From West Side Story to The Prince of Persia, there has been a long tradition in Hollywood of casting white actors in roles intended for people of color. In an industry where minorities don’t get enough good roles as it is, it’s always a little disconcerting for me to watch California-born Natalie Wood play a Puerto Rican immigrant, or peep Mickey Rooney with taped back eye-lids hamming it up in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It would be nice to think that we’re past these kinds of painful and unpleasant features of Tinsel Town’s yesteryear, but even today there are reverberations of the same idea: Hollywood just doesn’t want to hire people of color, and when they do, rarely do they ever want to show them in a light outside of a certain mode – the “spicy” Latina, the sassy black woman, the nerdy Asian. Even though today most filmmakers know that blackface and all variations thereof are, you know, probably not a good idea - studios have still tried to circumvent the risk of protests and petitions by simply changing roles intended for people of color to white roles. But it’s not that simple...
Words by Zeba Blay
Take, for instance, 21.
You might remember 21, the 2003 heist movie about a group of MIT math majors who made millions of dollars in casino money by counting cards. The film, which starred Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey, was based on a true story. And in the true story, the majority of the MIT students involved were Asian American. In the movie, there were only two Asian-American actors, both regulated to pretty inconsequential supporting roles. In an original draft of the script, the cast was to be all white males except for an Asian female, who would have served as the love interest. Yep. That was the extent of it. There was some controversy in regards to the casting, but that didn’t stop the moving from debuting at number one at the box office, or from making over $100 million in ticket sales. And that’s what it usually comes down to, here – money. There are no young bankable Asian stars, and since Hollywood is all about gambling itself, a movie with a predominantly Asian, unknown cast just didn’t seem like a smart business move. This is Hollywood’s excuse in many of these cases. And it’s a pretty sorry one.
Because look at The Last Airbender.
So you’re making a super expensive movie and you need to make sure you’re getting asses in those theater seats. Great. But how do you explain a cast of relative to virtual unknowns, all Caucasian, all playing characters styled after traditional Asian and Middle Eastern cultures? You don’t. You can’t. But you did it anyway (side-eye to you, M. Night Shylamalan). Perhaps best of all, the only people of color in the movie were the “bad guys,” the main baddie being Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame (whose last official release was, by the way, Airbender – a damn shame). In this case, the excuse was, “Oh, see, what had happened was we did blind casting – we only picked the very best of the best and they just happened to be white.” A pitiful explanation if it were true. Only, in the casting call for major characters, it was stated explicitly: “Caucasian (or other ethnicity)”, which is basically a polite way of saying WHITES ONLY. As we all know, Airbender was a flop, also not very good, and one can only wonder what kind of movie it would have been had Asian actors been given the chance.
The problem is Hollywood has brainwashed itself into thinking that movies without white casts won’t sell. And, what’s worse, they’ve brainwashed the American movie-going audience into thinking the same thing. Studies have shown that the majority of white audiences are less likely to see a movie with an all black cast. And is it any surprise, when studios do not even attempt to market these movies to non-black audiences?
Now, when you consider a movie like Drive, a quiet independent film that didn’t necessarily have bazillions of dollars riding on it, we get to an issue even deeper than just “white filmmakers won’t hire people of color.” Because that’s a given. But take out the business aspect, the money aspect, and the question “why?” still remains. With Drive, it wasn’t about getting a big name to fill seats for some huge blockbuster. Here, it was a conscious decision by a director, relating only to the story and the aesthetic of the film. In the movie, Ryan Gosling’s character falls in love with Irene, a single mother whose husband just got out of jail. Irene was written for a Latina actress. In the movie, a Latino plays Irene’s 7-year-old son. A Latino plays her husband. But Irene is played by Carey Mulligan, who is obviously not Latina.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s reasoning behind this change was that Mulligan seemed more like, “the sort of person you’d want to protect.” She was fragile, and delicate. “It made it more of a Romeo & Juliet kind of love story without the politics that would in this day and age be brought into it if you had different nationalities.” Oh, OK. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.
So, basically, a Latina would have made the love story way too complicated. Latina’s are so fiery, spicy, and strong willed that it would be impossible for an audience to conceive of her needing protection (this idea of protection in and of itself is bullshit). It’s these sort of harmful ideas and stereotypes about people of color, especially women of color that ensure that the best roles never find them. Rather than pushing the boundaries of our perceived notions of different ethnicities and nationalities, filmmakers would rather enforce these ideas, exoticizing or simplifying the complexities that make up the human experience when it becomes inconvenient for them.
Hollywood may say that it is “colorblind,” but like anyone who uses that phrase, what it’s really saying is “We do not care how the constant underrepresentation of people of color in film affects not only those minorities working within this industry but also society as a whole.” Because, at the end of the day, what happens in media across all spectrums is completely tied to how we as a society view the world and ourselves. In this age of Zoe Saldanas and Viola Davis, of Steve McQueen and Ava Duvernay, one can only hope that we are making changes, gradual though they are. For anything to happen, there’s going to have to be more dialogue between Hollywood and the people that make it run: us. Because we really do have more power and more say than we realize. We pay their damn bills. So when Red Tails does well at the box office or Viola Davis (hopefully) wins an Oscar, it shouldn’t be seen as Hollywood validating us but as us validating Hollywood, changing it from the outside in and getting that much closer to the roles and the stories we deserve.
* Contributor Zeba Blay's movie blog: Film Memory + @zblay on Twitter