Is “colorblind casting” problematic?

July 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

“Colorblind casting” is defined in this New York Times piece by culture critic Maya Phillips as “performers [inhabiting] characters of racial backgrounds that [differ] from their own.” When applied in such a way to ensure “acting justice” (people of all ethnicities getting an opportunity to play anyone) rather than just letting white people play people of all ethnicities—as was often the case in early movies—it would seem to be fine. But in Phillip’s piece she finds several reasons why such casting is problematic.

In a way, Phillips’s counterintuitive take on colorblind casting reminds me of the piece by the paper’s music critic, Anthony Tommasini, urging orchestras to drop blind auditions as a (misguided) way to increase ethnic diversity. And it shows the ability of the op-ed writers at the New Woke Times to justify any action, however crazy, if they can be made to look antiracist.

I don’t find her reasons convincing, but let me give my own views first. I’ve never had a problem with people of any race or gender playing anyone, as the whole point of entertainment is to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, as I already noted, “colorblind casting” used to be “colorblind” just for whites, so that we had whites playing Asians or Arabs (i.e., Alec Guinness in Lawerence of Arabia). This reduces the opportunity for talented actors of color to play roles; it was a form of discrimination.

Fortunately, this is being remedied, although when the demand is that actors of a given ethnicity must always play roles of that ethnicity, it seems to go too far.  Perhaps Guinness would have been a much better Prince Faisal in the movie than any available Arab actor, which were surely thin on the ground. (Granted, they did nab Omar Sharif, an Egyptian, as Ali.) The question then becomes “how much acting quality can you sacrifice to achieve equity?” That question is above my pay grade. But surely some equity is needed as a form of thespian reparations: to undo the injustice suffered by potential actors of color who never got a chance.

One other exception: when race is really important in a role, then one should cast appropriately. For example, Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockinbird must surely have to be black, for blackness is essential to his role. Likewise, it would be bizarre to cast a black person play, say, David Duke, for in that case it would be very hard to suspend disbelief!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Reader Bill Benzon sent me the link to Phillips’s NYT piece, adding that he’d written a response on his own website (second screenshot below). I won’t dwell on his response, as you should go over to his website, read it yourself, and comment there on his thoughts. You can comment here on my thoughts.

Phillips’s argument is a bit convoluted, as she begins by recounting (and approving of) all the white actors who withdrew from “roles of color” because (even in voice roles), they weren’t race appropriate, as with the white actors who voiced the black person on “Family Guy” and Apu on “The Simpsons.” She doesn’t have a problem with the multiracial Hamilton (nor do I), as she sees it as an “an act of subversion, a normalization of something other than the white standard.” Well, I’m not sure how subversive it is, but so be it.

And despite telling the reader how much she loved The Wiz (a black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz) and the 1997 racially diverse musical Cinderella, Phillips then backtracks, as she finally sniffs out a few bugs in the “colorblind casting” idea. She states the problem starkly:

It seems needless to say, and yet, here it is: Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs, and so every choice made in that performance will inevitably be an approximation. It is an act of minstrelsy.

What a can of worms she’s opened here! An act of minstrelsy! Does that mean that blacks playing the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are minstrels? Does this mean, as Bill implies in his piece below, that any non-Jew playing Shylock in Shakespeare is an “act of minstrelsy”? I could go on and on and on, but suffice it to say that plays, musicals, and movies largely require the suspension of disbelief, and if we require that every role be played by somebody who’s culturally appropriate, few roles would get played. For who today has an Elizabethan “culture”? And how can any non-German play a Nazi—assuming, that is, that all Germans partake of a Nazi Culture?

In fact, Phillips’s pronouncement would lead to the death of entertainment, or at least its debasement as directors and producers struggle to find characters that fit the “culture” of the role. That includes actors of color as well, who surely couldn’t play white people—unless, I suppose, it’s as an “act of subversion.” In fact, that’s more or less what Phillips concludes, though her piece is not written in a way in which one can draw firm conclusions.

Here’s another problem that Phillips finds with colorblind casting:

But however well-intentioned, there are complications that come with works that aim to use colorblind casting to highlight people of color who wouldn’t otherwise be represented. Creators may cast blind, thinking their job done, failing to consider that a Black man cast as a criminal or a Latina woman cast as a saucy seductress — even when cast without any regard to their race — can still be problematic. One kind of blindness can lead to another.

