Imagine No Color
Imagine a world where everyone on Earth has roughly the same skin color. How would it happen? I don’t know, imagine! Maybe COVID-45qanon affects skin color. Maybe God snaps her fingers and we all turn chartreuse. I picture a super popular K-Pop/HipHop documentary directed by Harry Styles that starts a worldwide trend of everyone marrying someone different looking and ten generations later we’re all looking like Mariah Carey, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, or Bruno Mars, only more so.
My imaginary world is pretty much the same as our current one. People are still making movies, still covering the same kinds of stories, even if they’re in 3D and use sense-around™.
Color-blind casting won’t be a thing because it’ll be the only thing. People will know about skin tone—they’ve read history books—but that won’t be how they judge actors because it can’t be.
If award-winning director Dwayne Bruno Carey wants to direct the touching love story of Beren, a mortal man, and Lúthien, an elf maid, set in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth1, he won’t worry about race, because that’s not the story he’s telling. No fans will be screaming “you cast a brownish elf instead of a brownish elf,” because we’ll all be brownish. They’ll know that Tolkien was a philologist, expert in European languages and myths but that won’t make them feel that Beren and Lúthien must reference European racial groups. Audiences will be entertained, critics will rave (five Academy Awards), and President Kamala DeSantis will invite him to the White House. (Although as a staunch vegan Carey won’t attend to protest the White House’s refusal to subsidize cloned almond milk production.)
Will the story suffer? Not one iota. Beren will still fall in love with Lúthien. Her father will still demand a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown as the price for his daughter’s hand. Elves and humans will fight, monsters will roar, and evil will be faced. The skin color of the characters has nothing to do with the story.
Now take away my science fiction premise and replace it with a weirder one: All today’s various skin tones exist, but we don’t care. When we look at someone, we don’t think about race at all (although if we were asked we’d say that yes indeed, our buddy Nick does have darkish skin). So again, when watching Beren and Lúthien, we wouldn’t worry about racial dynamics, we’d just follow the story. “C’mon Beren, you can do it! Kill those stinking orcs!”
The Rings of Power
The creators of The Rings of Power cast their series exactly this way, ignoring the race of the actors. The hobbits, elves, and humans are played by actors of different racial backgrounds although that fact plays no part in the story. This approach has been making Tolkien fans grumpy for months.
It may be true that Tolkien pictured white people playing his characters, although I’m not sure about that. In his books, peoples are described with varying skin tones, including hobbits, who range from “fair” to “browner of skin,” and no color (or colour) is marked out as superior. Tolkien himself, born in South Africa, spoke against racism.
I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all, I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.
More importantly, skin tone plays no role in the actual story of Lord of the Rings or in the earlier period around which The Rings of Power is based. In the trilogy, nine brave adventurers set out from Rivendell to put Sauron’s ring into Mount Doom and their skin tones have nothing to do with this journey. Their story is one of doughty companions and allied kingdoms triumphing over a great evil.
I understand that some people have difficulty making this conceptual leap. We live in a world where race is constantly discussed. Racism is still around us (although we disagree vehemently about which of us are the real racists). It’s hard not to think about race, but it can be done!
Jump back to my imaginary raceless world. That world would have to ignore race because all their actors looked roughly the same. They’d know that the idea of race used to exist, but they’d mixed up everyone’s genes so much that it had become moot.
And now again, throw away my imaginary history but keep the attitude. You see the colors but you don’t care, because you’re following the story. It can be done because I did it. Yes, I still have old habits. I noticed that Asian guy on the ship heading to Numenor, but my main thought was “is he a main character or not?” If my old and creaky brain managed to do so, anyone’s brain can.
Similar issues have come up over Disney’s upcoming live-action Little Mermaid, a remake of the old Disney cartoon. Critics have complained about the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. Bailey, a talented pop star, is black, while the previous Ariel was a white-looking cartoon.
Two connected lines of argument attack the producers’ choice of a black actress. First, in the original Disney movie Ariel is shown as white, why can’t the new movie stick to that tradition? Second, the original Hans Christian Anderson story is Danish, and so should have a European actress (although I haven’t seen people insisting that she be Danish).
