The Business of Show Biz: Playing People of Color
Friday, August 12, 2016
By Velina Brown
Q: As a white guy, it’s hard for me to ask these kinds of questions without people assuming I’m a racist, then attacking me as such, but still not answering my question. Why is it okay for a person of color to play a character that was not written for a person of color, but wrong if a white person plays a character that is not written as white? Part of the fun of being an actor is the opportunity to play anyone and everyone.
|Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: Thanks for writing. I have no interest in attacking you. I think Americans in general have lost the art of intelligent discourse. So it’s great to have the opportunity to address a question that could be contentious without rancor. I will be direct, though.
It’s interesting that you say white people can’t play people of color, since it happens rather frequently. It’s called “traditional casting.” The definition: white men get to play everyone. “Nontraditional casting” just means white men don’t get to play everyone. It means women get to play women and people of color—if there are such roles—get to be played by people of color...and it means that if the race or gender of a character is not germane to the story, then folks other than white men can also be considered for those roles. It’s taking off the “white male” default setting and allowing other folks to be performing artists as well.
But perhaps you mean that lately white people can’t play people of color without people of color complaining about it, and you’re wonder why that is?
A quick history lesson
Greek theatre was all male; Shakespeare’s plays were performed by an all-white male company from the late 1500’s through 1660 when Margaret Hughes became the first actual woman to play a female character (Desdemona). Another 157 years passed before Ira Aldridge became the first black man to play Othello in 1833. A long time ago, you say? What about the fact that Mickey Rooney played the Chinese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); that, with the exception of Omar Sharif, only one Arab actor appeared in the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia or that Jonathan Pryce performed in yellowface and eye clips in Miss Saigon in 1988?
After the Miss Saigon flap, more producers decided to avoid the yellowface makeup and just rewrite the story. For example, the 2008 book titled Bringing Down the House, about a group of real-life Asian MIT students who figure out how to beat the house and win big bucks in Las Vegas, became a film with 21 white guys. Then Johnny Depp played Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013). Then Gods of Egypt (2016), a film depicting Afroasiatic mythology, employed a predominately white cast. And in the newly released animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings—set in an ancient Japanese village—there are Asian voice-over actors (including George Takei), but the starring roles are played by Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Charlize Theron! This list is a tiny fraction of everyday occurrences in casting.
Why people of color complain
There are already comparatively few roles for women and people of color. Imagine being an Asian actor, and finally something set in ancient Japan comes along, and you still can’t get a lead role...then it’s held against you that you don’t have any good roles on your resume. Take a moment and consider how it sounds when you, a “white guy,” complain about wanting more opportunity to play people of color when people of color are still struggling to get to play themselves.
A white actor with whom my husband and I have worked but who has since moved to Los Angeles (you’ve seen him on popular TV shows) recently opined on Facebook that he should be able to play Harriet Tubman if he wants to. I think that if the life of Harriet Tubman was thoroughly taught in school K-college—if everyone knew her story well and completely understood how intrinsic to her story it is that she was African, an ex-slave and a woman—if her story had been woven into the fabric of our culture for generations with plays, movies, documentaries, operas, cartoons, “School House Rock” tunes, etc.—then sure, you could at that point “get jiggy” with it and have a white man play her. It’d be similar to how we’ve grown up learning so much about George Washington (one of many “great white man” stories we’ve been told over and over) that he can be played very successfully by a black man in the smash Broadway hit Hamilton. Once any story is well established, you can play with it. However, I’m not aware of a single full-length feature film or play about Harriet Tubman; it’s rather overdue. Therefore, I don’t believe that, the first time many people are introduced to her complete life’s story, she should be played by a white man—no matter how great an actor he may be. Likewise, I don’t feel that Viola Davis was robbed when Daniel Day Lewis got to play Abraham Lincoln instead of her, though far more pieces had already been done about Lincoln than about Tubman.
Once there have been at least five generations of women getting to tell “great women” stories, and people of color getting to tell “great people of color” stories fully, completely and clearly, then perhaps it will be something new for a white man to play Sally Hemings. But not now. We’re still too close to that being traditional casting.
For more insight, I recommend a documentary film by Kathleen Antonia called Getting Played—Who’s Playing You?, which offers an in-depth discussion about employment discrimination in the entertainment field.
I hope this was helpful. Take care.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.