This is a nonproblem if casting is done sensitively, and I can’t think of many flagrant violations in recent years.  But wait—there are other problems!

And then there’s also the “Hamilton” problem. The show may place diverse bodies on the stage, but productions that would subvert a narrative traditionally owned by white characters must not just tag in actors of color but reconsider the fundamental way the new casting changes the story. In “Hamilton,” the revision of American history is dazzling and important, but it also neglects and negates the parts of the original story that don’t fit so nicely into this narrow model. The characters’ relationship to slavery, for example, is scarcely mentioned, because it would be incongruous with the triumphant recasting of our country’s first leaders. (The “Hamilton” star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to this criticism this week, calling it “valid.”)

The trouble of a colorblind production might not be the casting itself, but the fact that the casting may still erase the reimagined characters’ identities. (If Willy Loman is Black, wouldn’t he have a more complex understanding of the American dream?) Careless colorblind casting — in animated roles, in live-action roles on TV, movies or the stage — assumes that identities amount to nothing and that all experiences are transferable, which is far from the reality.

This problem assumes that the pigmentation of a character cannot be separated from the role he or she is playing. Willy Loman cannot be black because he wouldn’t be the Willy Loman that Arthur Miller imagined. But why not? The problem with Phillips’s critique is that she’s bought into Critical Race Theory to the extent that group identities amount to everything, and that the experiences of every black actor differ in a critical way from those of every white or Asian actor. And if life experience of an actor must perforce be transferable to their roles, then what role is there for black actors in Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, or Ibsen? Phillips’s critique leads to entertainment segregated by actor.

And indeed, that seems to be her conclusion. Citing August Wilson, who also criticized colorblind casting, she concludes (and I agree with this) that we need more art created by people of color to process and portray their own experiences.  But that’s not the issue. Here’s her peroration:

Wilson called not for colorblind casting, but for institutions that invite art by and for people of color, to tell their own stories and not simply ones adapted for them. He doesn’t call for blindness, but visibility: people of color seen on stages and behind the curtains. This applies to all art forms — people of color should be on movie screens, on the TV and in recording booths giving voice to stories about them.

It’s hard not to see his point. Even times when it’s employed with good intentions, colorblind casting often fails in the execution. It’s a larger problem of the narrative of our nation, which frequently refuses people of color their own stories, reflexively opting for a white purview or offering stories written for white characters but with people of color haphazardly slotted in. We’re forever fighting our America’s racial default.

Blindness is no excuse. In a moment when we’re reassessing everything surrounding representation, perhaps it’s time for all of us to finally open our eyes.

By all means, let a thousand ethnicities bloom on stage and screen! But does Phillips realize that her “problematizing” of colorblind casting creates three other problems: “identity entertainment”, with stories always tailored to—and centered on—race (read: oppression): segregated audiences for different pieces, each piece drawing a different ethnic group hungry to see its own “experience”; and the elimination of opportunity for actors of color, who can’t after all, be minstrels. Finally, the rectification of her “problematizing” involves more than just available and talented actors of each ethnicity, but, more important, talented writers, directors, and producer of each ethnicity. Those will come, but I mourn the enlightened colorblind casting that brings us all together. Phillips’s prescription keeps us apart.

Click on the screenshot below to see Bill Benzon’s take, and of course leave your comments about his views on his site.

71 thoughts on “Is “colorblind casting” problematic?

  1. Colorblind casting is fine for plays because they require a greater suspension of disbelief. You can have a black actor play Ceasar because nobody thinks that stage is ancient Rome, but movies are different. Seeing all of the black and Asian actors in Mary Queen of Scots really took me out of the movie, which admittedly wasn’t a great movie to begin with.
    The irony of modern casting is if Omar Shariff were cast as a pharoah today, Twitter mobs would accuse the movie makers of white washing, because the dogma is that ancient Egyptians looked like sub-saharan Africans, and no amount of DNA evidence to the contrary will convince them otherwise.

    1. Black conspiracy theorists claim not only that they were “kangs” (Ancient Egyptian pharaos) but also “Hebrews” (the true Jews that were supposedly enslaved by them).

      I also recall complaints about the white Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra. Obviously, the woman was Greek (or Macedonian) in appearance, being from the rather inbred Ptolemaic dynasty.

    2. Seeing all of the black and Asian actors in Mary Queen of Scots really took me out of the movie, which admittedly wasn’t a great movie to begin with.