The Little Mermaid comes out of European tradition and so she should be white!
That argument is weak. We are constantly playing with and borrowing from different traditions. A Fist Full of Dollars is an Italian remake of Yojimbo which is a Japanese adaption of Red Harvest, an American book. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai has been copied repeatedly, from John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven to the Roger Corman-produced monstrosity Battle Beyond the Stars. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong actionfest Infernal Affairs (both are great but I prefer the original).
The 1989 Disney cartoon itself takes horrible liberties with the 1837 Hans Christian Anderson story. As with all his stories, Anderson’s tale is dark. His little mermaid must suffer horrible pain in order to walk with her newfound legs and in the end, the prince she loves ends up marrying another. There is no cute tropical fish to be her best friend and no Caribbean-accented crab to serve as King Triton’s advisor. (And what about that Jamaican accent for a character in a Danish-inspired story? Not very authentic! And yet I’ve heard no complaints about it.)
An even more common criticism is that black actors, like Ms. Bailey, are chosen to make some kind of woke statement. It’s a cynical choice designed to advance a social justice agenda.
Matt Walsh and others call it a double standard. Black actors can play traditionally white roles but white actors can’t play non-white roles.
There’s some truth here. I’m sure some casting choices are made deliberately to push boundaries. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Yes, in an ideal world, I’d vote for casting based purely on talent, not race, but for most of cinema’s history, white characters were the norm, and non-white characters were brought in as servants, backdrop, and for comic effect, and even then they were often played by white actors. That couldn’t change without some deliberate boundary-pushing. That’s not hypocrisy.
Is it time for this boundary-pushing to stop? Have we gone far enough in creating diverse casts? I looked at 2019’s films (I chose that year because it’s before the pandemic turned the movie world upside down), and the top 10 movies still had mostly white leads. We need not worry yet that we’ve gone overboard on representation.
1- Avengers Endgame - All white leads
2- The Lion King - Black voice actors
3- Toy Story 4 - White voice actors
4- Frozen - White as snow
5- Captain Marvel - Still white
6- Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - White leads except for John Boyega
7- Spider-Man: Far from Home - White (but his girlfriend isn’t)
8- Aladdin - Non-white!
9- Joker - Psychotic white
10- It Chapter Two - Very white clown, mostly white anti-clown fighters
Is Walsh right that people would object to a white actor playing Black Panther? I think that’s a safe bet. Black Panther is a character created to give black people a stake in the superhero universe. If it bugs you that there’s no White Tiger or White Bear or White Power Man (which might be very very bad), I’ll point to a wide swathe of superheroes who are already white.
There is still a special benefit for non-white representation in spaces where non-white people have had limited access for a very long time. The first televised interracial kiss—on Star Trek—came during my lifetime! I remember the joy of two of my black students doing the Wakanda salute after Black Panther premiered. That mattered. I also remember watching Avengers Endgame in a Harlem theater, and when Black Panther’s crew appeared as the first team to come to Captain America’s aid in the final confrontation (“Captain, on your left.”), that crowd went wild with glee. As one of the few white folks in the room, I got to see representation matter again.
Color-blind or Representation?
I began by pushing for color-blind casting (all elves are equal!) but then I argued for representation so we can see non-white folks up on the screen. Which is it, Carl?
We are in an era of transition. Before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it was simply assumed that white actors got all the jobs. In that context, pushing for more representation could be seen as a kind of racism only if you ignored all the still continuing racism that made that push necessary. Now we live in a time when representation is finally widespread, but this has just recently been achieved. Ideally, we should be color-blind when casting, but if this takes away roles from black people just when they’ve begun to achieve a degree of equality on the big and small screens, it feels very unfair.
And what is the need? Are white actors really that desperate for jobs that they need to take Black Panther’s? Is this really a demand that people are making? What black role is Matt Walsh eager to see go into white hands? There is none. He just wants to be able to yell “hypocrisy” as a cudgel to wave around in the never-ending culture wars. And yes, “woke” activists can also make a big deal out of these casting choices in a way that is unhelpful. It takes two sides to fight a stupid culture war.
