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Finding the Right (White) Actor to Cast in that Non-White Role

Over the past weekend, The Hollywood Reporter released an article about the heightened alert placed on ethnic casting. The article starts off with the controversial choice to cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the upcoming Warner Brothers picture Pan, which will be a re-imagined take on Peter Pan lore. Throughout the article, unnamed producers and studio execs justify their casting decisions with the “tried and true” reasoning that it’s always the best actor being cast for the job, regardless of race, even if that means casting white people to play non-white folks. Ideally, I would be in full support of this idea as I think it really should be about choosing the best actor for the job, regardless of race and nationality. Ideally, casting should be “colorblind” because as actors, we are trained to bring a character to life as far removed from us as possible.

And that’s as far as I can go. No really, that’s it. This is where that dreamy ideal world I’d like to be in is instantly crushed by the not-so-sugary reality that “choosing the best actor for the job” and all that hippy dippy freedom-of-the-arts talk is usually reserved only for the status quo. Or in blunt politically incorrect terms: white people.

Because as often as we see white people play non-white people, we hardly see it vice versa. [Ed. note: And when it happens, it’s quickly followed up with maximum amounts of outrage and vitriol.]

It goes without saying that we already know how extremely problematic it is that these producers and studio execs are annoyed about the heightened awareness on “ethnic” casting. Complaining about other people criticizing them for having white people constantly play non-white folks? It makes the execs sound like a couple of entitled privileged butt monkeys, no?

But if I can entertain myself for a bit and see from their perspective for just a moment, they just might have somewhat of a point in what’s exactly considered “proper casting” and the potential that whomever they choose, it’s going to piss someone off. Because someone out there will always be unhappy and in the world of art, it is not possible to make EVERYBODY happy.

Let’s start with the casting of Emma Stone as a quarter Chinese, quarter Hawaiian in Aloha for starters.

By Crowe’s definition in his apology letter, Emma Stone fits the part perfectly because she is a character that looks NOTHING like a hapa so therefore casting suggestions of Olivia Munn, Kristen Kreuk, and the likes are out the window. But the argument here for why this is considered inappropriate is that the actress Emma Stone does not have an ounce of Chinese or Hawaiian blood in her and therefore it’s not the right casting, even though she [allegedly] looks exactly like the real-life person that Cameron Crowe created the character for.

If that can be said, then shouldn’t we (as critical race conscious individuals) ALSO object just as passionately to the casting of Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal playing real-life Iranian Maziar Bahari in Rosewater, or if we go back even further, Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi as a Japanese geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha? Because they “looked” the part (or at least looked like the general ethnicity of the character they are portraying) but they aren’t ACTUALLY the ethnicity of the character.

So technically, the same idea should apply to the casting of Emma Stone and her character because she is the ideal choice to play a hapa who passes exactly for a white person. That works, right? No? Cricket sounds

Where does one draw the line then? What is considered appropriate casting? Because while it’s easy to criticize the actions of white folks (and with good reason because most of the time, it’s pretty messed up), the same level of scrutiny should be applied to our own POC communities as well. There shouldn’t be any double standards to the criticism of representation in media but unfortunately, it seems to be the case. It’s the unfortunate truth that we see a LOT more characters of color become “whitewashed” because studios think that white actors will sell more tickets at the box office.

Only time will tell if this continues to be the case or if the American studio cinema world can also follow suit in the recent success of broadcast television and see that people will turn up in droves even if you have non-white actors playing the main leads.

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