Friday, May 28, 2010

Do The Right Thing! The Contentious Issue of Politically Correct Casting

There’s been much ado about some casting choices in recent Hollywood projects, not because the actors chosen are necessarily bad but because, say their critics, they’re not the right colour for the roles.

First off, many people are upset that white actor Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) is the lead in the just-released film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, since he’s demonstrably not of Persian (or Iranian, as it’s known today) origin. Then comes news that The Last Airbender, the soon-to-be-released movie from M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs) -- based on an Asian - inspired TV series, called Avatar: The Last Airbender -- will also be a largely whitewashed affair. This follows on the heels of the announcement that white filmmaker Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet) has cast a black actor, The Wire’s Idris Elba as Heimdall, one of the Norse gods in Branagh’s upcoming adaptation of Marvel’s Thor.

Each of these movies has provoked a backlash. Though, predictably, in our politically correct climate. the Marvel comic fans objecting to Elba’s casting in Thor are deemed to be suspect, if not outright, racist in their concerns. while those protesting the casting in Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender, are deemed to have valid concerns about the casting decisions. Would I be labeled racist if I suggest that they all have legitimate reasons for being unhappy with the choices made in the adaptations of their favorite TV show, comic book or video game (Prince of Persia)?

But does this mean that only the right ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation should hold sway when it comes to casting a theatrical production, film or television series? Openly gay Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh obviously thinks so; he recently unleashed a tsunami of criticism when he wrote that too many obviously, openly gay actors are playing straight roles and failing to convince audiences of their heterosexuality.

My own view on all of this is decidedly mixed. Re: gay actors/straight roles - I have no problem believing Neil Patrick Harris, who is openly gay, as the womanizer of all womanizers on the funny CBS TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother, but I might have problems accepting a less-talented gay actor in a heterosexual role. Of course, since there is no shortage of closeted gay actors currently playing straight roles in TV, on stage and in the movies, Setoodeh’s point is largely rendered moot. On the other hand, I do think a film called Prince of Persia should at least have someone who appears to be a Muslim in the lead, even if he’s not actually Muslim or Arab; he could be a Sephardic Jew or a Spaniard or even an Indian, but he ought to be believable playing a Persian character. And if The Last Airbenders’s main characters were originally Asian, then I would expect the film version of the TV series to be the same. The fact that the project does have a name director like Shymalan in front of the camera ought to minimize the perceived risk of its success at the box office.

It’s a similar situation when casting actors to play Jews; some non-Jewish actors, like Italian actor like Joe Mantegna, in movies such as Homicide (1991) and Liberty Heights (1999), are completely believable in Jewish roles and vice–versa. Jewish actor James Caan was also utterly convincing as Italian Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972). (The Sopranos used Caan’s casting as the punch line of a really great scene in the show.) But other non–Jews may not be believable in Jewish roles. It’s a matter of casting close to the role if not exactly on the nose. Very few filmmakers would (or could) do like French director Olivier Assayas, who made certain in his new five and a half hour miniseries Carlos, based on the life of the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, that each actor was of the ethnicity of the character he played and could actually speak the language that character would speak.

Does that mean that Assayas’s project is purer than other less scrupulously cast movies or TV series? No, but it does enhance his project over others and avoids some pitfalls that a differently cast production might have. Carlos still has to work on so many other levels, besides its casting, in its story, acting, direction, to succeed as great art. We’ll see if it does when it reaches North America in the fall.

The bigger issue is this: does the casting damage the movie, or TV show, take you out of it, so to speak? Last summer when I went to see the Shaw Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, the story of the famous painting by Frenchman Georges Seurat, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the presence of a black actress among the cast of upper-class French society women circa 1884. It wasn’t a matter of her acting, which was fine, but the fact that it was extremely unlikely that anyone from that stratum of French society would not be white. That bit of colour blind casting, while fully commendable in roles that don’t call for a specifically black or white character, detracted from the realism of Sondheim’s production. It struck a false note in what was otherwise a near flawless musical. Unfortunately, I suspect that if the Shaw festival had rejected the black actress for the role, she might have accused the company of racism, a too-easily made charge these days. This mounting of Sunday in the Park with George, after all, was not an avant-garde production, or one that was revisionist through and through, so this bit of minor casting was questionable. In that light, a black Norse god in Thor would be equally problematic.

It is fair, though, in 2010 to ask why a white actor should play a Muslim role in a movie like Prince of Persia? Or why the protagonists of a movie, like the recent 21, a fact-based story of mostly Asian card sharps, should end up played by whites on screen? But it’s also important to point out that that is not the only criteria to be applied to the performer or else only genuine transsexuals would be allowed to play transsexuals on screen as some transgender activists have demanded.

In fact, while one can point to earlier racist portraits on film, when this type of casting wasn't controversial, such as in white actor Mickey Rooney’s vile, highly stereotypical incarnation of a Japanese man in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany’s. While other roles, such as white actor Peter Seller’s portrayal of a hapless Indian movie star in the 1968 comedy The Party (both films were directed by Blake Edwards), are not racist at all. Seller’s protagonist is a likeable chap who is never played for cheap laughs.

The other reality, and it’s the opposite of substituting white actors in the non-white roles, is that sometimes, the removal of colour, ethnicity or religious background is done out of fear of appearing racist or anti–Semitic. In real life, the characters at the centre of The Accused (1988), which was based on a true story of a raped woman who sued her rapists and the men who egged them on, were of Portuguese extraction, but the film offered up a deracinated view of the perpetrators of the crime. Other People’s Money (1991), the story of a villainous corporate raider who goes after a small mom and pop operation, was careful to dilute its main character's Jewish background, not least by casting clearly non–Jewish Danny Devito in the Jewish role of Larry Garfield. Even Martin Scorsese in his seminal Taxi Driver (1976) made sure that the teen prostitute’s pimp was not African–American but white lest he be accused of racism even though his his research for that film revealed that New York pimps in the 70s were virtually always black.

In those cases, a combination of fear and a recognition that American society was not rid of those who would like to see Jews, African Americans or other groups as the bad guys in movies led to understandable decisions re: casting and mixed results re: the final product. Of the three movies, only Taxi Driver is a great film and one that tackled racist attitudes successfully (with Scorsese himself playing a virulently anti–black character in one scorching scene).

Would The Accused or Other People’s Money have been better films if they hadn’t made the changes they did? It’s doubtful but the movies might have gained some nuances that would have made them stand out more from the pack. After all, if you’re going to fully explore the worlds of ethnic and religious minorities, you can’t only show their best faces on screen. You must also examine why their worst faces manifest themselves occasionally as well. But it’s important to note that the filmmakers would have to have handled the racial and religious realities of the stories in The Accused and Other People’s Money with great sensitivity lest they play into the racial and religious prejudices of the audiences viewing their films.

So it comes down to talent, making the right casting choices, without being held to rigid, unbending rules of who should play what roles. And if you're going to cast against type, make sure it’s with a believable actor and not one who skewers the reality of the project you’re putting together. Oh and one more thing, offer up a variety of roles and character types for all groups in society. I am sure if there was more of a palette of Arab/Muslim portraits on American movie screens, besides the inevitable terrorist roles, or a more varied depiction of Asian–Americans in Hollywood, protests over the casting slights in Prince of Persia or The Last Airbender would be minimal if not ignored altogether. If those groups, and others, felt fully comfortable with the way they were depicted on screen, they’d likely shrug off the wrong-headed movies that deny their reality as they would have plenty of positive, honest and complex movies to embrace instead.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

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