Where Does the Responsibility Lie? The American Casting System
This chapter identifies some of the problems of diversity in the American film and television industry, as a much more complex issue than just the awarding bodies being at fault, and that in fact, it is a systematic issue that is deeply entrenched in the production process. The first part of the chapter will highlight the existing problems in the casting industry and shed light on the stark contrasts between the availability of roles for minority actors in relation to their white counterparts. Secondly, this chapter will analyse the justifications for the controversial issue of whitewashing, which focuses on financial concerns of a minority-led project and the difficulty of remaining authentic to pre-existing material, especially in relation to comic-book adaptations. Finally, this chapter will look at new casting methods aimed at increasing diversity, namely colour-blind casting and its success.
Before delving into the problems with the casting process, it is important to understand how it operates and the effects this has on a minority actor’s ability to secure employment. The casting breakdown is a document that tells the reader what roles are being cast for a film, which is used to communicate to actors and their agents what roles are available and are used in preparation for auditions (McGrail, 2019). In relation to character descriptions, a breakdown lists whether the role is a lead, major supporting character or minor supporting role, personality, the description of what the character’s role in the film is and physical such as age, gender, race and physical appearance (Sinckler, 2014:858; McGrail, 2019). This is taken from the writers’ descriptions of the character but are up to the discretion of the producers and can be changed (Robinson, 2007:4-5). The most influential decision-maker in who gets cast lies at the top of the production hierarchy, which is outlined by Russell Robinson, who states that the studio executives have the ultimate decision then the order of influence follows with the producers, directing and finally, the casting director at the bottom of this pyramid (Robinson, 2007:6-7). The casting director is essentially an organiser, a person to flesh out the weaker talent to ultimately present the cream of the crop to the executive and have the ultimate authority to exclude an actor or category of actors on race or sex, yet this would remain hidden from the public (Robinson, 2007:7). This echoes the arguments made in the first chapter about ethnicity being an unnamed qualifying factor in rewarding talent in awards shows, which then becomes an unnamed qualifier for roles. Robinson’s periodic study into the casting breakdowns from June to August 2006, which found that 22.5% of all roles called directly for Caucasian actors, 8.1% African-American actors, 5.2% Latino actors, 4.3% Asian-American and minuscule 0.5% Native-American, support the impression of underrepresentation (Sinckler, 2014:859). From these figures, then it is hardly surprising that minority actors do not receive accolades for their performances when the roles available for them are not equal.
Robinson then takes this argument of authority and decision-making further by bringing in the writing room, as he mentions that writers state the race of a character in the script, which although they have no power over casting, is used as a guideline for the executives (Robinson, 2007:7). Taking this argument further the Writers Guild of America found that in 2014 only 537 minority writers were employed in the television sector in comparison to 3548 white writers and in the film sector, there were 114 minority writers in comparison to 1494 white writers (Hunt, 2016). This is not to say that white writers can only write about white stories, but it shows minorities through the white lens rather than through the minority lens and can lead to potentially inaccurate or skewed representations of minorities.
Furthermore, an executive producer of Law & Order stated that “there is a phenomenon that if you don’t specify race in a script, nine times out of ten a white person will be cast – that if you want a person of color you write it down and if you want a white person you don’t write it,” (Sinckler, 2014:859). This implies among producers that white actors are considered the norm, which is further supported by an L.A. Times article that stated “[C]asting directors and agents agree that each character in the Breakdowns is assumed to be white, but sometimes . . . casting directors get emphatic by adding ‘Caucasian,” (Robinson, 2007:11). This sentiment is echoed among prominent actors themselves in their struggles to gain work. For example, Halle Berry was initially denied the lead role in Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) because it was written for a white woman. It was not until she met with and asked the director “do you care about the colour of my skin? Do you care that this wasn’t written for a black woman?” upon this meeting she landed the role (Sinckler, 2014:860). The problem here is that minority actors are not even considered for the same roles as white actors when race is not a necessity to the role. Moreover, Berry herself at this point was already an established actress with an Academy Award under her belt, upcoming minority actors would not have this opportunity (IMDb, 2019). Additionally, what can be drawn from this is that the industry has got too comfortable with casting white actors as the norm and Hollywood needs the push, like Berry herself did, to create more diverse casts.
