What Happens When Directors Cast White Actors in Non-White Lead Roles
Director Ridley Scott recently set off a firestorm when he dismissed those who criticized him for casting white actors in every major role in the recently released Exodus: Gods and Kings, while reserving roles like “Egyptian thief, "royal servant” and “Egyptian lower class civilian” for actors of color.
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he told Variety. At the film’s premiere, he scoffed at the idea of a boycott and recommended that those threatening to stay away from the film should “get a life.”
It would be terrific if the problem were isolated to Scott or Hollywood. But it’s an issue in the entertainment industry as a whole. A 2014 UCLA study about casting in Hollywood concluded that for films in theatrical release, lead actors were 89.5 percent white. For Broadway and not-for-profit theaters the results were almost as dismal: white actors made up 79 percent of the lead roles.
Just last week the British/South African actress Dame Janet Suzman claimed that “white people go to the theatre, it’s in their DNA” and that theater is “a white invention, a European invention and white people go to it.”
Suzman’s remarks were greeted with much the same anger as Scott’s had been.
“Ludicrous,” said Dawn Walton, artistic director of Eclipse, Britain’s leading black-led national touring company.
Artists of African and Asian descent around the world pointed to the diverse, millennia-old theater traditions on those continents.
Suzman didn’t simply refuse to apologize, she doubled down, identifying the origins of theater with playwright William Shakespeare.
When I bring up the topic of casting with my students, I often ask: Can women play roles written for men? Can white performers play characters of color? Can people of color play characters of a “color” other than their own?
Unfortunately, it seems as though there are few positive real world precedents; examples of prejudice or willful ignorance are far easier to find. Like Mary Zimmerman, director of The Jungle Book at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. When asked about the racism of Kipling’s work, she responded, “I’ve decided to make it not a concern.”
“Racism is in the eye of the beholder, you know?” She added. “If you look at that as racist, doesn’t that say more about what you’re projecting onto the character?”
Meanwhile, the casting of white actors as Japanese characters in a Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of The Mikado made national news this past summer. The actors were made up to look Japanese, leading critics to level charges of “yellow-face” at the production.
And Erin Quill, an actress of Chinese and European descent, wrote a blog post about a Broadway-bound musical in development at the La Jolla Playhouse. The show, The Nightingale, based on a Hans Christian Anderson story about China, cast white actors in all the lead roles. Quill listed all the Broadway-caliber actresses of Asian descent who could have played the lead in lieu of the white actress who was cast.
It’s often said that a good actor can play any role. All the time, actors offer brilliant performances of characters with whom they share little in common. Ordinary people play royalty and nobility, while those who grew up with nothing play the wealthy, and actors innocent of any crime can play felons to great effect. Why, then, does race matter in casting?
One answer is that the entertainment business, like many aspects of our society, is not a level playing field. White actors get cast far more often than performers of any other race, and there’s no single reason for this. In some cases it may be individuals, directors and producers who fear that actors of color aren’t marketable or appeal to too limited an audience. But more likely it is a system that positions whiteness as the norm, as a neutral casting choice that doesn’t carry any racial meanings.
Defenders of the status quo often take refuge in “the best person for the role” argument. However, this line of reasoning usually plays out not as the best person for the role, but as the “safest” choice for the role: a white, known commodity.
Just look at Ridley Scott: while he may brush aside criticism of his casting decisions, his most recent film is, unfortunately, a microcosm of a much larger issue within the entertainment business. It’s up to audiences to resist the industry’s attempts to whitewash its products, to demand that casting choices reflect what our world actually looks like.