Is it right to depict White characters as other races in movies and TV shows?
- Color-blind casting refers to an actor’s race being overlooked “so people of color can take on historical roles or other parts traditionally played by white actors.” Color-conscious casting considers an actor’s race, “including the injustice and discrimination that often goes along with it…to reimagine a performance or show.”
- In response to the 2015 Academy Awards acting nominations being given exclusively to White actors, activist April Reign immediately tweeted, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” The Academy responded in 2016 by vowing to diversify its voting body, a feat achieved in 2020 with “45% women, 36% underrepresented ethnic/racial communities, and 49% international from 68 countries.”
- A YouGov Omnibus survey reveals that in terms of casting, “Blacks (49%), Hispanics (49%), and other minorities (58%) say that they frequently see characters like them cast as sidekicks, but not as authority figures.”
- The concept of ‘race-reversed casting’ is accredited to actor Patrick Stewart, who, in 1997, portrayed a White Othello “opposite an almost entirely African-American company.”
With the film and TV industry becoming more diverse, it seems only natural to depict more stories about people from diverse backgrounds; however, some still see changing a White character's race as either controversial or not true to a character's storyline.
It’s important to point out that many characters written in books never actually have their race clarified. Although some people make assumptions based on location or vague physical descriptions, some characters' races are left up to the imagination. Therefore, a film or TV adaptation can cast any race without deviating from a source material's original meaning.
Most notably, when done with a genuine reason to tell a story differently, recasting a character as a different race instead of White can contribute to positive representation and role models, which is something that is usually lacking for Black, Latino, and Asian communities in film.
Further, a character's race often doesn't affect a storyline, so there is no harm in changing it to accommodate an actor that embodies the appropriate characteristics during a remake or adaptation. In the past, a discussion of Idris Elba playing James Bond was controversial in the media. Even though a high-status white British man has historically played 007, there is no reason why an actor such as Elba, who embodies the same suaveness and debonair attitude as the original James Bond, shouldn't play one of the many iterations of the character.
Overall, a character can be adapted in many ways that remain true to the original representation; using different races for White characters can often enhance storylines and create more diverse movies and TV shows.
From Hamilton to Bridgerton and all the way to the latest The Little Mermaid, Hollywood has been making colorblind casting choices. However, the idea of creating worlds where race doesn’t exist isn’t as ‘woke’ as it may seem.
In fact, colorblind casting is more racist. It ignores race and ethnicity and minimizes them to negligible factors. This, in turn, limits their impact on characters’ lives and core identities. It also robs individuals who share the same race as the character of opportunities to shine.
For example, Hollywood may believe casting Rachel Zegler in the latest West Side Story adaptation can redeem its choice to cast a White actress in the 1961 movie. However, Zegler is a Columbian-American, whereas the character is Puerto Rican. According to Pew Research Center, only 39% of Hispanics believe they have much in common with each other. Moreover, they prefer being known by collective names that reflect their nationalities of descent, such as Mexicans.
Another aspect to consider is that swapping races may do characters a disservice. Some roles have their racial identity deeply embedded in the DNA of the character. For instance, T’Challa from Black Panther “must remain Black” as their culture influences the character’s point of view. Similarly, prominent White figures should be played by people of the same ethnicity to ensure they understand them best.
So, if social justice is truly the goal of this type of casting, races and ethnicities should be acknowledged and embraced. Moreover, actors should be cast in roles in an organic, authentic way--not just swapped to counter claims of whitewashing.