Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Close Enough = Good Enough? Whitewashing and casting in film

For the last week or two there has been some interesting discussion happening on a lot of film sites. As stills and posters and trailers were steadily released for Ridley Scott's new biblical epic Exodus film journalists and bloggers questioned whether it's still okay to blatantly whitewash a film that takes place, ostensibly, in Northern Africa. Considering it is 2014 and that we know that there  is a pool of brilliant actors from every nationality and religion across the world to dip from, is there any reason to cast white men in roles that they probably shouldn't be cast in?

 Hollywood is usually a good decade behind the rest of the world on just about everything, but even if most television shows and films retain a primarily white cast (and tell a primarily white story) at least there is push back from the audience. Look at Girls, look at Dads, people (or bloggers in most cases I guess) aren't afraid to point at a TV show or film and say "NOT GOOD ENOUGH". So when a film set in Egypt telling the story of the exodus of Jewish slaves is cast with handsome big name white men it isn't surprising that everyone gives it the ol' side-eye.

Interesting, the comments from film viewers seems to sway in both directions. Judging by the Badass Digest comments (which is always a good way to judge. There are decent people in that corner of the internet) people seem to think that either:
A. It's business. You get a big name actor to make you big time money. So it's kinda not really whitewashing. Sorta.
B. Can you even name a decent POC to play those roles or sell tickets?
C. It's not great that in 2014 this is even an issue. And jesus, do you remember the Avatar: The Last Airbender film? What a disaster.
D. Noah was all white. And it's all imaginary anyway.
E. I'm Egyptian/Jewish/whatever and I don't care. Everyone is just so overly PC these days.
F. Eh, since when did pop culture influence changes in society*
Overall I'd say it swings about 50/50, for some it comes down to a business transaction. A white lead man like Christian Bale sells more tickets than whoever they'd cast as Moses if they were going for something more realistic. For some, removing a well known white actor means subbing in an unknown Egyptian actor which...I don't even know how to react to that argument. If replacing a white lead leads you to assume they'd hire a taxi driver like they did in Captain Philips then sorry buddy, but you're part of the problem.

One interesting thing I noticed in the discussion on a more diverse and inclusive cast is the casting suggestions people tossed up. Names like Nestor Carbonell and Cliff Curtis** were thrown around as potential good fits and while I understood where they were coming from on the one hand (Carbonell is pretty and should be in everything), is hiring a man of Spanish or Maori descent actually better than casting a white man? I mean, not only is it still not the right ethnicity but now we have the "brown is brown is brown" ickiness thrown into it. Is close enough good enough?

There are plenty of interviews with actors like Kumail Nanjiani and Danny Pudi where they talk about going to auditions where there options are basically terrorist, convenience store employee and computer nerd. Not to mention they'll shift from playing a Pakistani character to an Indian or Iraqi character as needed. Counter this with the outrage online when Henry Cavill, a Brit, was cast as Superman. The fact that he would be speaking with an American accent wasn't good enough, Superman is meant to be an American. CAN'T YOU SEE YOU'RE RUINING OUR LIVES? So if it isn't acceptable for a white man to play a different white man, why is it okay to have a South American play someone from the Middle East, or vice versa?

Is ethnographically near enough, near enough? Is it just a matter of "acting" the part? And if that is the case, is it even an issue to have white actors play Egyptian characters, or Egyptian actors play white characters? Obviously that sort of argument removes the complicated politics of white privilege and the issue that plenty of movie goers simply don't see a problem with a lack of roles (outside of stereotypes) for minority actors. So is whitewashing in film a thing of the past that is slowly being rectified one cast at a time, or are we simply shifting across from whitewashing to racewashing where anyone who isn't white can essentially be any ethnicity required? And is this an issue? Is it still racism, just with a different focus? Or is any role better than no role?

Like with all of these posts I write, I'm mostly trying to work out some thoughts in my own head, and I think I've landed on a different point to the one I was originally tangling with. Not to mention I'm writing all of this as a white girl from Australia, so I don't really have a leg to stand on. So in conclusion, I guess...

Anyway, as usual, I'd be interested to hear what you all think in the comment section!

*Mmm-hmmm. Yeah, probably never....idiots.

**Mostly named because he has played every ethnicity under the sun, which is kinda the issue at hand.


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