Saturday, June 23, 2007

Racially blind or blindly racist

Teresa Wiltz has a very thoughtful piece in today's Washington Post about the controversy of the casting of

Angelina Jolie, American, pale of skin and plump of lip, playing the part of the real-life Mariane Pearl, a French-born, brown-skinned, kinky-curly-haired woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage. Ponder the societal implications of Jolie sporting a spray tan and a corkscrew wig. Discuss: Is this the latest entry in the American canon of blackface --21st-century style?

Wiltz gives space to both sides, those who are offended by casting a white actress (Wlitz notes that Jolie's mother was "reportedly part Iroquois") and those who consider it a step toward race-blind casting, like Halle Berry's forthcoming appearance as a real-life politician who is white. And then she puts the discussion in the context of Hollywood history, casting white performers as non-white characters -- Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, and Katherine Hepburn as Asians, Ava Gardner and Jeanne Crain as black characters, turning real-life minority characters into more box-office-friendly Caucasians -- as recently as in Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center."

I have paid special attention over the years to some of the absurdities and atrocities in racial issues in casting. One of the most absurd is Ricardo Montalban's being cast as a Japanese man -- in a movie about racism ("Sayonara"). Apparently the idea is that all minorities are the same. I did not have a problem in casting Chinese actresses in "Memoirs of a Geisha," though I think the protests hurt the movie's ticket sales. I don't think you have to be Jewish to play a Jew (though at least one critic noted that when Jews play Jews they overact and I would add so do non-Jews -- I wouldn't wish Laurence Olivier's performance as an Orthodox Jew in "The Jazz Singer" on anyone), gay to play a homosexual, Southern to play a Southerner (Brit Vivien Leigh got two Oscars for playing Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois, and "Cold Mountain" had English Jude Law playing a Confederate soldier and Aussie Nicole Kidman playing his true love). That's why they call it acting.

Wiltz perfectly captured the confusion of this moment in a way that was both sensitive and balanced and her article had a reassuring sense that we are moving toward something better. In the original Broadway production of "Once Upon a Mattress," a black actress (and the daughter of the head of the NAACP) was required to put on whiteface every night to play the queen. I thought of that when I read about the casting of Audra Macdonald in Broadway's "110 in the Shade" without any silliness about racially matching her with the people who play her family. (This is something my high school did back in 1970.) And Kerry Washington in "Fantastic Four" plays a character who is white in the comic. I don't think we'll see Queen Latifah appearing as Princess Di. But she did play a role originated by an English white male -- Alec Guiness -- in "Last Holiday."

Also on the front page of the Post is William Booth's piece about the documentary "Reel Bad Arabs," based on the book by Jack Shaheen. The portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood has been limited to "the three Bs" -- belly dancers, billionaire sheiks and bombers."

And thus we have the Timeline of International Villainy. To create drama, especially in action and war movies, Hollywood needs bad guys, and in their time, the Japanese and Germans, and later the Koreans and Vietnamese, served that role. For a long while, commies were useful foils (with their taste for world domination, nukes and vodka), but with the end of the Cold War, the Soviets became the Russians, and the Russians only worked if they were gangsters, and Hollywood already had the Italians to do that job. Colombian drug traffickers were employed as handy replacements, but then coke just felt . . . dated. Transnational corporate evildoers are okay, if not that sexy. But there just has been something about those Arabs. They've got legs.


Anonymous said...

Hi! Just wanted to say I enjoyed your thought-provoking post and wanted to give you a heads up that the link to the Washington Post article is leading to a 404 error page. It looks like you need to check the HTML for the link because Blogger added your blog name to the link, generating an error: Link listed is:


Have a great day!

Nell Minow said...

Thanks so much! It's fixed.