 I was calling Lassie a border collie from memory, and before today’s research I did not really know the difference, so thank you.

But it does not negate my response to @Yellowdog that a modern remake of Lassie would be more successful with a Golden Lab. and Rin Tin Tin might be better as a Weimaraner than a German Shepherd.

jca2's avatar

I don’t think Lassie should be played by anything other than a collie. She is described as a collie in the Lassie books. She is not anything other than that.

Dutchess_lll's avatar

Rin Tin Tin WAS a German shepherd and he was a real dog!

Yellowdog's avatar

Are you implying that I’m NOT a real dog?

Dutchess_lll's avatar

You are not a real dog!

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