      This reminds me of the BBC’s televised version of the Iliad, which cast an Anglo-African actor as Achilles. I have no problem with a non-white person playing, say, James Bond or Superman because the role was not written for any specific ethnicity. But Achilles is different: the Ancient Greeks were clearly Caucasian, and Homer even describes Achilles as having red hair. A movie is supposed to create the illusion of reality—if that isn’t the purpose, then why have costumes, makeup, or special effects? Having a black man in the role of Achilles is anachronistic, like having an Ancient Greek talking on a cell phone or flying a helicopter. If the producers aren’t going to make some attempt at historical accuracy, then they shouldn’t bother with the movie. To me, the main issue is realism. That should take precedence over racial politics.

      1. Except that we have quite specific information about the fictional character James Bond. He was born of a Scottish father and Swiss mother, had blue-grey eyes, and bore a noticeable resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael. (There is even a caricature drawn by Ian Fleming that shows Bond as clearly caucasian.)

        1. “An ancient Greek talking on a cell phone or flying a helicopter:” we do that when we have modern-dress versions of Shakespeare. There was a version of Richard III that was updated to the 20th-century; he cries out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” while trying to drive a jeep that is stuck in the mud. I thought that the movie worked, but most of the audience roared with laughter all through it. They had evidently never seen a modern-dress Shakespeare and seemed to think that the film was a Monty Python-type farce. “They didn’t have cars then!”

        2. Does this ‘specific information’ matter very much? But I’m afraid I have small time for James Bond & Ian Fleming – the racism & misogyny that runs through his books is appalling.

          1. Yes it does. James Bond’s character is informed by his background. He’s clearly a member of the British privileged classes in the books and the films.

            If you recast the role with a black actor, you’d have a different character but with the same name. That’s not the reason why I don’t think it should be done though. I’m pretty sure it would make an interesting film that might break the cliché shaped mould they are currently using.

            When I was a child, my parents used to buy me some fairly awesome clothes and, being quite thrifty, they would repurpose them for my younger brother when I grew out of them. It didn’t matter how awesome they were though, he always resented having to wear second hand clothes all the time. Speaking as a white person who is not an actor (so with obvious authority!), I think surely black actors must resent it a bit that the suggestion for making the film industry more diverse is to recycle roles that were traditionally always played by white men. Wouldn’t it be better to write new awesome characters for black actors?

            If they’d taken the same approach with women, we might have a female James Bond but we wouldn’t have the best fictional spy ever – Ros Myers.

    3. An interesting point about stage v. film. While I agree in principle, I was impressed by Armando Ianucci’s recent film of “David Copperfield”, which succeeded because its colour-blindness of casting was applied much more thoroughly than it usually is: black, Asian and white actors were cast truly indiscriminately (a black mother with a white son, a Chinese father with a white daughter, the lead played by Dev Patel, of Indian extraction etc.). By going beyond the point at which there could be any pretence of realism, it underlined the fictional nature of the narrative as well as of its presentation. This approach to adaptations of fictional works is probably of limited use in presentations of historical subjects, but it did make for a lively and enjoyable film, full of fun and exuberance.

    4. Seeing all of the black and Asian actors in Mary Queen of Scots really took me out of the movie

      It certainly makes me stop and think “are they saying something with this choice, or not?” But I have very little problem enjoying a movie or tv show both while I try and figure the answer out, and after I’ve figured out the answer is “no.”

      It gives a couple minutes of different viewing experience, but IMO in this case different isn’t bad.

  2. Agreed that any actor should play any role, although colorblind casting is a problem. If a director wants to cast blacks in half the leads in a Shakespeare play, there is enormous thematic potential there but only if the director knows which are black and which are white in advance. I agree that a kind of affirmative action is in order, but it seems deliberate unconventional race-casting would have to inform the thematic bedrock of a production and not come in as a random after-effect of oolorblind casting. Btw, I would love to see a black person play David Duke.

    1. “Btw, I would love to see a black person play David Duke.” – I wonder how quickly they would be cancelled?

    2. Btw, I would love to see a black person play David Duke.

      Came sorta close with the Black cop convincing David Duke that he (the Black cop) was a white supremacist in Spike’s BlacKkKlansman:

  3. There is no end to this kind of reasoning. It seems to imply that women should only write about women. A gay man can never write a story about a straight male. And it implies that people of color should not write the stories of white people.

