Brickner: Casting calls
Columnist Joan Brickner responds to recent outrage over Black actors filling traditionally white roles.
What offends you says a lot about you.
Is it the Russian torture of Ukrainians? Is it environmental discrimination that poisons water in poor communities? Or football veteran Bret Favre’s apparent food fund scam?
Or maybe it’s casting Black and brown people in supposedly “white” roles.
Recently, we hear outrage over casting Black and brown actors in fantasies, like “The Rings of Power” and “House of Dragons.” The outrage hit a fever pitch with Black actress Halle Bailey starring in a new version of “The Little Mermaid.” Critics cry, “Woke!”
The reaction is absurd on so many levels – and also points to the attempt to erase non-whites from the larger culture.
One absurdity is all this drama surrounds fictional characters: neither mermaids (nor elves nor Targaryens) are real.
Some remark that it is a Danish story, so the character should be white. But Cinderella is an adaptation of a story with some Chinese roots, relating to a culture of foot binding. Does that mean only Chinese women can portray her?
But most irritating is the total hypocrisy.
For decades, white actors freely took on the roles of nonwhites, with little backlash. White actors usually portrayed Native Americans, often negatively. Katharine Hepburn portrayed a Chinese woman and John Wayne played Genghis Khan. Mickey Rooney played a Japanese man, while Lawrence Olivier played a black Othello.
More recently, we find Ben Affleck portraying a Mexican American in “Argo,” Angelina Jolie a biracial woman in “A Mighty Heart,” and, incredibly, Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson. These are historic characters. Yet little outrage. Does this mean it is fine for white actors, but not for minorities who should “know their place”?
Images are vital. They demean or they edify.
I cringed when I watched Butterfly McQueen’s childish stupidity in “Gone With the Wind,” but I was boosted by the intelligence and dignity of Sidney Poitier in many films. As a child, it helped me to see Black teachers and doctors. I saw Black leaders in my parents’ “Ebony” magazines. They encouraged me to be a college instructor, where I, too, could encourage students, Black and white, who had never witnessed Blacks in leadership.
Currently, several stories show the joy and confidence Black girls feel in seeing an Ariel who looks like them.
Perhaps that is the point of the outrage: some do not want to inspire others with positive images of Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, or others. Rather than broadening images beyond stereotypes, they want to limit positive or leading images to whites like George Washington or astronaut John Glenn.
In one school in Florida, for example, a 61-year-old white teacher put up posters of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and former President Obama. He wanted to encourage his mostly Black class. His posters, however, were stripped, deemed “too mature” for his students.
Erasure degrades all of us, crushing truth and imagination. As some have said, “If you can see it, you can be it.”
In film, in life, we need images of all types of people to answer casting calls for roles; we do not need to reinforce a “caste system,” where appearance is destiny. Then our anger can be reserved for real issues that impact human lives.
Interested in a broad range of issues, including social and faith issues, Brickner serves as a regular contributor to the Forum’s opinion page. She is a retired English instructor, having taught in Michigan and Minnesota.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.