Who Gets To Tell What Stories And Why?

Some Interesting Questions Raised By A Recent Column In The New York Times Claims That Colorblind Casting Is Well-Meaning But Perhaps Ultimately Damaging To BIPOC.

In a column published by The New York Times on July 8th, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/arts/television/hamilton-colorblind-casting.html Maya Phillips argues that “even well-intentioned efforts at creating diversity create complications.” I personally found the article cogent and compelling. I found myself largely nodding in agreement with Ms. Phillips’ arguments. But I have an honest question. The article’s thesis seems to be that, however well-meaning colorblind casting is, it is by its very nature, inauthentic.

This may be true. But if that’s a central pillar in your argument, where is the line drawn? I mean, certain things seem obvious to me, and to be fair, the column confined itself largely (though not completely) to issues of race. That White actors shouldn’t play BIPOC roles seems a no-brainer to me. However, in the name of authenticity and fairness, why are we somewhat arbitrarily stopping there? If it is a question of using a rubric that states the oppressor should never play the oppressed, fair enough. That makes sense. We’re done here then, right?

I Find Few Things More Intellectually Lazy Than Talking About A “Slippery Slope.” But Isn’t This A Slippery Slope?

But does that mean a straight actor can never play gay character? Should a Non-Jewish actor be allowed to play a Jewish role? Certainly the Jewish experience is innately different from that of the WASP. If “authenticity” is a central concern, wouldn’t this apply the other way around, too? Should Dustin Hoffman not have been cast in The Graduate?

It’s Not Just Race: Ethnicity Is Problematic, Too.

Phillips castigates the racist assumption that “Chinese is synonymous with Korean.” Again, I don’t disagree. But then it has to be asked, why stop at the conflation of those two nationalities? Should Nebraska farm boy Marlon Brando not have been allowed to play Stanley Kowalski, a Polish-American WWII vet? His Polishness is, in fact, a subject raised more than once in the text (not as a central theme, admittedly). But he talks about his war experiences, of which Brando had none.

Should he have been allowed to play the Sicilian Vito Corleone, who, at 8, witnesses his mother’s murder and is smuggled out of his native Italy to America? For context, let’s remember that well into the 20th Century, many in America considered Italians and those of Mediterranean descent to be a separate race. I know, right? We’re a pretty f#%$ed up nation. In fact, in the 1920s, Massachusetts law forbade Italians from having romantic relationships with Whites.

Even leaving that aside, I would argue the horrible experiences young Vito underwent are overtly traumatic and formative and were totally foreign to Brando’s life, just as I’m confident Meryl Streep didn’t have to choose in real life which child to sacrifice to the Nazis at a death camp. To not have a problem with these casting choices would, I think, seem to take for granted that being White is a sufficiently homogenous experience to make such portrayals OK. Which is, I think, naive at best.

Art Is “Holding A Mirror Up To Nature,” Right? But Aren’t Reflections Inherently Inauthentic, Too?

To quote the article: “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.”

Totally fair. But that describes the craft of acting in general, no? Again, I’m not posing these questions rhetorically, nor am I saying it’s fine for Emma Stone to play an Asian-American in a film (yes, that actuallyhappened). The reasons for that being wrong are multiple -obviously, the cultural erasure, but also the sheer fact that Hollywood isn’t overflowing with roles for Asian-Americans.

Because the underlying assumption of the article seems to be that unless you’ve experienced the world more or less precisely (an oxymoron, I know) as your character has, you have no right to play it. This creates a very problematic framework for the making of art, I think. Most troubling of all, it also seems to implicitly argue that our common humanity is a nothing but a naive, well-meaning myth. And, to me, as the kids like to say, the implications of that are chilling AF.

I’m not trying to be provocative; I’d love some feedback. Let me close by saying I think it’s a good thing that we’re openly tackling these questions, and trying to find equitable and morally sound answers. I’m curious as to how my fellow artists feel about this.

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

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