    Applying simple amount of science can help. If someone knows something about what it’s like to be a Moor in charge of troops in Venice and have to deal with prejudice and jealousy of others, then that will probably be an interesting story regardless of the color or gender of the author.

    1. Years ago I was coming home from a job interview or the like and I overheard some highschool aged girls talking on the bus enthusiastically. Normally I wouldn’t pay attention, but something caught my ear, and I was amazed to hear these girls from working class neighbourhood and African-background Canadians positively *stoked* about this “white dude who wrote about us 400 years ago”. They had been reading _Othello_ in school. Great art is universal – they had seen that the story of Othello is a *human* one, just as Shakespeare – I think – intended. (Which is not to say it cannot be flawed, too.) I also wanted to congratulate their teachers for taking a risk here. (15 years later, I wonder, would it be as easy? I worry.)

      I *want* to be able to read Kwame Appiah and I want to be able to read Shakespeare. And I think all humans should be able to have those wants too! Fie on all those who would have limited Shakespeare or Appiah to “their own” or me to “mine”.

  4. There’s also the question of multiracial characters. If you made a bio-pic of Pushkin- whose maternal great grandfather was of African descent-you would have to cast a black actor who would likely look nothing like Pushkin to satisfy the identity politics mobs or be accused of white washing.

  5. Was there not a movement on Broadway in the 1960’s that had all-black casts that reimagined plays to adapt them in a more culturally relevant way? One can take a storyline, rewrite it to fit a culture, a country, a time period so that it fits the audience, as people have done with Shakespeare. Or think of the Magnificent Seven (although I’m sure that will be called cultural appropriation). Greek plays have been reimagined quite successfully, one that comes to mind was done by a local high school to fit high school kids’ worldview. The only limits are those of your imagination…or (unnecessarily) your CRT ideology. This is a non-problem in my mind. We are merely variations on a theme and that should be celebrated and embraced rather than seen as fault lines for further racial Balkanization.

    1. The Wiz is like this. There’s nothing “essentially black” about the story, it’s just a retelling of the Wizard of Oz through the lens and music of 1970s urban black culture, and the film featured black pop, comedy, and acting stars of the era. But I can imagine that many would view a production of The Wiz that features non-black actors/actresses in key roles as problematic.

    2. Those sorts of artistic reimaginings still go on. Some are successful, some are not.

      I think what Jerry is talking about is more like retelling a traditional story but just not caring about the races of the actors and actresses. So you make a Hamlet film, you do it very traditionally, not trying to make any “new point” on race or modern society at all, but maybe you pick a Black actor for the Prince, an Asian for Gertrude, and a Hispanic for Ophelia for no other reason than they are really good actors/actresses. You’re not adding or subtracting any lines. You’re not trying to make any social activist point. You’re not doing anything different with the story at all. It’s just not an all-white cast.

      That sort of thing still feels novel to me. I definitely notice it. But not in a bad way.

  6. The author of the NYT piece, as Jerry notes, gives the example of Alec Guinness playing Sharif Faisal as a “white” playing an “Arab” in Lawrence of Arabia. This might not be the best example.

    Arabs are Caucasians or Caucasoids, and thus “White” in the sense of the traditional 5 races of mankind. The various Semitic peoples of course blend in to the Negroid or “Black” (properly capitalized as a taxonomic concept) peoples in Ethiopia and Yemen, but all proper races blend in geographic proximity. So Guinness playing Faisal is more like an Englishman playing a Sicilian, than playing another race.

    Faisal in particular was at least one quarter Circassian (paternal grandmother), and thus a Caucasian par excellence (Circassia being in the Caucasus). Add to this that the physical resemblance between Guinness and Faisal was quite strong, and it seems that this is a not an exemplar of racist casting.

    In terms of casting and ethnicity, the movie is perhaps most notable for introducing Omar Sharif to the pantheon of Hollywood stars, certainly one of the few ethnic Arabs to be so enshrined. (Danny Thomas of course was Arab, but not so much a big screen star.)

    In fact, Anthony Quinn, (Mexican, and therefore probably having considerable American Indian ancestry) as Auda is the biggest racial stretch, because he is the least Caucasian actor in the credited cast.(But Quinn did resemble Auda.)

    Other Arab parts were played by actors of other Caucasian ethnicities (e.g. Pakistani) or Arabs. And Jose Ferrer (Puerto Rican) played a Turk.

