When it comes to who can play what in movies and on TV, producers have been quick to apply a double standard.
It is deemed progressive and interesting for black and brown actors to play white characters but inappropriate and offensive the other way round. Colorblind casting only applies to people of color, which somewhat defies the point.
After more than 30 years playing African American cartoon character Dr Julius Hibbert, actor Harry Shearer has become the latest victim of a campaign to un-whiten the entertainment industry.
The popular Spinal Tap actor is to be replaced by black voice-actor Kevin Michael Richardson; this follows fellow Simpsons actor Hank Azaria’s announcement last year that he would no longer be voicing the character of Indian convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. During an interview, Azaria told Stephen Colbert, ‘I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it.’
Azaria has played Apu for three decades so I wonder how many actual Indians have complained during that time. My suspicion is that no Indians were hurt during the airing of The Simpsons (many have come out in support of Azaria’s portrayal) and that any offense-taking has come from Black Lives Matter cultural arbiters who now see it as their job to oversee virtually every aspect of public life.
Granted, when it comes to whites playing PoC there may well be some residual sensitivity around the embarrassing legacy of 19th-century ‘blackface’ where white performers portrayed black caricatures for the amusement of white audiences.
But while we can all agree that such outdated stereotyping has no place in modern entertainment, ‘blacking up’ for comedic purposes is very different from casting talented white actors in interesting black roles — or at least it should be if colorblind casting is to live up to its name. So why do producers shy away from making this particular leap of the imagination? Either colorblindness is a healthy part of the creative process or it is an offensively demeaning falsehood.
They can’t have it both ways, unless of course there is more to this outbreak of ‘color-awareness’. Perhaps the reason white audiences are being told to accept minorities in traditionally Caucasian roles is because the new progressive arbitrators have decided that white people remain insufficiently accepting of other races due to systemic bigotry.
The only way to expunge such vile intolerance is to, in effect, decolonize white people’s brains. Of course, decolonization has already been rolled out across educational establishments and major institutions so the logical next step must surely be to cleanse impure minds. It’s worth remembering that for those who wish to see an end to western domination, ‘whiteness’ is no longer mere skin pigmentation but a sinful dysfunction.
Once majority white populations accept that there is no reason why a black woman shouldn’t play the queen of England, then perhaps they will stop ‘othering’ minorities.
But hang on, isn’t judging people based on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character the new racial orthodoxy? On the one hand then, we are being told that colorblindness upholds racism yet on the other, we are meant to celebrate cross-racial casting so long as it fits the correct narrative.
Isn’t there more than a hint of paternalism to suggest that it is empowering for black actors to walk in white people’s shoes but somehow demeaning for Caucasians to portray the black experience? Are they implying that even a sympathetic portrayal of a black character by a white actor is a form of punching down?
Colorblind casting is nothing new of course although in the past it has generally been white actors playing PoC. Lawrence Olivier’s 1964 Othello and Natalie Wood’s Maria in West Side Story may have been lauded at the time but such casting against type would never be permitted today. Why not? If the current one-way street is meant as an overcorrection for past imbalances then let’s call it what it is rather than pretending it is an interesting creative impulse on the part of directors.
Far from breaking down racial barriers, I would argue that asking white actors to stay in their lane while giving black actors free reign is actually fueling division. Audiences will become increasingly suspicious of producers’ motives if they only ever see PoC crossing the racial divide. White audiences have been largely accepting of shows such as Netflix’s Bridgerton and Armando Iannucci’s colorful adaptation of Dickens’s David Copperfield in which black and brown actors portray historical white characters.
Golda Rosheuvel who plays Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton adds some much needed spice to what might otherwise have been just another starchy old costume drama. Likewise, Jodie Turner-Smith’s upcoming turn as Anne Boleyn looks intriguing for those of us who still see drama as pretense rather than a facsimile of real life.
Playing against type is what keeps actors interesting so shouldn’t we just throw open the dressing up box and see what happens? It remains to be seen whether anybody would accept Gary Oldman as Nelson Mandela or Damian Lewis as Malcolm X, but therein lies the problem. So many significant black figures come from the civil rights movement so casting a white actor as a black freedom fighter makes no sense although perhaps in a truly color blind world it could. At the same time black dramas focus tend to focus on issues around racism and inequality — you only have to look at recent Oscar nominations — so I’m not sure how colorblind casting would work in that respect.
It would be interesting to see how audiences might react to a drama set in a black township that just happens to have white actors playing black characters. Would any director dare take on such a project or would they immediately be condemned for insensitivity? Interestingly, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer are both Jewish so are we to assume that these versatile actors will only be offered Jewish roles from now on? You can see what a minefield we are creating.