The number of non-white characters played by non-white actors in Hollywood films is still smaller than it should be
In an interview with the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness,done months before the film was released,actors were asked to choose a favourite Star Trek villain. John Cho,who plays Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted series of films,chose Ricardo Montalbans Khan Noonien Singh,adding pointedly that he was also a man of colour. Chos comment may have seemed innocuous enough at the time. But the same interview included Benedict Cumberbatch,who was at the time known only to be playing the villain of the movie. A few months later,we were subjected to the ridiculous spectacle of the lily-white Cumberbatch declaring My name is Khan.
Hollywood has a history of changing the ethnicity of characters,either by rewriting them as white or by having white-skinned actors don blackface (or yellowface or redface) in performances that frequently lampooned them through the use of racial stereotype,as in the tradition of minstrelsy. While blackface is no longer acceptable (though a Hindi movie used the trope for humour earlier this year),the number of non-white characters played by non-white actors is still far smaller than one would expect it to be.
Racebending.com was an organisation formed in 2009 by fans of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The series was based on a number of Asian cultures,yet M. Night Shyamalans adaptation failed to cast Asian actors in the major positive roles.
It is not simply a case of getting the best actor for the job,though that excuse is often trotted out. In an industry where white is the cultural default (unless a role is specified as belonging to a character of a specific ethnicity,it is too often assumed to be white),talented actors already have a difficult time finding a range of complex roles. Even when ethnicity is specified,it is sometimes not clear enough for the culture around it. When the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games was released last year,there was a wave of internet outrage over the casting of the character Rue. Collins had mentioned Rues dark skin and hair more than once,but this wasnt enough for readers,who went so far as to suggest that the character seemed less innocent and her death less tragic when played by the African American actress Amandla Stenberg instead of a light-skinned,blonde girl. Viewers also expressed anger at the movie Thor when Idris Elba was cast as a minor character. The idea of race-blind casting seems to be trotted out selectively,and rarely to the advantage of non-white actors.
Most recently,theres Johnny Depps performance as Tonto in The Lone Ranger,which released in theatres last week. Tonto has long been a controversial character,a pidgin-speaking sidekick whom a number of Native American critics have found to be a demeaning stereotype. Depp has spoken about the potential for re-imagining the character in a respectful way,perhaps even mocking the racist depictions that have come before. But none of this answers the question of whether or not Depp should be playing Tonto in the first place. Depp claims some unconfirmed Native American heritage,and has been adopted as an honorary son by a member of the Comanche Nation,but this hardly makes his casting appropriate. Surely Disney (or Depp himself,if the project is important to him) could have produced a film with a Native American actor in the part? Debate will continue to rage,people will continue to point out that there are no Native American actors of Depps stature (and why would that be?) and the cycle will continue.
But theres hope. Iron Man 3 came as a huge surprise this summer. When the most recent movie in the franchise,starring Robert Downey Jr was announced,much attention was focused on Ben Kingsleys turn as The Mandarin,a character originally portrayed in the comics as a half-Chinese supervillain. Kingsley,of course,is not Chinese (though he is part-Indian),and to many fans,this particular casting choice,and this choice of villain,seemed potentially fraught. In the event,what the film offered was a partial deconstruction of the yellowface it seemed to perpetuate; The Mandarin wasnt Chinese at all,merely an English actor playing to stereotype. This is still far from ideal,and the movies exploitation of its own racism for effect is problematic. But the implication that the movie recognises that audiences are aware of this debate is heartening. If,as the blogger Marissa Sammy at Racebending. com suggests,the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness deliberately used the secrecy surrounding Cumberbatchs role in order to avoid criticism,this too is heartening. It suggests,at least,that the issue is finally making its way into the public discourse to an extent that it can no longer be ignored. What Hollywood chooses to do with this information is yet to be seen.
Subramanian is a Delhi-based writer