When Exodus: Gods and Kings was released in December with an all-white cast playing ancient Egyptian and Hebrew characters, there was a predictable outcry over the ‘whitewashing’ present in the film. In the entertainment industry, white people, and particularly white men, are disproportionately represented. This is indisputable.
No one would advocate for a return to Hollywood of yesteryear, when white actors frequently acted in ‘blackface’ (as did Laurence Olivier in a screen adaption of Othello) or adopted racial caricatures to play characters of different races. But this does not mean that actors shouldn’t be able to play characters of other races.
There is clearly artistic merit in being able to cast characters of a different race. It can lend an interesting interpretation to a classic play: look at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with an all-black cast in 2013. By using an all-black cast, the RSC was able to stage a modern interpretation of the play set against the background of an African state in turmoil.
This kind of cross-cultural interpretation is partially what helps to keep classical literature relevant, as well as exposing audiences across the world to the other cultures.
But I don’t really think anyone would dispute the value of permitting the kind of case above, even though the real life characters depicted in the play were explicitly European. Nor, I think, would most people disagree with Idris Elba being cast as the next Bond, which has been widely speculated recently, even though there is no particular artistic reason for having a black Bond as there was for having a black Julius Caesar.
The real issue under discussion here is whether we allow white actors to play non-white characters, in cinema, the theatre, and on television. To return to the example of Exodus, it seems that the problem is that Western actors of ethnic minority backgrounds are underrepresented compared to their share of the population in Western countries. But barring white actors from individual casting decisions on the basis of this systematic problem (if you do believe it to be a systematic problem) seems misguided at best.
If you want to address the systematic problem, there are much better, and fairer, means of addressing the underlying issues. Fund special programmes for drama students and young actors of ethnic minority backgrounds. Directors can make special efforts to seek and cast black actors more often. But saying to an aspiring actor that, on the basis of their race, they are going to be excluded from even being considered for the part amounts to no more than racism. The problem of underrepresentation will never be solved by excluding white actors from some parts due to a logic of increasing minority representation.
I am not suggesting by any means that we have a white man play Nelson Mandela in the next biopic of his life, or that we have a black Reagan. There are obviously some cases where it is absolutely imperative to have an actor of the same race as the character, if solely in order to provide an accurate depiction of historical persons. But the relevance and value of characters like Moses, Bond, or Julius Caesar in cinematic depiction does not come from their race, and so there is no imperative that the actor portraying these characters be of any specific race.
I cannot argue that it is never acceptable for actors to play characters of a different race. An actor’s performance can be so compelling that, regardless of their race compared to that of their character, the person was just made for the role. Morgan Freeman excelled as Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding in The Shawshank Redemption despite the fact that in the book from which the film is adapted, Red is a redheaded Irishman. You will never hear me say that Freeman shouldn’t have starred in Shawshank.
However, as the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings proved to me, there is a tension in my beliefs. The film, detailing the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, saw all the lead roles played by white actors, which riled me (and plenty of others too).
When such ‘whitewashes’ occur, I do sometimes find it unacceptable for actors to play characters of a different race. While I am happy to endorse cross-race casting in some instances, I am less than happy in others. The liberal in me begs for the colour-blind approach – that matters of race are completely irrelevant. But another part of me, that which believes in social equality and justice, decries the bias towards Caucasian casting.
It might be argued that the most annoying thing isn’t a distinction between Caucasian and non-Caucasian actors, but the fact that historical characters are being played by people of the wrong race.
It could be said that my indifference, encouragement even, of Morgan Freeman playing Red is because the character is fictional. On the other hand, because we consider Moses and Joshua to have actually existed, it is, in fact, the factual inaccuracy that annoys me.
I would not be annoyed by a black casting of James Bond or Annie Bennett simply because in these instances it does not matter. They are fictional characters. But would I find it odd if Idris Elba were cast to play Harold Wilson or Winston Churchill? Perhaps.
While this may explain some of my unease, however, I think my inconsistency stems from something deeper. To me, Exodus’ casting choices are symptomatic of a system that unfairly discriminates against, intentionally or otherwise, black and ethnic minority actors in Western films. That not a single nonwhite actor was nominated in the four major categories of the Academy Awards this year is outrageous. Perhaps there were no standout black performances this year, but that seems to be more because nonwhite actors did not get the airtime and opportunities they deserved, rather than bad, or inferior, acting.
I’ve already spoken of Morgan Freeman and Idris Elba, but there are so many talented non-white actors that could and should be playing leading roles. Oscar Isaac, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o have all had phenomenal acting performances recently. These film stars deserve to be cast in high-profile roles.
Until that happens regularly and we do not feel like blockbuster films are being ‘whitewashed’, I do think it is unacceptable for white actors to play non-white characters, fictional or otherwise.
I know my argument is inconsistent. Is it ever acceptable for actors to play characters of a different race? Yes. But is it acceptable for actors today, especially white actors, to play characters of a different race? No. Pervasive unfairness in our attitudes towards race in film means that we should not deny non-white actors the spotlight they deserve.