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Now showing: Race debate over A Mighty Heart

In A Mighty Heart, we’ve got Angelina Jolie, American, pale of skin, playing the part of the real-life Mariane Pearl, a French-born...

Written by Latimes Washingtonpost | New York |
June 28, 2007 10:29:55 pm

In A Mighty Heart, we’ve got Angelina Jolie, American, pale of skin, playing the part of the real-life Mariane Pearl, a French-born, brown-skinned, curly-haired woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage. Ponder the societal implications of Jolie sporting a spray tan and a corkscrew wig.

Is this the latest entry in the American canon of black-face, 21st-century style? Or does Jolie’s color-bending turn as the wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl herald a change in racial consciousness? Is it a signal that Hollywood truly is colorblind, may the best actress win? Does it matter if a visibly white actress plays a historical figure of (partial) African descent? If so, does it matter that Halle Berry is slated to play a real-life white politician?

In the blogosphere, photos and video clips of Jolie as Pearl serve as a sort of racial Rorschach test. There are those who use the B-word — black-face — in decrying Jolie’s casting as the height of racial insensitivity. But others argue that the Jolie naysayers are practicing reverse racism.

The debate is cast against the backdrop of America’s troubled legacy of minstrel shows, in which white actors slapped on burnt cork or shoe polish, the better to mock African Americans. Film stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor performed in black-face, as did actors in D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, using murderous stereotypes to reinforce America’s worst fears about black men.

Then consider that Forest Whitaker darkened his skin to play Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and the issue gets complicated: Does that count as black-face, or is it akin to Nicole Kidman’s donning a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours?

“Ultimately, this is about acting and finding the right person for the role, regardless of color,” says Charles Byrd, a multiracial rights activist.

But others argue that this country is far from ready for the colorblind approach. There remains a real dearth of roles for women of color.

Pearl says it’s is a non-issue. “This is the story of a group of individuals,” she said, “and how they chose to behave as opposed to a group of people seen through the prism of race, color or religion. I chose Angie for who she is, not what she looks like.”

Says A Mighty Heart director Michael Winterbottom: “To try and find a French actress who’s half-Cuban, quarter-Chinese, half-Dutch who speaks great English and could do that part better—I mean, if there had been some more choices, I might have thought, ‘Why don’t we use that person?’”

In the film, the only reference to Pearl’s heritage is when she tells someone that her mother was Cuban. In her book, Pearl writes about the racism that she, and particularly her brother Satchi, encountered growing up in Paris. Once, she recalls, Satchi came home bloodied by racists who had mistaken him for North African.

When she and Daniel showed up together for interviews in Pakistan, Pakistanis would stare at them. “Danny was white,” she writes, “I looked a bit like them. Nobody asked me about my origins or religion, but I appreciated once more the advantages of our being a mixed couple.”

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