Battlepanda: Why we need to talk about race in casting


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Why we need to talk about race in casting

Commenter GCLP Chairman and I have been having an entertaining back and forth in the comments of this post about the impressive number of well-written female and minority characters in Battlestar Galactica. The Chairman wonders why this discussion is pertinent at all:
Galactica is just plain good. Why bring race and gender into it?

Not that race and gender aren't important, but geez... does it have to enter into everything? Just watch the show. It's well-done.
Why do we have to bring race and gender into our discussion of film and TV? Indeed, I wish we lived in a place where we wouldn't have to. A world in which women and minorities aren't egregiously underrepresented/shunted into stereotypical roles on our screens. Unfortunately, as this article on "Something New" shows, we're not quite there yet. "Something New" is a rom-com that is attracting notice because the star paring consists of a black woman and a white man.
[O]n the big screen, black women from Sapphire to Beaulah were Aunt Jemimaed, neutered, erased. Or they were crazy sluts like Carmen Jones. Or, in the case of "Pinky," "Showboat" and "Imitation of Life," if they were deemed beautiful, "tragic mulattoes" cast as the love interest of a white man, white actresses were cast in these roles more often than not. [snip]

African American men get to play the romantic lead these days. But not, as Will Smith bemoaned in an interview to promote his movie "Hitch," with a black woman, because then the movie will be deemed "black" and not worthy of big-bucks marketing. He can't kiss a white woman, he says, because that's deemed too scandalous for mainstream consumption. So lighter-skinned Latinas like Eva Mendes and Jennifer Lopez get to split the difference.

Even in "black movies" such as 1992's "Boomerang," and 1999's "The Best Man," the romantic fantasies of black women are given short shrift. Notwithstanding Halle Berry's "Catwoman" and "Die Another Day" roles, African American women rarely get to be the chased-after babes.

The part in bold is what I would like to point out to GCLP Chairman, whose point is that we should leave race out of our discussion of film and TV because the best actor to suit the role should get the job. Well, the point is, race is already very much a central consideration in casting decisions. In fact, the calculus is so sophisticated that there are even "by-laws" of what kind of ethnic pairings you can have on screen before it is deemed to be no longer in the mainstream -- Will Smith, fine. Halle Berry, fine. Will Smith and Halle Berry? Whoa, Nelly. We've got ourselves a "black" film that we can't expect other folks to identify with.

This sort of chickenshit semi-self-imposed casting restrictions are negative for everyone in every way except for one -- the short-term pecuniary rewards of the filmmakers. In the long run, the film industry lose because they are alienation big swarths of the population whose story the believe is too marginalized to be worth telling. They also lose because they're putting curbs on their own creativity and shutting out a lot of talent in the pool of actors.

I believe the beginning of the solution is to just talk about the problem. And to give filmmakers who are willing to stray outside the comfort zone when it comes to casting props. Just as we give filmmakers who are innovative in other ways props.