    Not that there aren’t examples of disastrous miscasting (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, say), but just this one movie shows that policing casting may be trickier than one might think.

    1. Omar Sharif may not even have been ethnically Arab, at least in the sense most people think of it. He was Egyptian by nationality, but he was born Michel Dmitri Chalhoub, and was a member of Cairo’s long-standing Greek/Levantine Melkite Catholic community. He married a Muslim woman and converted to Islam as required by Islamic marital law, and took a Muslim (i.e., Arab-sounding) name. Even after he divorced his wife, he kept the name, as he had 1) become famous by it and 2) he couldn’t abandon Islam without being branded an apostate (which would have put his life at risk in Egypt).

  7. The casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the 1956 film The Conqueror is the most egregious example of colour blind casting that I can think of, off the top of my head.

    1. Western movies used Yugoslav and other types of Caucasian actors to play Native Americans.

      That being said, I think that the genre was never intended to be historically accurate.

    2. David Carradine was cast in The Legend of Kung Fu after Bruce Lee was turned down for the role. D’oh!

  8. Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs

    Fictional characters don’t have ‘lived experiences’, they have backstory. Which is important, but IMO shallower and easier to transfer across actors than ‘lived experience.’

    Second, unless you’re talking about contemporary settings, it is IMO a mistake to think skin color has much to do with a character’s ‘lived experience’ or backstory. Once you start talking about people from the Renaissance or Feudal Japan or fantastical middle-age-technology realms, their backstory/lived experience is not that of a 21st century person of the same color. We are all, today, closer in culture to each other than any of us are likely to be to our great-great grandparents.

    I have greatly appreciated what seems to be a recent trend of casting people of any and all backgrounds in any and all roles (at least for cheap TV fictions), and ‘damn the torpedoes’ who cares if it’s entirely ahistorical. I hope it continues.

      1. How far do we carry the notion that you mustn’t appropriate someone else’s lived experience? Steven Spielberg is Jewish, but he is not a Holocaust survivor. Should he not have made “Schindler’s List?” And why limit this rule to ethnicity? Should only veterans make war movies? In that case, he shouldn’t have made “Saving Private Ryan” either.

  9. I don’t think we should have colour-blind casting. The appearance of an actor is surely one of the factors relevant to casting.

    If the director wants to cast an actor of a different race for artistic reasons (picking Morgan Freeman to play Caesar or whatever), then fine, that’s ok. But simply ignoring visual appearance is not sense.

    This particularly matters in some historical dramas, where colour-blind casting can make it unrealistic (though if it’s a deliberate decision to change the setting, then, again, ok).

    So, casting a black actress to play Anne Boleyn in a Henry VIII film, as an artistic decision is fine; but doing it through colour-blind casting would be silly.

    1. One of the highlights of lockdown in the UK was the TV screening of films of RSC productions, which included the stunning 2016 version of ‘Hamlet’. This had an almost all-black cast, with the great Paapa Essiedu in the title role. The implied concept of Elsinore being the capital of an African ‘Denmark’ worked better than one might have imagined. Having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played as hapless white bureaucrats, bossed around and eventually dispatched by Clarence Smith’s Claudius, was pretty funny.

      I didn’t find anything incongruous, and it all worked. But I suspect that completely colour-blind casting (eg a white Hamlet, a black Gertrude and an Asian Claudius) would have jarred. The artistic impact trumps everything else for me.

      1. Excellent comment. It seems to me that except where the matter of race is relevant to the meaning of the play, colour-blind casting is in general a good idea, particularly since it is difficult for non-white actors to break properly into the profession except in small roles, or as characters in plays where race is an issue. But I also agree that artistic considerations should in the end trump everything else. I saw Adrian Lester as ‘Hamlet’ in a production by Peter Brook some years ago (the other characters, with the exception of Ophelia, who was played by a young Indian access) were all white. Lester was excellent (though I was not happy about the production as a whole because of Brook’s ‘take’ on it, and his cutting of it into a sort of chamber play). Papa Essiedu’s ‘Hamlet’ is also very good. There is also a very good RSC production of ‘Julius Caesar’, of which a dvd is available, with an all-black cast using East=African (English) accents. It is one of the two best productions of the play I have seen (the verse was wonderfully spoken, and in particular the relationship between Brutus and Cassius really stood out, as often it doesn’t), the other being a film, involving preparations for and performance of the play, performed by prisoners in a high-security prison in Italy (all members of the Mafia and other such organisations – they really understood the politics and posturing in the play: ‘Caesar Must Die’).

