Hollywood's colorblind casting shouldn't upset left nor right. Here's why

 The colorblind model is not wrong, it never has been

Grievance over racial representation in television and movies has become a bipartisan affair. Once squarely the purview of the left, who demanded to see more people of color on screen, now some on the right also feel maligned by the portrayal of White historical figures by non-White actors. 

Recently, we got to see examples of this outrage from both sides, and though the circumstances are different, at the end of the day, the basic complaint is the same. That race should play a bigger role in how our entertainment is produced. What an incredible mistake.

From the Left we got the well-worn complaint that a character, in this case Nani, from the animated series "Lilo & Stitch," had been cast in the live action version by actress Sydney Agudong, with skin and features that they claim do not embrace the indigenous Hawaiian nature of the original character. 

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 12: Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton perform onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of "Hamilton" on June 12, 2016, in New York City. (Getty Images)

OK, this isn’t new.


What is new, are increasing eruptions from the right over historical characters who were White being played by non-White actors. In particular, Netflix productions that feature Black actresses as Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and England's Queen Charlotte.

Let’s stipulate that these characters were indeed historically White. Why are so many on the right suddenly opposed to this kind of colorblind casting when it has gone on for decades without much mention?

Mark Anthony (Richard Burton) admits his love for Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) in film, Cleopatra.

Elizabeth Taylor starred in the 1963 film "Cleopatra" with Richard Burton as Mark Anthony. (Getty Images)

It was only a few years ago when the musical "Hamilton" shook the world with its representation of the Founding Fathers as Black and Brown. Not only was it celebrated, it was celebrated on the right for its deeply patriotic themes.

One thing that has changed is, increasingly, conservatives see this isn’t really colorblind casting, that it only really allows non-White actors to play White historical figures, not the other way around. Needless to say a White Frederick Douglass is not going to be received the same way as a Black George Washington.

This is certainly true and stems from the theory of "cultural appropriation," in which non-White culture is effectively owned and controlled by members of the specific identity group, whereas White culture is owned by everyone. Nobody thinks a non-White person in a business suit with a necktie is guilty of cultural appropriation. 

But the real problem here isn’t that cultural appropriation is unfair to Whites, it's that it is unfair to everyone. In fact, ironically, the theory advantages White culture enormously by making it the only one that is free for everyone to engage in. Nobody gets angry when Yo-Yo Ma plays the hell out of Bach.


The answer here isn’t to add White culture to the list of protected cultures, it's to blow up the idea of protected cultures and accept that all of human history and culture belongs to all human beings equally. 

A further, and also new, objection to the casting of non-White actors as White figures is that it is ahistorical, to which the logical response is, so what?  It’s acting. It’s pretending. The purpose of historical movies or TV shows is not to replicate what live video from the Roman Senate would have looked like. It is always interpretive.


The incredible words of Shakespeare belong to all of us. Every person who breathes. (iStock)

Finally, it's worth looking at this through the eyes of the artists involved. Another production in the crosshairs of the anti-woke is a "Great Performances" broadcast of Shakespeare in the Park starring a Black woman in the title role of Richard III. That role is among a handful considered the most powerful and best crafted in the English language. Can it really only be played by White men?

Of course not. The incredible words of Shakespeare belong to all of us. Every person who breathes. 

The colorblind model is not wrong, it never has been. Skin color tells us nothing about a person. And that is a reality we need to get back to. 

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.