Casting in Hollywood: issues of race, adaptation, and imagination

Yesterday evening, NPR published a piece by Kat Chow to their Code Switch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity blog entitled, “They Cast Whom?! Actor Choices to Offend Every Racial Sensibility.” As a scholar of early modern drama, the issue of “color-blind” casting (what some call “whitewash” casting) in contemporary film doesn’t come up much unless someone is planning a cinema remake of OthelloAntony and Cleopatra, or Titus Andronicus. As a college instructor of literature, theatre, and film, Hollywood’s “racial casting issue” as CNN describes it, rankles my personal pedagogical investments. The problem is in the accepted casting practices for big-budget, often futuristic and fantastic, films: because they are set primarily in the realm of the imagined—a dystopian/utopian future or new world from whole-cloth—films as representational cultural products do not have to account for the racisms of this reality.

There are two related trends in the film industry contributing to this issue—phrased another way by CNN back in 2010, “White actors snagging minority roles causes furor”—that have yet to be accounting for. The first is the high rate of adaptations loose and strict the industry is generating in franchise reboots, remakes, prequels, sequels, trilogies, and even simultanequels. Adaptations seems safe: they remake material to varying degrees of artistic license (the more variation the better, to me) of material that has proved successful before. Both filmmakers and filmgoers can encounter an adaptation like a comfortable old shoe…supposedly.

As a process and a product, there is always a politics to adaptation. How and how much one chooses to stray from the hypotext means picking a side on an interpretive issue. Normally I find this “infidelity” to be very productive as a way of looking at political ethics, early modern and modern. A couple years a go I gave a paper at the Newberry Library on the ways in which Sidney Lumet laminated bits of Christopher Marlowe plus into espionage dramas to highlight the film’s political stakes in the context of the Cold War. Next month I will be giving a paper on seventeenth-century Restoration adaptations of William Shakespeare plays that spoke to the debate of what constituted “loyal rebellion”—that is, revolt against the monarch as a way to right his sight on the state of the nation—immediately following the English civil wars. My underlying assumption is both is that in a period of intense public censorship, adaptations become important vehicles to debate an ethics of rebellion.

You would think, then, that The Hunger Games franchise of novel adaptations that are about civic rebellion in post-apocalyptic America would be perfect for we Millennials to take stock of where our loyalties lay. But the franchise has been rife with casting issues that aren’t just about race, but as deal with representations of disability. I am still really bothered by the fact that Peta (Josh Hutcherson) got to keep his leg at the conclusion of the first film. In the books, that is his sacrifice and gives the hunger games as a ritual real stakes. It also gives us room to think productively about the connotations of ability we ascribe to genders in richer ways than the fact that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) wields a bow well. Peta is left whole and beautiful, physically unmarked by his trauma. It’s too bad, because injuries and scars are important: as Elaine Scarry has argued, they are the physical markers of our past, our history personal and national, that we carry with us.

Furthermore, the second of the Hunger Games films has been intensely criticized for its casting of Finnick Odair, the most hyper-masculine of the characters in the series. Englishman Sam Claflin was given the part, but fans petitioned the studio (Color Force with Lionsgate) to cast Jesse Williams. The premise was simple: in the books he is described as described as an extremely handsome man with “tan skin” (also referred to as “golden”), “bronze-colored hair,” and having sea-green eyes. Not necessarily white, but clear a person of mixed heritage, one of the those future citizens of the world we hope for. Jezebel took the lead on reporting this issue in a number of pieces about the casting of Finnick as well as other Black characters, Rue, Thresh, and Cinna (notably played by 90s throwback and Prince re-incarnate, Lenny Kravitz):

As a post-apocalyptic narrative, the difference segmented regions or “districts” in the novels are reminiscent of the North American continent, District 11 especially as nearly a slave state. What is unsettling about all of this is that in an adaptation of a fantastic future, where creators have license on not one but two fronts to give us compelling casting choices and include actors that might otherwise be written off, the studios seem to actively choose not to.

This brings me to the second overlooked aspect of this issue of racial casting: the problem of “relatability.” I’m not sure when or why or how this happened to us, but Hollywood producers are not the only ones to suffer under the delusion that a film (or a novel or a play) has to have characters that their target audiences can “relate” to in order to be worthwhile and profitable. The assumption there is that as cultural consumers we cannot engage with characters whose life experiences are not analogous to our own; we desire to see ourselves reproduced ad infinitum ad nauseam. Furthermore, this presumes we as consumers are incapable of imagination, that we cannot imagine or engage with characters that are anything other than ourselves. Females never relate to male characters; “white” people never relate to “black” characters. Hollywood presumes a kind of intellectual anesthetic in its audiences. And they wonder why the industry is slowly drowning.

It is this thing that strikes a chord with the teacher in me. Whether it is a Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore or William Shakespeare’s Richard III, I encounter this issue of relatability when students–fairly–balk at the difficult text with which they are engaging. But it is not hard because they cannot relate to a 15-year old living in the aftermath of our bombing of Japan or a middle-aged hunchback that would be king. Among other sources, Hollywood has slowly conditioned us as cultural consumers to privilege narratives about ourselves rather than narratives that ask us to step outside ourselves and consider an issue, theme, or ideology with which we might be unfamiliar.

