I like to play a little game called "Realism or Racism." Here's how it works: Whenever you see a movie, TV show or play, ask yourself, "Are the actors all white due to realism (i.e., casting a non-white actor would seriously confuse the story), or racism (i.e., the producers have chosen material for which they can argue -- in a seemingly reasonable way -- that casting a non-white actor would contaminate the story's clarity, but really such casting would only put a greater variety of talented people to work, and increase three-dimensional representation of people of color, and if such casting would indeed confuse the story, well... the producers could have chosen material with more diverse casting opportunities to begin with, but... didn't)"? Wanna play?
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which opened last Friday) is ripe for this game, though to be frank, I entered the theater hoping for a journey less expected.
In November 2010 -- while The Hobbit was filming -- it was reported that a casting agent had been fired from the New Zealand-based production, for placing ads seeking actors with "light skin tones." After "sacking" the agent, director Peter Jackson's production company officially denied sanctioning the casting notice (which should come as a relief, if not for the fact that of the double-digit actors appearing in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy -- for which The Hobbit is a prequel and which Jackson also directed -- I can recall dozens of big folks, small folks, and pointy-eared folks, but not a single person of color). I maintained hope that this was a significant learning moment for Jackson and company.
However, while watching The Hobbit, I found myself a reluctant player in a round of "Realism or Racism?" As in LOTR, Jackson's cameras pan across throngs of actors of all shapes and sizes, with an array of hairy feet and mystical beards, but the spectrum of human skin tone moves only from pale to paler (even amongst the progressive, vegan elves). I suppose one could argue this is for the sake of realism, though I defy even the most intense JRR Tolkein fan to do so without resembling the irrationally artery-busting-angry, bunny-hating cartoon, Yosemite Sam -- or John McCain defending"traditional marriage" (pretty much the same image).
Now, all-white casting (or whitewashing) is certainly ubiquitous in Hollywood, but it's one thing to argue,"Everyone living in English manors in 1912 was white" (though even Downtown Abbey's producers are working to increase cast diversity on the BBC series), and quite another to say, "Everyone living on Middle Earth -- this dreamworld that never existed, which is populated by myriad mythical creatures -- is white." But that's exactly what non-white would-be extras for The Hobbit were told.
It's hard to imagine racial equality becoming a reality when we can't envision it in our movies, which represent our dreams and, therefore, inform our behaviors. (As professor Nina Bandelj says, actors' portrayals of characters contribute to the social reproduction of human identities, and according to SAG AFTRA, the union representing all onscreen performers in America, "There is no other medium as capable of affecting human behavior and thought as ﬁlms.")
It becomes utterly disturbing when racial equality isn't even allowed to enter our fantasy films, which represent the furthest reaches of our dreamiest dreams.
SAG AFTRA (along with their New Zealand sister organization, MEAA) has long advocated for minority actors, both in terms of employment, as well as accurate and varied representation of characters onscreen. Throughout the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) urged SAG to see that African American actors who were "struggling to attain their rightful place in the life of the nation and the world" were not handicapped by lack of representation "in a medium which speaks powerfully to people everywhere." These efforts have certainly had an impact on Hollywood and we owe some of the greatest performances and most memorable characters of the last 60 years to this advocacy.
However, as professor Dean Spade says in his book Normal Life, advocacy and "law reform efforts taken up under the banner of anti-discrimination have often failed to alter norms" -- the "norms," for example, that were deeply absorbed into the minds of Peter Jackson's casting directors (who likely find it difficult to dream of multiracial hobbits since they've never seen them onscreen themselves) when they curtly rejected actors of color with, "We are looking for light-skinned people. ... You've got to look like a hobbit."
So it appears we have a chicken and egg problem: the "norms" won't change until the casting choices do, and the casting choices are contingent on the "norms." But where is the hope for change, when our dreamers refuse to dream?
If only Hollywood, television, and even much of Broadway, would take a page from professional Shakespeare, musicals, and regional theater, where leaps of faith in casting take place regularly and for the greater good. For instance no one blinks an eye -- particularly in theaters outside of New York City -- if Hamlet is played by a black actor while his mother is cast white, if Roxy in Chicago is Southeast Asian, or if any or all of the leads in Les Miserables (which has a strong history of color-blind casting) are people of color. Perhaps it's the heightened nature of Shakespeare and musicals (and the limited budgets in regional theaters) that allows (or forces) us to use our imaginations. Perhaps big-budget films (like the upcoming Les Miserables movie) and certain Broadway plays can simply afford to cast productions within the realm of what some call "realism" and others "racism."
I once heard a famous playwright say that "Theater should always mirror reality," and this he used to justify his relentless insistence that all of his plays should be cast by specified race -- most of his characters are specified as white and male, like himself. The question of course is, "whose reality are we talking about"? And, therefore, "whose realism"?
I like better what Thomas Hardy once said, "Art is a disproportioning of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities, which if merely copied or reported inventorially, might possibly be observed, but would more probably be overlooked." I can't help but think of the missed casting opportunities in The Hobbit when I read this.
I found that the trailer for Les Miserables stirred a bit more hope for change than the The Hobbit (even as I wondered if Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson or Oscar nominated Queen Latifah were considered for respective roles they would be great for in it). Listening to Anne Hathaway wistfully sing "I Dreamed a Dream," I dreamed a dream of my own. I dreamed that the folks who will inevitably be moved to tears by her pasty, ill, homeless woman will be equally moved by the ill, homeless women of color they encounter on our city streets. I dreamed that the black leader we have in reality (as opposed to the onscreen versions Morgan Freeman has expanded our dreams with for years prior) would be treated with the respect he deserves -- the same respect we've given every president before him. I dreamed that Martin Luther King's dream will be more of a reality in 2013 than it is today, at least on our movie screens, and therefore in our personal dreams of the future.
Thank you for playing "Realism or Racism." Now that you've gotten the hang of it, join me for a round of "Realism or Sexism," followed by "Realism or Homophobia," "Realism or Transphobia," "Realism or Xenophobia" and "Realism or Ableism" -- only this time, you can pick the movie.