Race and casting for films

Some groups believe that minority actors are still underrepresented in film

SamuraiFrog wrote: “A lot of people have expressed the sentiment that casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness is whitewashing; taking an ethnic character and casting a white actor in the role. My question, though: is it, actually?”

I had some thoughts even before addressing the core question. One is that I feel really lucky that I don’t read whatever sites go on kvetching about this stuff. Not that it’s not a legitimate source of conversation, but that too many of the participants, I’ve discovered, are REALLY ANNOYING.

More substantially, one can’t really talk about the specific example without talking at least briefly about the broader topic.

Most European and American movies from the beginning, featured white folks, often in roles that, arguably could have been played by a black man (Orson Welles as Othello in the 1952 iteration) or Asian (various roles in the Charlie Chan movies). When I saw Rita Moreno on CBS Sunday Morning a few months ago, she talked about being typecast as that fiery ethnic.

Now that we are in a more presumably enlightened age, when films are cast, there is an attempt to make the canvas more diverse. This, BTW, is not just fairer, it’s good economics, with minority kids having characters they might relate to. Marvel Comics universe in the 1960s was mostly white, so when they make films of their franchise players, some supporting characters that had been white aren’t anymore. A black Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), the villain in the Daredevil film, e.g.

Indeed, as I’ve mentioned, my old blogging buddy Greg Burgas used to play this recast movie game. I was often finding women or minorities to play roles historically associated with white men, to correct the historical institutional racism and sexism.

Still, some groups believe that minority actors are still underrepresented in film. When a clearly ethnic role is cast with a white actor (Johnny Depp as the American Indian role of Tonto in the 2013 Lone Ranger movie, e.g.), the charge of “whitewashing” comes up.

The character Khan Noonien Singh, played by the late, great Ricardo Montalbán was not specifically a Hispanic character. Arguably, it’s an Asian name, though, with all the interracial (and interspecies) marriages in the future, the look may have changed by then.

I’m always willing to note when things are wrong, yet I’m just not feeling this as a real issue. Still, I really appreciate Mr. Frog actually thinking about these issues in an insightful way.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

2 thoughts on “Race and casting for films”

  1. I do think Johnny Depp as Tonto is pretty egregious. And I just want to clarify that when asking about whitewashing, I was specifically only referring to Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan.

    Back when the Hunger Games movie came out, I wrote something on my blog expressing disappointment at the people who said that because Rue was played by a black actress, her death became less sad or sympathetic (if you look at the cues in the book, Rue is clearly black, but a lot of readers had missed it). Someone in the comments took me to task for it, and used the example of Michael Clarke Duncan playing the Kingpin as “wrong” because Wilson Fisk was always white in the comics, and compared it to a white actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. in a movie, which I think illustrates… well, something.

  2. I don’t see any problem switching the races of characters unless it somehow influences the plot.

    I do think there’s not enough non-white representation in movies, particularly in positive roles and in science fiction. However, I also know that when directors make the decision to have a more diverse cast there are often complaints from the fan base, which is what I think SF is referring to in his comment above.

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