So while adaptations for early moderns may have be liberating, for us they seem to license prejudice and privileging the of the individual white subject. Its funny though. The second I frame this conservation in terms of “imagination”—that is, by privileging reliability presumes that we have none—students are presented with a choice between themselves as the subject of every narrative they read, or there capability to imagine that which is beyond themselves. They always, without reservation, choose the later. It gives me hope that our students still value the potential of imagination over the ease of naval gazing.

Hollywood certainly has a racial casting issue, but the stakes are much greater than the flippant Neil Degrasse Tyson gif used to conclude NPR’s web story yesterday would lead us to believe. In part adaptation as a creative mode (NPR lists AladdinPeter Pan, Fantastic Four and The Phantom of the Opera as it’s examples—all adaptations) and have been robbed of the political bite they seem to have had once. With this amelioration of the adaptation as a cinematic art object with political stakes, Hollywood also seems to take seriously let alone respect the intellectual capabilities of its audiences. We aren’t capable of imaginative play are viewers. It all must be spelled out for us or we won’t bite. Perhaps that is why there hasn’t been any high-fantasy films, fantasy being a genre that requires intensive world building shared by both the author and audiences, in the last two decades. Serial TV has become the haven for that kind of work that actually takes their audiences’ creative capabilities seriously.

Watching, whether it be film, TV, or live drama, is never a passive activity, no matter how much Hollywood wants it to be. We call it “the Gaze” for a reason: it has power to inflect our status in terms of politics, class, race, gender, you name it. And as consumers, maybe we are partly to blame, perhaps misdirecting studios with our trends in box office patronage. But if we can’t count on Hollywood to take the high road here, then the only recourse left is a kind of loyal revolt that Kent would approve of:

If but as well I other accents borrow,
That can my speech defuse, my good intent
May carry through itself to that full issue
For which I razed my likeness. Now, banish’d Kent,
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemn’d,
So may it come, thy master, whom thou lovest,
Shall find thee full of labours.

– William Shakespeare’s King Lear, I.iv

2 Replies to “Casting in Hollywood: issues of race, adaptation, and imagination”

  1. “The problem is in the accepted casting practices for big-budget, often futuristic and fantastic, films: because they are set primarily in the realm of the imagined—a dystopian/utopian future or new world from whole-cloth—films as representational cultural products do not have to account for the racisms of this reality.”

    That’s something slightly sticky about nontraditional casting. On the one hand, it allows talented people of color to play more and a wider range of roles and allows audiences (especially children) to imagine themselves in those roles too (that whole “relatability” thing). On the other hand, choosing to ignore race in casting does create an illusion of the post-racial and might, depending on the setting, seem to deny very real issues of racial oppression. A friend of mine, a black actor, was once cast as the lead, George in _Our Town_, and he had mixed feelings about it. He’d come in wanting to play Howie Newsome, a rather small part–a milk man. He’d sort of conceived of Howie as a working class black man in town–someone kind of on the outskirts. When he got the lead, he said, “You know, this show is all about early 20th century New England. I really would not have been allowed to have married a white woman back then. I feel strange pretending like I could. It’s like looking at history with rose colored glasses.” On the other hand, he would feel strange being barred from the opportunity to play the lead because of historical prejudices.

    I think that’s a problem that arises when we put on “classic” plays. We wouldn’t need to be doing so much “nontraditional” casting if we just had more mainstream plays that featured people of color in large roles. But since theatre in particular recycles so much old material, that’s just not the way it is. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we abandon Shakespeare! The canon just puts us in a bind when it comes to race and casting.

  2. I’ve been having a lively and engaging conversation on this topic via Facebook and email with some of my colleagues. Earlier today, one of them shared this recent piece from _The Atlantic_ with me ( that helpfully linked sci-fi casting with pedagogy. As he says, “I’m not sure there are only 4, but I find these categories potentially useful in thinking about teaching race and science fiction. Their discussion of Earthsea, a good example of Hollywood whitewashing…and I’m wondering if adaptation might be a useful way to approach teaching this. I think it potentially works even in the case of, for example, _Dawn_, which has never been made into a film, but somewhat legendarily has editions with covers that depict a white heroine.”

    Another, who works on golden age Hollywood casting, responded to the initial NPR story by articulating via email that “the major argument is economic (which she doesn’t mention, though she does touch on the other debates). Actors of color, over a certain age, women, and the disabled are all under-represented in terms of their actual representation in the real world (this is particularly true of women and even more so for women over 40). Casting predominantly male white actors means they get A) more visibility, which leads to bigger roles B) the actual salary C) the residuals, and D) health and pension. Thus, white males make more money in the entertainment world as do in almost all other job sectors.”

    Thought for food, food for thought. My only recourse seems to be rewatch all of Whedon’s _Firefly_, for now.

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