Whitewashing, the act of casting a white lead in a role that was originally written for a minority actor is a practice that has been plaguing Hollywood for decades, but only in recent years has become a matter of public attention. The moviegoer is becoming more socially aware of whitewashing in film, and this is clearly demonstrated in the petition that surfaced with the announcement of a live-action Mulan film, which garnered over 30,000 signatures to not whitewash the film citing the damaging effects that whitewashing can have on audiences and society’s perceptions of minorities (Denham, 2015). The arguments made by the petitioner echo, the view put forward by McNamara, in the first chapter, that by telling the stories of and rewarding white actors in overwhelming numbers shows the value we place on those individuals in society and who we are calling our heroes (Boram Chattoo, 2018:373; McNamara, 2016). This can be incredibly damaging to society because of the pattern of whitewashing suggests to audiences from minority backgrounds that they are not worthy of being heroes (Denham, 2015). This argument is echoed by actress Constance Wu, who calls out Hollywood’s pattern of racial erasure in a twitter post (Gonzalez, 2016). In this she references Matt Damon’s casting in the film, The Great Wall in which he is the lead ‘hero’ for the Chinese people (IMDb, 2019) arguing that by whitewashing it creates an “implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC [People of Colour] and that POC need salvation from our own colour via white strength,” (Gonzalez, 2016).
With this recent public backlash to whitewashed films from both the actors and consumers, what is the justification for this outdated practice? The answer lies in the financial costs. The film industry is a business and unfortunately, many filmmakers who participate in the culture of whitewashing seem to value money over authenticity and equal representation. For example, Ridley Scott is incredibly guilty of this practice and has not shied away from justifying his decision to erase racial representation. A notable case is his film Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), where majority of the cast are whitewashed roles of biblical characters whose heritage lies in Egypt, Scott justifies his casting choices by saying ““Well gee, shouldn’t Moses have been black and shouldn’t the wife be Ethiopian”, well I don’t know, I wasn’t there. And also, I would never have got it, it would have been limited,” (Lee, 2015; Isaacs, 2019; IMDb, 2019). This ignorant statement made by Scott in 2014, echoes the ‘white sells,’ industry norm. Furthermore, to say “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” does not make sense as a justification because that could be argued about any historical film (Lee, 2015). His final sentence echoes a deeper and much more worrying sentiment – “I would never have got it, it would have been limited,” – essentially Scott is acknowledging the problem of being able to fund a film with authentically diverse casts, but instead of trying to change the system he is perpetuating these harmful practices (Lee, 2015).
Additionally, this has wider implications for the future of the film industry because if prominent and powerful filmmakers like Scott are unwilling to make a change with the platform they have, then this limited approach is going to continue because they are unable to nurture and create ‘marketable,’ minority actors. The following comment made by an actor summarises this well – “when Hollywood says there isn’t an Asian actor big enough, it’s like a farmer saying that he doesn’t have any crops – Hollywood, you didn’t even plant the seeds,” (Cleo Yap, 2018). This quote proves that the bankable star argument is no justifiable in the twenty-first century, especially when you have financial box office successes like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) becoming the most successful studio romantic-comedy in the nine years and Black Panther (2018) has earned over $1.3 billion worldwide (McClintock, 2018; IMDb, 2019). In which, both films feature minority-led casts with relatively unknown lead actors and therefore verifies that increasing diversity cannot be tied to the financial success of a film, thus the marketability argument is no longer a valid justification for whitewashing. Although, Scott may not be systematically casting white actors, as he does cast minority actors in his films, but is still guilty of ‘whitewashing’ The Martian by casting a black actor and a female actor in two roles written for Asian-Americans which was released a year after Exodus (Lee, 2015).
