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Colorblind Casting

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Morgan-Freeman-in-movie-Unforgiven-1992
I really enjoyed this Angelica Jade Bastién essay on the problems with colorblind casting in Hollywood. Using Oscar Isaac as an example, she explores how he has been able to work without his ethnicity defining his roles, but also how he had to not use his given last name of Hernandez in order to do this. I didn’t even know Issac was Latino. I thought he was Jewish, not that he can’t be both. The real issue of colorblind casting in Hollwyood, Bastién argues, is that it serves to reflect the world white liberals wish existed–one where race doesn’t exist–as opposed to actually dealing with the enormous racial inequality in the film industry, where only tiny numbers of people of color rise to be directors, producers, lead actors, etc.

But his success hasn’t come without compromises. Isaac is open about the choices he’s made in his career including dropping his last name, Hernández. “Starting out as an actor, you immediately worry about being pigeonholed or typecast,” he said to the magazine In. “I don’t want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever. I don’t want to be defined by someone else’s idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing.” His tendency to play characters of different backgrounds extends to his new Star Wars character, whom Isaac has described as “non-ethnic.” Notably, he didn’t say “white” or “racially ambiguous,” instead referring to his character’s absence of ethnicity.

Which fits in neatly with the idea that colorblind casting is the easiest and most visible way to address the need for diversity within Hollywood. Indeed, the practice has led to great, high-profile performances including Morgan Freeman’s Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the majority of Will Smith’s career from the mid-1990s onward, Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the kitschy 1960s Batman television series, and most recently, Laverne Cox taking on the role of Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On a more political level, colorblind casting exists as a hopeful emblem for how many wish the world to be: post-racial. The powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who’s been extensively praised for her use of colorblind casting, has said that she doesn’t write with race in mind. In the early days of Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes explained her reasoning by saying, “My friends and I don’t sit around and discuss race … We’re post-civil rights, post-feminist babies, and we take it for granted we live in a diverse world.” And yet, with minorities making up a small fraction of directors and other key behind-the-scenes roles, it’s hard to know how seriously the industry cares about improving representation in general.

In the face of Hollywood’s deeply entrenched racism, colorblind casting seems like a solution with broad appeal and an actual history of producing great performances. But its downsides go beyond the fact that white actors can end up taking roles for non-white characters, as in Aloha and Pan, or that productions can slot minority actors into secondary roles and get praised for “diversity.” It’s simply counterintuitive to argue that problems related to race can be fixed by ignoring race altogether. In practice, colorblind casting isn’t a form of acceptance or progress: It can just as easily be erasure wrapped up as benevolence.

This pretty well sums up how a lot of white liberals want to think about race. Post-racial just sounds so nice, doesn’t it. Then we can all just get along and not have to think about those hard questions of structural inequality. Of course this reflects the ways a lot of liberals were talking about America generally for a few months at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, before a massive white backlash to President Obama reminded them that race is the most important category of analysis in nearly ever issue in this country.

Colorblind casting also makes no sense in reflecting a society that is profoundly racial. That’s why I was never comfortable with the scripts of either The Shawshank Redemption or Unforgiven. Morgan Freeman’s character in both of those movies would have had to exist in a world where race is a profound factor, yet it is not addressed in either. Gene Hackman whips Freeman to death in Unforgiven, yet race is never mentioned, except that his character has married an indigenous woman!

Colorblind fantasies contribute to the problem of racial inequality more than reflect progressive values amongst those who hold them. That certainly includes Hollywood, where the “race film,” now in a politically liberal form, still often provides people of color the only large-scale casting opportunities they have.

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