I think if we’re smart, we will ride this transition into a better future. As much as we can, we will use color-blind casting. Almost every role open to actors of every race. Mermaids and hobbits and elves can be black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. And sure, some roles will for a while be kept for non-white actors. The fighters of Wakanda will be black. The sorcerors of Shang-Chi will be Asian. I don’t think that’s hypocrisy. It’s acknowledging that we’ve been living in the blinding fog of racism and that while we are coming through we haven’t quite left it behind. Gradually, as we see the better world we’ve made, the need for special roles for certain skin tones will fade away.
A color-blind future
Color-blind casting is the best future for all of us.
We should use color-blind casting first because we want to cast actors on the basis of skill, not skin tone. If Idris Elba is the best guy for the role (and what role is he not the best guy for?), the director should cast Idris Elba.
Second, we go color-blind because we have a multi-racial society and it’s good to reflect that in our art. America’s population is 60% non-Hispanic white. I don’t think we should have quotas so that every film is 40% non-white but being open to casting people of every skin tone helps us build a better world. I’d like every black nerd who grew up reading Tolkien to think he or she has a place in that universe. Likewise, a Korean-American actor who loves Shakespeare should have the opportunity to play King Lear.
Do I sound all woke and pro-social justice? Perhaps so. This is the kind of social justice I can get behind. Not preaching at people and telling them they’re racist if they refer to the “master bedroom,” but trying to build the world that Martin Luther King Jr. saw in our future.
Part of our problem as a world is seeing race as this inevitable reality when it’s actually a fiction that we use to chain ourselves down. The minute you start to look closely at race, the idea falls apart, and yet we cling to it, afraid to set ourselves free. Multiracial casting is a step in the direction of ending that smothering delusion.
Can we use color-blind casting everywhere? Probably not yet. If you’re making a movie about the Civil War, I think our brains would have a hard time accepting a cast where slaves and slave owners could be white or black (although a movie where all the slaves were white, all the slave owners black, might be interesting).
But fantasy and science fiction? Those most imaginative of genres? Why not?
It’s interesting that much of the criticism of The Rings of Power has come from conservatives who see it as yet another example of “wokeness,” but color-blind casting is just as often attacked from the left. The recent choice of James Franco to play Fidel Castro in an upcoming film had some Latino actors up in arms. John Leguizamo went to Instagram to angrily post “How is Hollywood excluding us but stealing our narratives as well? No more appropriation Hollywood and streamers! Boycott!” Of course, Leguizamo isn’t Cuban, he’s of Colombian heritage, so why does he get a say?2
Leguizamo’s reaction fits in with a stultifying left-wing view that “cultural appropriation” is always wrong.
“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.”
— Maya Phillips, New York Times (July 8, 2020)
This left-wing insistence that actors have cultural authenticity is as misguided as the complaints of the right. In future movies, can Obama only be played by left-handed actors whose fathers are Kenyan and mothers from Kansas? I reject all these straightjackets on creativity. Pick the actors who can do the job and work towards a world where race is an almost forgotten legacy of past blindness.3
I’ve watched the first three episodes of The Rings of Power and I find the skin color of the actors to be completely irrelevant to my enjoyment. I have some other issues—the pace is slow, Hobbits are twee, Galadriel’s swim seems a wee bit implausible—but for that we must blame the writers, poor wretches.
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In the year 2300, 31% of all films will be set in Middle Earth.
To add a whiff of hypocrisy, Leguizamo played Luigi, an Italian, in Super Mario Bros (1993).
I am not suggesting that Obama should be played by a white actor. While that might be interesting, and I’d be willing to entertain the possibility, I think biopics of this sort are still constrained by our racial expectations. To be clear, I was merely saying that if you really want to insist on cultural authenticity, being black would not be enough. The actor would have to specifically have a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother. Eventually, only Obama could play Obama.