    2. Why would it be silly? I don’t want ninjas or tricorders making an appearance in an Henry VIII drama, but the ahistoricity of a non-white Anne Boleyn doesn’t really bother me at all, and doesn’t IMO undermine the core story in any way.

      1. To me it would be ahistorical, as if they drove to their wedding in a motor car rather than a horse-drawn carriage. Historical realism matters in historical dramas. (Of course opinions on this can vary.)

        1. I don’t see why we should think skin color is so important to get historically right but nothing else is. Romeo and Juliet are rarely played by 16-year-olds. In Anne’s case, it’s likely Hollywood would go the other way, and get a young beautiful twenty-something to play the role of someone who was 33 at the time in RL. Similarly, nobody’s going to care if they get some American with zero drops of British blood in them to play either Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn. Or if a non-Spaniard plays Catherine of Aragon. And really nobody’s going to care if the actors aren’t Catholic or Anglican.

          It seems biased to me to be okay with ahistoricity of actor age, okay with ahistoricity of actor nationality/’race’, okay with ahistoricity of actor religion, but not okay with ahistoricity of actor skin tone. If you can sit back and enjoy 30-year-old Brit Andrew Garfield playing a character who is supposed to be a 17-year old HS student from Queens in Spiderman,* then really, what’s the problem with sitting back an enjoying a Black or Asian actress playing a historical character who is originally Norman/Anglo-Saxen? They’re both “ahistorical.

          *Best props however goes to Shirley Henderson. With no de-ageing makeup, through a bunch of movies, Harry Potter fans happily sat back and suspended their disbelief that she was 15-year old ‘Moaning Myrtle’…when the actress was 40.

  10. Treat these choices as artistic and leave people free to create what they want to; we can argue afterwards about how well it works. If at worst you have a production that some people consider a failure, so what?

    1. Exactly. I saw a version of Othello where both Othello and Iago were black. It was interesting but, since it didn’t fit the dialogue, it did not really work.

      I have no problem with the director trying it but I would found it more distracting than good. It probably didn’t help that the Iago actor was much, much better than the Othello actor.

      1. There was quite a bit of argument, inspired by racism, in the past over whether Othello really was black, despite that fact that he and others say he is. Here are the words of a ‘lady from Maryland’, a Miss Preston, as quoted by M.R. Ridley, editor of the Arden edition of the play (the words originally appeared in the American scholar Horace Howard Furness’s variorum edition of the play, 1886; I don’t know whether he approved of them – I hope not, but why then quote them as though they deserved to be taken into serious account?):

        “In studying the play of OTHELLO, I have always imagined its hero A WHITE man. It is true the dramatist paints him black, but this shade does not suit the man. It is a stage decoration, which MY TASTE discards; a fault of colour from an artistic point of view. I have, therefore, as I have before stated in MY READINGS of this play, dispensed with it. Shakespeare was too correct a delineator of human nature to have coloured Othello BLACK, if he had personally acquainted himself with the idiosyncrasies of the African race.
        “We may regard, then, the daub of black upon Othello’s portrait as an EBULLITION of fancy, a FREAK of imagination, — the visionary conception of an ideal figure, — one of the few erroneous strokes of the great master’s brush, the SINGLE blemish on a faultless work.
        “Othello was a WHITE man.”

        (I have capitalised her emphatic italics, since I can’t seem to reproduce italics when commenting here.)

        This would be funny if it were not so appalling, and if one could not still readily come across such attitudes one hundred years later, as when police cadets in Britain were asked to write briefly about ‘blacks in Britain’ in 1982. One went:

        “Blacks in Britain are a pest. They come over here from some tin-pot banana country were (sic) they lived in huts and worked in the fields for cultivating rice and bananas, coconuts and tobacco, and take up residence in our already overcrowded island… They are by nature unintelegent (sic) and can’t at all be educated sufficiently to live in a civilised society of the Western world.”

        I wonder what American police cadets would write on this subject.

        1. I once saw very good, and alarming, Dutch production of ‘Othello’ (slightly modified) in which both Othello & Iago were white.

  11. And if life experience of an actor must perforce be transferable to their roles, then what role is there for black actors in Shakespeare …

    I take it you mean other than Othello.

