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Hollywood & The Race Lift

I had to represent. Cause they had one good role for a black man, and they gave it to Crocodile Dundee!

-Alpa Chino, Tropic Thunder

Earlier in the week, Cinematical ran an article on M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, Avatar: The Last Airbender. For those unaware, the movie is an adaptation of a hit anime, long due a trip to the screen – I hope it ends up either significantly better than, or significantly trippier than, Speed Racer, the most recent such attempt (seriously, it’s what I imagine really hard drugs are like). Of course, this being Hollywood, Shyamalan has secured a predominantly white cast for his film. Well, except for one of the major roles, which will go to Dev Patel. The fact that that role is the role of the villain probably doesn’t help none, nor does the fact Patel was only the second choice. So why does Hollywood insist on the race lift?

Is the cast ethnicity a sticking point?

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘race lift’, TV Tropes offers a pretty thorough exploration.

Maybe I’m a crazy hippy living up in the clouds smoking some ‘whacky tobacky’, but I don’t see why casts composed of a majority of non-Caucasian actors can’t appear in big budget blockbuster films? This is 2010, after all, isn’t it? Sure, we get the occasional ensemble African American comedy filmed on a shoestring every now-and-again (which never enjoys the same sort of marketing , but when was the last Latino-based ensemble you can think of? Seriously, when was the last time a film maker like Tyler Perry secured a budget equivalent to an equally successful director who works with Caucasian casts? Bad Boys (and yes, Bad Boys II) is the only major blockbuster I can think headline by two non-white actors.

Why?

Would it really have been so difficult, for example, to cast 21 using Asian American kids – which was the ethnicity of the group in real life. It wasn’t as if Jim Sturges and Kate Bosworth were such huge actors you could risk not having them in the film. Instead we got a token representation, with the team’s kleptomaniac and slot addict being the two Asian members of the team. Hell, even the hotshot-challenged-by-the-new-arrival role went to a white kid. Hell, even The Boondocks made a clever jab at The Passion of the Christ by observing that a white Jesus was a fairly obvious race lift as well. It wasn’t as if Hollywood blindly chose ‘names’ for the roles – none of the white actors are household names now or then (I can’t even pronounce Caviezel) – it was clearly motivated by something else.

Tropic Thunder featured the wonderful parody of the situation, with the one leading black role in the fictional war movie going to a white Australian method actor in blackface. Of course, it wasn’t exactly subtle – no studio would actually try something so brazen – but it raised a valid point. Of course, the fact that Kirk Lazarus was a satire himself was apparently taken far too seriously by some people, who completely missed the point and took the movie as a straight example of Hollywood screwing an African American actor out of a part.

The historical roots of this notion of all-white ensemble casts are fairly obvious, and fairly disgusting. The trend of excluding or marginalising non-white groups continued pretty late:

Before about 1970, it was common for TV stations in the US South to edit shows featuring non-stereotypical black characters to remove their scenes. In cases where the character couldn’t be edited out, the episode or the entire show wouldn’t be aired. Producers therefore had an incentive to choose an all-white cast even if the original characters were intended to be minorities. (One of the first shows to attempt to break this barrier was Hogans Heroes, which made Kinchloe the second-in-command and the camp genius so he couldn’t be edited out.)

The fact that the general principle of consciously favouring a white cast continues today is certainly more than a little bit disturbing.

But why do producers think that audiences won’t accept ethnically diverse casts? Seriously, this is the multi-cultural era. We are proud of our authentic Indian tea and take great pride in collecting authentic African artwork. Hell, the success of individuals of diverse ethnicities in every single field (and including the success of individuals within acting – Will Smith being the most obvious example) suggests that this simply isn’t an issue anymore.

Coincidence?

Is anyone actually less likely to go see a casino movie that features five unknown Asian American actors rather than three unknown Caucasian actors? There’s probably some ignorant people out there (probably, I say, laughing at my innocence), but are those the kind of people who will go and see Avatar: The Last Airbender? Really?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being racist here. Maybe the roles in question are being cast colour blind. Perhaps it’s genuinely the case that Jim Sturges was the best choice for 21 and these unknowns are really the best choices for their roles. Ignoring the fact that there’s simply no diversity among the cast is a pretty big coincidence, I remain skeptical. When the suggestion works the other way round – for example, the idea that a black actor may be the best fit for Captain America: The First Avenger – it seems to be immediately rejected out of hand. A genuinely racially blind attitude to casting seems impossible.

Indeed, Zoe Saldana – who has sparked some debate about whether attitudes like the ones we’re discussing have unfairly held back a woman of her talents – recently came out to say the same thing, reflecting on her own experiences of being turned down for roles on the basis of her skin tone:

When they say ‘We want to go white,’ they have a very smooth way of saying it, and the recent one is the word ‘traditional.’  [I’ve heard] ‘Oh, you know, you’re just not what we were looking for, your skin is a little darker.’  Compared to what?!  My skin is just my skin. It’s dark if you compare it to someone who’s lighter.

For my money, Saldana was the best thing about Avatar and it’s disappointing to see that Sam Worthington’s career has already eclipsed hers – particularly since she has a much stronger series of movies to her name.

There’s been some debate as to whether casting predominantly white actors in the adaptation of Avatar is particularly offensive, given Avatar’s focus on Asian and Inuit culture. Being honest, I’m going throw my hands up and confess I don’t know enough about the source material to judge, but this sounds reasonably convincing:

It’s wholly and inarguably built around Asian (and Inuit) culture. Everything from to the costume designs, to the written language, to the landscapes, to martial arts, to philosophy, to spirituality, to eating utensils!—it’s all an evocative, but thinly veiled, re-imagining of ancient Asia. (In one episode, a region is shown where everyone is garbed in Korean hanboks—traditional Korean clothing—the design of which wasn’t even altered at all.) It would take a willful disregard of the show’s intentions and origins to think this wouldn’t extend to the race of the characters as well. You certainly don’t see any blonde people running around in Avatar. (I’m not saying that would have necessarily been a bad thing, I’m just stating the facts of the show and the world in which it is set.)

