Casting Racism

If you were a director casting a play or movie, would you take race into account? There have been several controversies in recent years over actors being cast in parts where the character is written as having a racial identity that the actor does not. For example, in Pan, Rooney Mara, a white actress, was cast as Tiger Lily. This elicited waves of criticism for so-called “whitewashing” a Native American character. Here is a clip about the character:

In contrast, there has been very little condemnation of the new Broadway show Hamilton, where a multiracial cast portray the white Founding Fathers of America. You can see a clip of the show below:

We have slightly different opinions about how race should be factored into casting decisions. We both agree that if the race of the character is not mentioned in the script, the character is not a historical figure, and the character doesn’t have any relatives in the play, the race of the actor is irrelevant. This applies to most parts in most shows. From Macbeth to James Bond, there are many shows where the race of the cast members is irrelevant.

We also agree that if a character’s race drives the plot of a play (for example, if it is a historical play about a black slave in antebellum South), then we think it is understandable if the play were to cast persons who appear to fit the racial categories of the historical period—in the case of the specific institution of slavery, in which white people enslaved black people, casting based on racial scheme may be important to signify that black skin was and continues to be a constructed signifier around which oppressive schemes were built.

However, we disagree about the role race should place when the race of the characters is mentioned or known in some way. Here are our different opinions:

Katherine’s Take:

Race is commonly conceived of as being tied to essential character traits, and people frequently make assumptions about others based solely on their skin color. For example, some races are characterized as being louder, or more passionate, or stoic, or more intelligent (British accents, anyone?) The line between race, culture, and ethnicity is confusingly blurred here, but people have a very real compulsion to automatically read people based on their skin color, to attempt to immediately ascertain their essential character traits based on their outside appearance. Subconsciously, I think this compulsion is what lies behind fears of casting an actor in a role traditionally played by someone of a different race or casting family members that in no way resemble each other. The underlying presumption seems to be that if family members look so different from one another, how could they be like each other on the inside? How could the audience buy that they are truly a family, if the color of their skin signals deep, essential differences? However, if race is not an essential, biological determinant as we have come to understand, then the skin tone of the character should be just that: their skin tone, not an indication of who they are as a character or their ability to relate to other characters within the play. I realize that this aspiration to “color-blindness” sounds very naive and ignores the fact that people do in fact see race moment-to-moment—upon meeting someone, walking into a room, or sitting down in a theater hall. However, our automatic practice of using race to determine who people are is an example of “race-craft,” the type of normalized assumptions with which we navigate our daily interactions. I think that casting actors into roles based on talent and ability to embody the characters’ actual traits would challenge our expectation that people fit within our expected racial schemas, and may be the type of race-craft dismantling that we need to achieve a truly post-racial society.

Julia’s Take:

The goal of most theater and movies is to effectively tell a story. Productions try to draw the audience into the show and perhaps move them with art. An unfortunate reality is that the appearance of actors helps drive the believability of the show. The most important factor when casting an actor is their ability to effectively play their part, which creates all forms of discrimination in hiring. Race isn’t the only factor considered in casting. Parents must appear older than their children. The genders of the characters may be relevant. Romantic leads are more compelling if they are attractive. These are all features of storytelling that can be harsh and frustrating.

Race is one of those factors that are relevant to casting. If a character is described as a specific race, it is better to cast an actor who is of that race. Othello should be played by a black actor, Tiger Lily should be played by a Native American actor, and Emma Stone, a white actress, should not have played an Asian character in the movie Aloha. There are many excellent actors of every race. If the script included the race of a character, it is appropriate to respect the script or change it. It included race for an artistic reason and the show will be more compelling if audiences aren’t distracted by cross-racial casting when it isn’t necessary.

Of course, shows can choose to ignore race if the show would be improved by not considering race. If the most talented actors don’t match the race of the characters, then the show should ignore race. Lin-Manuel Maranda, the star and writer of Hamilton, is simply better than any other performer for the role. Of course it was appropriate to cast him. Race should not be the primary factor, but it can be a reasonable factor.

Ultimately, we disagree about the best way to cast a show. What do you think? Should race be considered when casting a show?


One thought on “Casting Racism

  1. I agree with Julia’s argument regarding the consideration of race in casting. This blog post reminds me of a month long discussion we had in my English literature class discussing the role of race in the classic Shakespeare Othello play. Although Othello’s race was never explicitly spoken of, rather in epithets such as “old black ram”, his race was central to his role. If Othello hadn’t been a black man and therefore hadn’t been and ‘other’, Desdemona’s father would have been alright with the marriage. Othello’s prominent position in the Venetian Army made him an ideal spouse for the militant’s daughter, however through implicit dialogues, Othello is given an inferior position and viewed as a con that is unworthy of the white woman’s love.


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