    None of this stuff stopped Orson Welles, way back in nineteen-hundred-and-thirty-six, from casting all Black performers in a production of the Bard’s Scottish play, reset to a Caribbean Island and staged in Harlem, in Voodoo Macbeth.

    Now, those witches had soul.

  12. Once again we see the dead hand of the “culture critic” pulling down and destroying a creative act they simply don’t understand, because the logic of the totalitarian thought system to which they are committed simply won’t allow it. As we saw in a recent post, criticism from the same intellectual source is now being applied, equally brainlessly, to orchestras.

    Last week I saw the National Theatre’s 2018 production of “Amadeus” (you can still catch some clips on YouTube, though the full show has sadly expired). To call Lucian Msamati’s compelling and utterly convincing portrayal of Salieri an act of “minstrelsy” would be an absurd and ridiculous insult to a towering performance, instantly falsifiable by simply watching the show. And once again, we see the limitations of American critics for whom “minstrelsy” — a specifically American, and specifically recent, historical phenomenon — is the only frame of reference they are aware of for understanding the vast range of ways in which people have represented those of other races all over the world over several millennia. The reductive simplification of it all is crass.

    People of this mindset are simply incapable of understanding the possibilities that artists can create when they think imaginatively about human experience. For them, it must be a total mystery how male and female novelists can create convincing characters of the opposite gender; how a poet like Milton can create an antagonist like Satan who is the most sympathetic character in Paradise Lost. How a composer like Schumann can convincingly express the female experience of love in Frauenliebe und Leben. Small-minded, mean-spirited people display their poverty of imagination by showing how much they distrust the imaginative faculty of the artist, in any medium, and distrust the ability of audiences to understand it and respond to it, because they themselves do not. The specific ideology they use to express their distrust and disapproval may change — yesterday religion, today race — but the impulse is always the same. When they try to foist their limitations on the rest of us, our response should always be the scorn they deserve.

  13. I had earlier looked at the ‘criticism’ of Hamilton, and thought it a synthesized critique, intended only to show off Woke cred. L. Miranda handled it quite well. But I think there is a real worry that the issue will keep growing into a real problem b/c one-uppery runs rampant with those folks. ‘I am more progressive than you are. See? Hamilton is racist because they don’t properly deal with the connections of Alexander Hamilton and slavery’.

    Anyway, there is this new show on NetFlix: Indian Matchmaking ( which is a reality show about the still ongoing tradition of matchmaking in India. Candidates choose their future spouses in large part based on pale skin color, looks, and body weight. Very cringy, but it is a tradition of a large non-white population.
    I wonder how the Woke will parse that one!

  14. Technology will soon be able to replace demanding human actors with digital ones. Any race, sex, age or ability. And once we have that, we’ll be able to replace ourselves as actor-of-choice in such movies. Problem solved.

  15. Surely there is a difference between formats? If we watch a stage play & Henry V is black or female it is not a bother because we are in a staged story that is “based on” a real person with imagined dialogue. If I watch a film however that is purporting to be historical, that would bother me.

    The answer is more radio drama!

    1. Also:

      “Problematics in the narrower critical usage are not necessarily the same thing as genuine problems, as they are identified by critical theory, which isn’t necessarily concerned with understanding why and how a phenomenon works but rather how it falls short of being (morally) perfect according to the moral structure underlying the critical theory at hand. Thus, “problematic” in Critical Social Justice [aka Wokeism] means something that either transgresses the moral boundaries of Critical Social Justice or that potentially could contribute to the transgression of those boundaries, even if only in Theory.
      Thus, if something could conceivably be considered racist or upholding of racism (for just one of many potential -isms) even by the most tortured logic, it’s problematic.

      In practice, “problematic” is a word applied to anything that a critical theorist doesn’t like and wants to complain about, and the “problematics” involved will be the specific reasons they have rationalized for those complaints. To be completely fair, sometimes these observations carry legitimacy, which makes the misapplication of the term to so many trivial and asinine things a tragedy, as it obscures the genuine capacity to reliably identify problematics in need of correction.”

  16. Bill Benzon’s piece is very good. I happen to own a DVD of Olivier’s Othello and I am an admirer of Orson Welles’s beautifully directed film of Othello. Both productions are nowadays better known for their “blackface” than their artistry. But neither Olivier nor Welles were performing minstrel show versions of African Americans—they wore makeup to play Shakespeare’s “Moor” and attempted to bring the character to life. I think the world would have been a poorer place if such great artists had been barred from playing one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles, simply on account of skin color. By the same rule, non-white actors deserve the same freedom.

