McGinnis: Turning a blind eye: Race and casting in summer’s blockbustersWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: This column contains spoilers for both “Iron Man 3″ and “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
You’d like to think we as a society have moved past the idea of blackface in the years since Al Jolson took the screen in “The Jazz Singer.” Certainly the films of the summer of 2013 aren’t quite as ridiculously offensive racially as those “classic” days of cinema. Yet there’s a troubling trend in this season’s movie releases that is becoming more and more pronounced as it progresses. There’s a lot of cross-racial casting going on, with quite a few examples of very white actors being put into very nonwhite roles.
The summer wasted no time setting the tone with its first major release, Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3.” The film’s villain, The Mandarin, is — as his name would suggest — heavily influenced by Chinese culture, though his actual racial make-up in the comics is half-Chinese and half-English. As such, the casting of half-English/half-Indian Ben Kingsley as the iconic terrorist isn’t necessarily out of line, though it doesn’t exactly match up with the character’s basic story, either.
Then, word came out of early screenings that — spoiler alert two, electric boogaloo — in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” English actor Benadict Cumberbatch’s ambiguously defined villain is, in fact, Khan. The classic Trek baddie’s racial heritage comes laden with more baggage than Ivana Trump. Khan Noonian Singh is, naturally, supposed to be Indian, but in the original series and the classic “Star Trek 2,” he was played by the great Mexican actor Ricardo Montelban. Cumberbatch, by contrast, is none of the above. (Interestingly, the new Khan was originally offered to Benicio del Toro, with whom negotiations fell through.)
And then there’s the obvious example of Tonto. The upcoming reboot of “The Lone Ranger” features Johnny Depp playing the classic Native American sidekick. The role was one of the first examples of a Native American character being portrayed in a positive light, aided by the classic performance on the series by Jay Silverheels (who was Canadian, not American, but never mind). Now, this reboot sees Depp controversially step into the role — which the actor himself has tried to assuage by saying he actually does have some Native blood in his heritage.
True or not, though, Depp’s casting harkens back to the days of the classic Hollywood Westerns, where white actors were routinely tossed into “Indian” roles without any thought of hiring someone who was racially appropriate. Indeed, back in the day, Tinseltown didn’t give such consideration much weight at all when matching performers with roles, no matter what the genre. But in an era where we have evolved — slowly, but surely — as a society on such issues, you’d think studios would be a little more sensitive to the problems such casting can cause.
In a town as liberally-minded as Hollywood, do I think these choices point to deliberate racism? Not necessarily, at least not to the degree they have in the past. I think Hollywood’s first instinct is that of a salesman, looking for ways to shore up the box office, and to do that it looks to cast the biggest stars it can, regardless of race. Certainly Johnny Depp is a bigger name than most Native actors that could have played Tonto.
This instinct goes the other way, too. The summer’s “Man of Steel” reboot sees the great Lawrence Fishburne playing Superman’s newspaper editor Perry White — a role traditionally played by a Caucasian. But unlike the rest of these examples, there’s nothing about White’s character that requires the role to be of any particular race, and Fishburne is a big name star who you certainly want in your movie. It’s like when the producers of “Shawshank Redemption” were asked why they cast Morgan Freeman to play Red, who in the original story was Caucasian. Their response amounted to, “If you can get Morgan Freeman, you cast Morgan Freeman.”
Still, common sense and good taste should overrule star power in cases like this summer’s movies. In a time where society has become more aware of racial issues, it reads as being incredibly insensitive for major Hollywood studios to give the race of these characters such little weight in the decision process. There are so many fine actors of the correct racial background who could have given any one of these iconic roles life. By choosing to err on the side of box office dollars, these filmmakers seem to be turning a blind eye not only to them, but to the decades of progress that have passed since Jolson first donned his makeup.
We’ve grown up enough as a society to be ashamed of such parts of our heritage. It’d be nice if our entertainment would grow up a bit, too.
Tags: Al Jolson, Ben Kingsley, Benadict Cumberbatch, iron man 3, Jeff McGinnis, Johnny Depp, Lawrence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Pop Goes the Cultre, Ricardo Montelban, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Lone Ranger