I don’t know. Is that itself a racist suggestion – an idea that a fantasy setting can’t exist without ethnicity being an important factor? I’m not convinced. I gave the example of a black Captain America above, because I don’t really think his ethnicity is that important. He’s an American who volunteered for an experiment to save his country and fight the Nazis. It doesn’t matter if he’s black or white, to paraphrase the philosopher Jackson. The same with Will Smith playing cowboy Jim West (the truth is there were a lot of African American cowboys, but history tends to gloss over that). On the other hand, keeping with the Captain America theme, his adversary The Red Skull probably should be a Nazi poster boy (with… well, a red skull).

Here it’s very clearly an Asian-themed story, built around the philosophy, the customs and the geography. Am I racist for assuming that the decision to take everything except the people is a slightly disturbing choice?

I don’t like to get political, particularly when I’m blogging. I think a boycott is a bit of a radical idea and one which won’t actually do anything. Instead, let’s actually talk about this elephant in the room. I’m not advocating a conscious attempt to diversify casts – tokenism is counter productive and every bit as prejudiced as this sort of white-wash. Are audiences – particularly white audiences, since I assume we’re the reason this is happening – so insecure that they can’t relate to a character due to the colour of their skin? Being honest, excluding movies where it’s supposed to be an issue, I can’t say the ethnicity of a character has ever locked me or another person I know out of a movie.

It’s a vicious cycle. Big budget blockbusters with overwhelmingly white casts will continue to make huge amounts of money, so movie studios continue to produce them. It reinforces the idea that this is the way that these films get made. And it locks out significant emerging talent.

I’m always wary of writing articles like this, because there’s a tendency to go over the top or to overstate my case or to offend with a blatant misunderstanding of the area in question. Race and ethnicity is, understandably, a very sensitive topic. I’m not going to advocate a boycott of Avatar: The Last Airbender, as to do so would be insincere (particularly since the project never interested me in the first place – it seems counterproductive to claim I won’t see it when I wasn’t planning to see it anyway).

I just find it fascinating (and more than a little depressing) that this is still occurring these days. Of course there are more explicit stories of prejudice and race told by industry insiders, but this is the one that is generally more audience-facing. Clearly ethnic minorities are comfortable enough to see white casts (as demonstrated by the scale of Hollywood successes overseas), so how come it doesn’t work the other direction. Truth is, I really hope that this is just an example of the studios really badly underestimating cinema-goers. I really hope.

10 Responses

  1. Saldana sold Avatar for sure.

    I was really hoping Will Smith would’ve been Cap, but apparently the controversy was too much.

    • I think so. I actually though he would have been perfect for the part, but Smith is really perfect for any blockbuster lead. He just oozes charm. Even when, like in Hancock, when he’s playing a jerk (that’s part of the reason I thought it didn’t work – the other reason was the crazy genre-shift in the middle, when it stopped being a subversion of superhero conventions and played them all straight).

  2. Think of promising young actresses for example. They are nearly unanimously Caucasian. Zoe Seldana might well be the only African American actress that would come close to that category. There is basically no Asian-American actors to speak of, very few Hispanic ones. The fact that Will Smith is the biggest and most successful Hollywood movie star hides the fact that there isn’t really all that many other African American actor out there that can get a job as a lead. Like you said, it’s 2010 and this is quite disturbing.

    Truly fantastic article Darren. This is the kind of work I would be really happy to feature on my blog for added exposure.

    • Thanks Castor. As I was reading back over this I couldn’t help think of the song “Nobody’s Asian (In Movies)” from Joss Whedon’s Commentary! The Musical! (Whedon’s on my mind a lot lately, as anyone reading the blog can probably tell.)

  3. Interesting read there! I guess the main argument for this is that when you watch Asian, Bollywood, European, Latino cinema you don’t really see that many non-continentals on the cast.

    I’d say that in Hollywood blockbusters none of these names are total strangers: Samuel L Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Golberg, Richard Pryor, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Chris Rock, Danny Glover, Morgan (God) Freeman, Ving Rhames, Jamie Foxx, Pam Grier (hubba hubba), Martin Lawrence (Cringe)… not to mention the dozen rapper-turned-actors. Most of those have been around for as long as any white

    I guess overall they’re a smaller percentage of ‘the business’ in general but only films like Precious, Do The Right Thing, Glory, Roots, Malcolm X, to come out and captivate the audiences?

    • I think you make a very valid point there – they are great films, and hugely popular, but I think even if you factor in all those names, percentage-wise Hollywood is still dominated by Caucasian roles and actors. Though it isn’t necessarily a race thing – Meryl Streep has talked at length about how difficult it is to be a woman over fifty and get any meaty roles. I think Hollywood just has a very conservative idea of what an ensemble should look like – predominantly twenty-something whit people with maybe one or two non-whites thrown in.

  4. good spot on the Tropic Thunder poster Daz

    • It wasn’t me – I spotted that on-line a while ago. Not sure where exactly it’s from. I’ll put up a link when I find them – credit where credit’s due and all that.

      • I’d love it if that was the only reason they cast Jack Black in the film… Going by how rubbish he was I wouldn’t doubt it.

  5. It will be interesting to see how Death at a Funeral performs at the Boxoffice this week following a solid showing for Tyler Perry’s film.

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