“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.