In contrast, Alex Garland director of Annihilation (2018) responded to criticisms of whitewashing by accepting the wrong that he had participated in (IMDb, 2019). The film is based on a trilogy of books, which gives a minimal description of its characters and it is not until the third book that it is revealed that the characters portrayed by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are of Asian and Native American descent (Mazzucato, 2018). The film also used the method of colour-blind casting, which is where the race, ethnicity and/or sex of the actors is not relevant to the casting process and this process allowed for the casting of Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, a Latina and mixed-raced actresses in lead roles (D'souza-Lodhi, 2018; IMDb, 2019). In response to this problematic casting, Garland acknowledged that whitewashing is a huge problem in Hollywood and took responsibility admitting that he had not read the other books, but “as a middle-aged white man, I can believe that I might at times be guilty of unconscious racism, in the way that potentially we all are,” (Mazzucato, 2018). This move by Garland is respectable, as he has used his platform to publicly acknowledge the privilege, he has in the film industry as a white male and speaks on the contentious issue of whitewashing. Whereas, Scott neglects to comment on The Martian’s whitewashing scandal. Additionally, this film highlights the potential problems with colour-blind casting, in that while it allows for actors like Thompson and Rodriguez to be cast it can lead to the erasure of others.
Authenticity has also been a prominent argument used to challenge the casting of non-white actors in racially ambiguous or interchangeable roles. This features largely in comic book films where race is not an integral part of the individual’s character, personality or role in the story and thus, has led to non-white actors being cast in the role where the comic book character has been traditionally white. This concept has become known as race-bending. Three notable cases of backlash against this casting method occur within the Marvel cinematic franchise, with the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor films, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers and more recently, Zendaya as Michelle in the new Spider-Man reboot (Thor, 2011; The Avengers, 2012; Spider-Man: Homecoming, 2017)
Elba’s casting triggered a wave of controversy because according to casting critics, Heimdall is the “whitest of the gods,” and by casting a black actor to play the role was discordant to the film considering it had roots in Norse mythology (Sinckler, 2014:862-863). Similar comments were made about Jackson’s casting as Fury and these cropped up again in 2016 with Zendaya’s casting as the Mary Jane character in the new Spiderman franchise (Child, 2016). Remaining authentic to the comic book or canon is very important in film and filmmakers have received backlash, even when race is not the issue. For example, there was an outcry when Ben Affleck’s Batman had started killing people in the Batman v Superman film and the botched portrayal of iconic Marvel antihero Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) (Child, 2016). This kind of backlash is perfectly acceptable because there has been a fundamental change in the character’s personality, take Batman killing which has never been part of his character and the complete erasure of Deadpool’s “Merc with a Mouth” personality when they sewed his lips together (Child, 2016). However, changing the race of characters like Zendaya’s Michelle/Mary Jane and Jackson’s Nick Fury, do not deviate from the inherent personality and portrayal of the character (Child, 2016; Wight & Roberts, 2012). Therefore, this idea of race being an essential part of canon is an implied racist view. This is justified through the evidence that has shown when white actors are cast in roles meant for minority actors, the defence on the behalf of the whitewashing is incredibly vocal from filmmakers and their production studios. As seen with Scott’s justifications for Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) and the backlash from the race-swap castings in the recent Marvel productions.
There have been steps forward to diversify casting practices in the film and television business, one of the most notable being colour-blind casting. One of the major figureheads of this movement is Shonda Rhimes, who is famously known for employing this practice in her globally successful television programs. As of 2011, she was the only African American woman showrunner who credits her success to her race-blind casting methods, and this can be affirmed in numerous articles and interviews about her (Long, 2011:1067). This wave started with her first major network television series Grey’s Anatomy (2005-ongoing), she took the risk of auditioning “every color actor for every single role” as she notes in an interview with Oprah (Long, 2011:1067-1068). This trend continues with her second stand-alone series Scandal (2012-2018), which takes even bigger risks with an African-American woman leading the show, finally culminating in her third project How to Get Away with Murder (2014-ongoing) (HTGAWM), all featuring extremely diverse casts, again with an older dark-skinned African-American woman as the show's frontrunner (citations). