I read on a friend’s Facebook post the other day that they are making a biopic of Michael Jackson’s life and that he will be played by Joseph Fiennes.
This lead to a debate of needing to give more people of colour the opportunity to star in major films.
To be clear upfront: casting a caucasian man to play Michael Jackson, who was African American, is absolutely ridiculous. Regardless of what Michael might have looked like toward the end of his life.
That being said, there is a reason behind why this happened and I am going to attempt to address it.
1. The Problem of Miscasting Goes Deeper Than Race.
We got Angelina Jolie (an American) as Laura Croft (a brit).
John Wayne played Genghis Kahn. Read that again and think about it.
Kevin Costner in Robin Hood (again… there is a WHOLE island of British people).
Zhang Ziyi and all the other Chinese and Korean women they got to play the lead roles in Memoirs of a Geisha… a movie about Japan.
Jessica Alba as Sue Storm.
Collin Farrell as Alexander the Great.
Ryan Reynolds as The Green Lantern.
Will Smith playing James West.
Topher Grace as Venom.
Sean Connery (very Scottish) as a Russian Sub Commander in Hunt for the Red October.
Halle Berry as Catwoman.
Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in Dracula.
Matt Damon and Heath Ledger trying (and failing) to pull off Medieval English in The Brother’s Grimm.
George Clooney as Batman.
Leonardo DiCaprio as an angry Irish brawler in Gangs of New York.
This list could go on infinitely. Americans playing Brits or Irish. Caucasians playing Asians. Chinese or Koreans playing Japanese. Whatever mix Jessica Alba is playing a role she shouldn’t have.
And a whole lot of other stupid decisions caught on film.
What do they all have in common though?
2. A Known Character Played By an “A-List” Performer That Doesn’t Fit The Role.
This is 100% about the money, because Hollywood is run by executives… not creatives.
The entire list above is filled with actors that were currently at the peak of their popularity. That is why they got these roles, because Hollywood as a business has long subscribed to the idea that names sell pictures. If you want a big ticket film, you need a big ticket name.
The problem is, what happens when you present that ‘name’ actor in the guise of a character that people already know and have affection for, and that ‘name’ actor doesn’t fit?
Laura Croft is a good example for me. I love Tomb Raider. I also enjoy most of Angelina Jolie’s movies. The problem is, she’s not Laura Croft. I did not buy it for a second.
However, to the number crunchers she’s a dream come true. Getting the actual nationality of the character right isn’t important to these people, putting a face in the film they feel is guaranteed to sell tickets is. This almost always leads to pissed off fans.
3. Honour The Source Material & Their Wishes.
In the case of most of the above characters: comic book characters, novel characters, characters previously created in television and now translated to film, historical characters, etc. The aim should be to stick to the source material as much as possible. If it’s about a person’s life, honour their requests (Michael said he would want to be played by a person of colour in an interview before he passed). If it’s a fictional story, the assumption should be that the creator made the character to look a certain way for a reason. Stick with that unless they say they wouldn’t mind it being changed.
I feel very strongly about this when it comes to characters created in one medium and transitioned to another. The reason things will be changed by a new creative person is to put their “stamp” on it and this almost always fails. The reason you were making the work in the first place was because the material was already well known. If it’s well known and well loved that means people expect it to be recreated with respect for what it was originally.
In Michael’s case, he was an African American. Find one to play him.
Find a brit to play a brit. Use a Korean to play a Korean. Blondes play blondes. Adults play adults. There are actors of every shape and size in every country all over the world. You can find one that actually fits the nationality or race of the character you are creating. It comes down to convincing executives that…
4. The Details Matter.
Again, the executives have shown that they have very little respect for getting things right because they know that, as long as the character ‘appears’ correct, it’s good enough for the general public.
That is why one white guy is as good as the next (hence Sean Connery is Russian, when there are plenty of good actors who actually ARE Russian that could have played that role) and why one Asian is as good as any other (Memoirs) or why other fictional or, sadly, even non-fictional characters will suddenly change sex, ethnicity, height, weight, body structure, hair colour, accent, etc., etc.
Hollywood is banking on the audiences of the world to go and see the movies they create even if they ignore these details, and too many times they are correct. Those details should matter and we should do more to make our voices heard when they are ignored.
But, in my opinion, it becomes the Michael Bay debate. Michael Bay makes terrible movies. They are almost always God awful. I have spoken to hoards of people who share this opinion. The question, as Matt and Trey posed in Team America, is, “Why does he get to keep on making movies?”
Because enough people watch them. Not even enough, more than enough.
As long as we keep going and watching the bullshit they pump out we are affirming their idiotic assumptions that ignoring the details doesn’t matter.
5. What We Need Are More New Stories From Diverse Voices.
All this being said, the solution to the diversity issue is to diversify the stories we create from here on out, not to take the ones we already have and alter them.
I will explain:
There has been talk of perhaps the next James Bond being a man of colour.
Considering how sexist/racist Ian Fleming was, this is even more ridiculous than it sounds. My question is, “Why not make up a new spy character, with a new name, and new stories. That person can be whatever race or ethnicity you want him/her to be. No one can complain.”
It’s when you take a character everyone already knows and switch it around in order to be “fair” that it makes people shake their heads.
We do not need to take established characters and alter their race to balance things out.
What we need is a crop of new stories from diverse and unique voices to create a more balanced narrative. Then put those stories into film.
We do need more diversity in the arts. From comics, to novels, to TV and film, I am all for diversifying. But we need to do so while also honouring and respecting the source material of what we are creating as well.
As consumers, we also need to be more conscious of what we are allowing to pass. If a film, like the one about Michael Jackson, comes out, do not watch it. Doing so is tantamount to agreeing with Hollywood’s assumptions. That is the chance you have to make your voice heard. If you fail to take advantage of it, you have no right to complain.
As a final note I would like to point out what Star Wars was able to do recently:
They created all new characters and then watched as a female and a man of colour carried a film to the highest grossing box office total of all time. The Star Wars brand did some of the work there, but it proves that a non-A-list man of colour and and a non-A-list female can carry a popular film.
As usual, spot on analysis and commentary. I will admit that I only recognized about 10% of the actors and roles you mentioned, since I usually don’t watch movies. My general dislike for cinema (which, of course, has exceptions, for example Star Wars) isn’t entirely based on the reasons you mentioned here, though they certainly play into it. I just generally find films to be so focused on making money that I have a hard time seeing enough creativity to respect. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing something for a profit, but at the end of the day my personal opinion is that the art should be the horse that leads the cart.
Thank you, as always, for the thought provoking post!
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Very true about the horse bit. Movies now are much too focused on the bottom line and it leads to having non-creative minds helming far too much of the project to the ends of having way too many films that are entirely too formulaic.
Your core point hits the nail on the head: the studio execs who make casting choices only care about whether or not the movie makes a profit, and they (often incorrectly) imagine that profit will follow the use of a big-name actor (there IS no other excuse for Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern, LOL). Imagine if instead they were forced to cast based upon accuracy of description and acting ability! Not only would the fans be happier, but if they stopped using the same 14 people for every role in Hollywood, there would be literally hundreds of thousands of talented, desperate, no-name actors out there who could get a chance to break into the industry. Talk about being a job-creator. Talk about increasing diversity. Amiright??
A few discussion points:
1) One philosophy would be to cast the “best person for the role.” That is, if a Chinese actress fits the description of Rachel Kim (just for example) to the tee, and really “gets” the character, and in auditions was just head and shoulders above all the Korean actresses who tried out for the role… why NOT give it to her?
2) We don’t seem to care when British people play Americans. I haven’t heard anyone say, “I wish Rick Grimes were played by a REAL southern gentleman! And Gregory House isn’t American? What B.S. is that?” Isn’t that a little hypocritical?
3) Here’s my take on Bond (and other similar examples): I don’t care if Bond is now played by a black man. How come? Because there have been like SIX HUNDRED Bond movies. He’s already been played by six hundred white guys. I would argue that you don’t make a NEW movie and introduce a character to the world wrongly… but if twenty years from now, they’re making the 150th iteration of Batman and want to try using a black lead… I don’t care anymore. Just don’t come out with the first-ever Batman movie and cast (you know what I’m going to say) Whoopie Goldberg.
4) On race in general: I agree that new stories should be diversified. But there is a pervasive white bias in Hollywood – it’s one of the last bastion of the old boy’s club. It’s actually pretty insane – see http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-15.pdf if you want to cry a little. The TL;DR summary is that whites outnumber minorities and women by a good margin still in everything from writers, producers, and directors to lead actors in movies and TV. I think this is why it’s okay to swap nationalities once in a while, especially for less widely-recognized characters (how mad are you that Nick Fury wasn’t played by a white guy?).
5) On MJ, the starting point of this post… once I heard that he had specifically asked to be played by a black man, the conversation changed for me. Honor the guy’s wishes. But otherwise, casting later-years MJ is really like casting an alien life form. He could be played equally well by a man or woman of various ethnic backgrounds (he didn’t look MORE like a black man than he did like a white female!). Early MJ is definitively black, though. It depends on what you’re doing.
Easily one of your more thought-provoking posts. You are really keeping the quality high, mister! Thanks for waking me up with a good discussion every few days!! =)
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You are welcome sir, and I am happy to have your rants on my rants… That’s why I write them, for the discussion. As to your points, let me get to a computer later and I’ll get into them in depth. Have a good day.
1.) Because it would be assuming that my assigning her the Korean race was arbitrary, which it wasn’t, and also feeds into the idea that all people of a somewhat similar race look like all the others. Asians also have a lot of prejudices of their own. If I told Airi that you thought swapping out a Korean for a Japanese character was not such a big deal she would kill you in your sleep. There is a history there. To me, the details matter.
2.) It is, but the reason it flies is because, what is an “American,” other than a mixture of most of the races and cultures of the world. Any Brit could be American, but not every American can be a Brit, Italian, German, etc. Over time, if a Brit moved to America and got citizenship, he would eventually be able to call himself “American” and no one would blink. An American can’t do the reverse so easily. A Frenchie is an even better example. No matter how long Heath lived in France, or how good his French was, he would always be an ‘outsider’. It’s the nature of what America is.
3.) This is where we are going to have to agree to disagree. My feeling is they can stop making Bond movies, or retire James Bond and introduce a new character. Same with Batman. Would you really be cool with an Asian Superman? I don’t agree with swapping a character everyone already knows. Don’t do that. Make a new story, with new characters, and they can be whatever you want them to be. Why do we need 200 Bond movies? Is he really that cool? Make something new for chrissake.
4.) I understand that the issue in ‘executive land’ is way beyond my depth of understanding. That being the case, I can’t really speak intelligently on it. I will say that roles like Nick Fury I have no problem with because I never knew the character in the first place. My question is this: why do we have to focus on the stories that are generated from already established material? Focus on making new material, then we can mix it up like crazy and I’m all for it. Are we not making new comics? Why do we have to keep regurgitating James Bond and Jason Borne? Can someone not write a new version? Being better than the racist crap that Fleming wrote is not hard. So why doesn’t James Bond just die already and get replaced by a new character?
The reality is, it branches into my question of, “why do we keep regurgitating instead of creating new things?”
5) I agree with you about later years M.J., but between makeup and CGI, it could be done. As PC as the world has become, I can sympathise with the principle behind this. He is arguably the most famous and widely known African American performer in the world… and he’s being played by a white man. That is tragic, however you cut it.
Thanks for the comment! Keep ‘em coming!
Great post. The who idea of Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson is hideuos on so many levels. I wasn’t aware of this so when I first read tour post I thought it was a joke! It’s actually quite I insulting. It’s on a par with the old days when white people were being ‘blacked up’ to play black people.
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Agreed. But that is Hollywood. They live by their own standard of what is right, and it usually has dollar signs.
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