    Nowadays Othello is a role exclusively reserved for African American/British actors. But it is doubtful that any actors of that background have the same “lived experience” as Othello, or even the same culture.

    Of course there has been a long and now problematic tradition of white actors playing non-white roles, ranging from the “Indians” in Hollywood westerns to Richard Barthelmess playing the kindly Chinese man in D.W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” (and of course the awful blackface in the Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”). But that practice is dying and in disrepute. It will be interesting (and maybe even fun) if we see actors in “whiteface,” or stage productions where every actor is deliberately cast as the “wrong” race and made to impersonate someone outside their “live experience.” I believe the name for that is acting.

  17. There is undoubtedly more very fine actors of all ethnicities than we typically see. Certain stars are promoted over an over. The same 25 Hollywood stars fill the rolls we are allowed to see. Thus, stories should be made and selected to reflect all aspects of life. Writers and directors and producers are the ones deciding what roles are available. Why then should it be difficult to create plays with adequate representation? I think the bench is deeper and more diverse than we’ve seen.

  18. Inasmuch as opera is acting where everyone sings instead of speaks, I wonder if Ms. Phillips has a problem with females of African ancestry (Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, et al) singing Wagnerian, and other, female roles. (Verdi’s “Aida” excepted).

  19. I just couldn’t watch a film about vikings if the vikings were short Japanese. That would stretch the suspension of disbelief to breaking point.

    1. Conversely, period dramas are very popular (and numerous) in Japan, South Korea, and China. It would be very off-putting to feature Europeans, Africans, and South Asians as actors in a Romance of the Three Kingdoms series or a movie about the end of the Edo Period and Commodore Perry’s landing.

      1. Well I have actually played Commodore Perry in a Japanese TV drama, NHK’s ‘Ryoumaden’. It was not a pleasant part to play, since the script made him out to be a greedy, brutal vulgarian, whereas – whatever one thinks about the use of threats to force Japan to open itself – he was in fact a highly intelligent and gifted man. Had they made him black, of course, that would have played even more to the prejudices that many Japanese people hold, alas, about outsiders, and to which the drama pandered.

  20. In “No Time for Sergeants” Private Will Stockdale was sent to a psychiatrist when he said “I see a Colonel and a Captain, that’s all I see.

    Times have changed.

    1. In Shakespeare’s time all female roles were played by men.

      Has ‘race’ replaced ‘sex’ as a problem for aspiring actors?

  21. “Willy Loman cannot be black because he wouldn’t be the Willy Loman that Arthur Miller imagined. But why not?”
    Indeed, at the Guthrie Theatre I saw “Death of a Salesman” with a black actor playing Willy Loman and black actors portraying his family. Charly was still played by a white man. It worked, it was moving, it gave new flavors to the story (and to Willy’s relationship to Charly) and I left thinking, “Why don’t we experiment with casting more?”
    I thought it was wonderful. I applauded the remake of “Annie” with a black cast. Who cares if Santa Claus is portrayed as black? Why not do it?

  22. You’re spot on, professor. Why do you still read the New Woke Times (love that) though?

    I *HAVE* to – I live here. And, actually, you get used to the woke crap I think. Plus, their science is very good and international coverage top notch. Ditto their US pol.

    But the squishier subjects (theater, arts etc) – as we say in NYC “That’s for the boids”
    Keep up the good work.

  23. Not only is this kind of reasoning taken to its logical conclusion the death of entertainment. It’s the death of empathy.

  24. “Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs”

    And here I was, thinking that melanin and culture can vary independently. Silly me!

  25. Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs, and so every choice made in that performance will inevitably be an approximation. It is an act of minstrelsy.

    That’s pretty much the definition of acting. Actors are people who step into the “lived experience” of others. If the approximation is a really good one, we give them an Oscar.

  26. This is what happens when some valid points- about race and acting in this case- are filtered through a rigid ideology. It leads to absurd conclusions. Why not just rule of thumb it? There are some cases where it’s okay to do colour blind casting and others where it’s not. Mostly, it seems pretty intuitive (as with the post’s To Kill a Mockingbird/David Duke example). What isn’t useful is a rigid ideological lens which admits of no nuance.

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