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What Non-Aardvarks are Pondering

By Curtis C. Chen

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December 14, 2000


Today's edition of the IMDB Studio Briefing, a daily news digest, contains an item titled "Should White Actors Be Allowed To Play Characters Of Other Races?" In my opinion, this is a rhetorical question. The answer is an unequivocal YES.

The digest summarizes a report from the British Guardian newspaper on how local ordinances are preventing theater groups from putting white actors in dark makeup to portray "ethnic" characters in productions like South Pacific and West Side Story. On one side of the argument, a representative of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association says that non-white actors aren't available in many areas, and thus certain plays could never be performed. On the other side, a representative of London's Talawa black theater group says: "It is fundamentally racist to have white actors 'blacking up' for black parts. That belongs to the 19th century."

This issue has been around for a while. You may remember the flap about Jonathan Pryce playing the Engineer, a Vietnamese character, in Miss Saigon (London, 1989). And if you blinked, you probably missed Spike Lee's latest joint, Bamboozled (2000), about black actors performing in blackface.

The primary argument in this latest report seems to be that because blackface has been historically associated with productions which typically excluded ridiculed minorities, nothing even remotely resembling blackface makeup should ever be used again. That's a valid argument. Because of the Nazis, nobody (except Neo-Nazis) can ever use the swastika for anything. Nor should they.

However, I'm sure the "dark makeup" in question was never intended to resemble or evoke blackface. Blackface was obvious caricature, and intended to be slanderous. No reasonable person would ever dream of doing that now. This is probably a large part of the reason that Bamboozled bombed at the box office-- the issue has been dead for over a century. And no, Ted Danson is not a reasonable person.

Let's get one thing straight: any objection to an actor portraying a character of an ethnicity other than the actor's own is purely political. There's absolutely no artistic merit to the generic argument against color-blind casting. And artistic merit should be the only consideration here. ARS GRATIA ARTIS.

If a white woman can pretend to be a man (and vice versa), why can't she pretend to be a black man? If a white actor can pretend to be a serial killer, why can't he or she pretend to be a Latino? If a black actor can pretend to be the President of the United States, why can't he or she pretend to be a Russian Jew?

Actually, I have two solutions to this problem.

Option #1: What color? At my high school, virtually every theatrical production was cast without regard to race, because there was such a small pool of talent to choose from. We had Chinese and Korean crapshooters in Guys and Dolls. One of the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof was black. We never tried to disguise or explain these oddities during the performance, because everyone knew that it was just a play. It wasn't real.

Option #2: Oh, that color! Makeup is good enough now that we can make anybody look like pretty much anybody else. Not as good as the fantastic (and rather icky) technology shown in Face/Off, but more than good enough for any kind of photography-- still or motion. It would look real, and it would be no more trouble than applying old-age makeup or making Ethan Phillips look like a Talaxian.

Okay, so the second option isn't really a solution in that it's partisan. But it's fair. It's equal opportunity.

You want to talk about double standards? Let's talk about Whoopi Goldberg starring in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Broadway, 1997), playing a character that was written as and traditionally acted by a white male. Nobody complained that this was inappropriate casting. It was politically correct.

Clearly, what some people want is not a system that's actually color-blind, but a system which devalues certain colors in favor of others. And excuse me, but isn't that the very definition of racist?

I have a problem with actors wanting to be cast more because of their race than their talent. I have a problem with "affirmative action" hiring programs which promote diversity at the expense of skill. I have a problem with someone-- anyone-- wanting to be granted an arbitrary advantage because of the color of their skin.

Go back and read that last sentence again before you mutter that I probably voted for Bush, too.

I acknowledge that racial issues are important. I acknowledge that racism exists, and that people suffer because of it. I also acknowledge that art is a reflection of our culture, but don't you think that art should try to rise above the current or past sorry state of affairs and do something better? If we have no noble aspirations for our art, we're just churning out junk-pop music in order to sell cheap branded merchandise.

Finally, for the record, I have no problem with art as activism. But don't tell me you're doing it for the art while you hand me a freakin' leaflet.


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