Hamilton employs colourblind casting, but that only does disservice to the idea of true representation

The trouble of a colourblind production might not be the casting itself but the fact that the casting may still erase the reimagined characters’ identities

The New York Times July 16, 2020 12:14:54 IST
Hamilton employs colourblind casting, but that only does disservice to the idea of true representation

Lin Late June brought news that the animated shows The Simpsons, Family Guy, Big Mouth, and Central Park would recast characters of colour who have been played by white actors.

A week later, Hamilton dominated the cultural chatter on the 4 July weekend when Disney+ premiered the film version of the Broadway phenomenon.

In both situations, performers inhabited characters of racial backgrounds that were different from their own, often referred to as “colourblind casting.” But one provoked the usual apologies and promises to do better, while the other was celebrated anew as being a bold exemplar of diversity — though it ultimately presents a set of more complex concerns.

Still, the difference between the two lies in their approaches to the all-encompassing nature of whiteness in US industries and narratives. Whereas the world of voice-acting for animation is just another dominated by white workers, casting a person of colour as a typically white character is an act of subversion, a normalisation of something other than the white standard. The Black and brown Founding Fathers of Hamilton make the story of America something that can finally be owned by people of colour, as opposed to the reality, which so often refutes the relevancy of their lives and contributions.

Although egalitarian in theory, colourblind casting in practice is more often used to exclude performers of colour. It is a high-minded-sounding concept that producers and creators use to free themselves of any social responsibility they may feel toward representing a diverse set of performers.

The history of the practice in live-action takes is more egregious, and has been well-documented: Mickey Rooney’s notorious Asian landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Alec Guinness’ Arab prince in Lawrence of Arabia; Laurence Olivier in blackface as Othello. In the past decade alone, Natalie Portman, Emma Stone, and Scarlett Johansson among others played characters on screen who were of Asian descent in the source material.

And though this trend so often favours white actors — if you have a few hours or days to kill, Google “whitewashing controversy” — it certainly is not limited to them. People of colour are often tagged in to represent an identity different from their own, as if Chinese is synonymous with Korean or Mexican is synonymous with Indian.

Hamilton employs colourblind casting but that only does disservice to the idea of true representation

A still of Apu from The Simpsons

It seems needless to say, and yet here it is: Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs, and so every choice made in that performance will inevitably be an approximation. It is an act of minstrelsy.

Kristen Bell, who voiced biracial Molly Tillerman in the Apple TV+ show Central Park; Jenny Slate, who voiced biracial Missy Foreman-Greenwald in Big Mouth; and Mike Henry, voice of Black Family Guy and The Cleveland Show character Cleveland Brown, each announced their decisions to gracefully bow out in the name of proper representation. Hank Azaria, who for years voiced the Indian The Simpsons character Apu, stepped away from the role earlier this year; last month the show announced that it will no longer use any white actors to play characters of colour.

Despite this recent trend, actors and creators have defended such choices with purportedly merit-based arguments. Earlier this year, in fact, Loren Bouchard, one of the creators of Central Park, explained Bell’s casting by saying, “Kristen needed to be Molly; we couldn’t not make her Molly.”

More often than not, when the defense rings out in the chord of “they were the best person for the job,” that “best person” is white. That is no coincidence.

Another popular defense that pops up, most often in internet discourse, involves canon: The story, the holy text, must be preserved as written. Even if this defense did not presuppose that anything canon should not be open to challenge or reinterpretation, it would still fail to recognise that in many stories, the character’s whiteness is incidental to the narrative. So why not use that opportunity to recreate the character as someone who does not fall into the majority?

The fact that Ariel is white has nothing to do with her story about wanting to be with her love and walk on land. The casting of a Black actress to play Hermione Granger in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child provoked howls from many fans, but the character’s whiteness never had any bearing on her brilliance. In fact, stories that do not take their characters’ whiteness as a given may find fresh relevance and invite new audiences into their sphere, because for so many people of colour, they do not get to see themselves represented in the media they consume.

For me, it was The Wiz, starring Diana Ross as a Black Dorothy; I loved it so much more than the original Wizard of Oz. And in 1997, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Cinderella film, which was completely colourblind. Singer-actress Brandy was a Black Cinderella with a white stepmother (Bernadette Peters) and a Black stepsister as well as a white one. The prince was of Filipino descent, with parents who were Black and white (Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber). And Whitney Houston was a glamorous fairy godmother.

The whole movie was a visual feast, with bright costumes and playful dance numbers, and it never explained the puzzling genealogies of its characters. It simply allowed the audience to soak in the story and characters as they were.

But however well-intentioned, there are complications that come with works that aim to use colourblind casting to highlight people of colour who would not otherwise be represented. Creators may cast blind, thinking their job done, failing to consider that a Black man cast as a criminal or a Latina woman cast as a saucy seductress — even when cast without any regard to their race — can still be problematic. One kind of blindness can lead to another.

And then there is also the Hamilton problem. The show may place diverse bodies on the stage, but productions that would subvert a narrative traditionally owned by white characters must not just tag in actors of colour but reconsider the fundamental way the new casting changes the story. In Hamilton, the revision of US history is dazzling and important, but it also neglects and negates the parts of the original story that do not fit so nicely into this narrow model. The characters’ relationship to slavery, for example, is scarcely mentioned because it would be incongruous with the triumphant recasting of our country’s first leaders. (Hamilton star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to this criticism recently, calling it “valid.”)

Hamilton employs colourblind casting but that only does disservice to the idea of true representation

A still from Hamilton

The trouble of a colourblind production might not be the casting itself but the fact that the casting may still erase the reimagined characters’ identities. (If Willy Loman is Black, would he not have a more complex understanding of the American dream?) Careless colourblind casting — in animated roles and in live-action roles on TV, movies or the stage — assumes that identities amount to nothing, and that all experiences are transferable, which is far from the reality.

In a 1996 speech, playwright August Wilson spoke out against colourblind casting overall, saying, “To mount an all-Black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans. It is an assault on our presence and our difficult but honourable history in America, and it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.”

Wilson called not for colourblind casting but for institutions that invite art by and for people of colour to tell their own stories, and not simply ones adapted for them. He does not call for blindness but visibility: people of colour seen on stages and behind the curtains. This applies to all art forms; people of colour should be on movie screens, on the TV, and in recording booths giving voice to stories about them.

Even times when it is employed with good intentions, colourblind casting often fails in the execution. It is a larger problem of the narrative of our nation, which frequently refuses people of colour their own stories, reflexively opting for a white purview or offering stories written for white characters but with people of colour haphazardly slotted in.

Blindness is no excuse. In a moment when we are reassessing everything surrounding representation, perhaps it is time for all of us to finally open our eyes.

Maya Phillips c.2020 The New York Times Company

All images from Twitter.

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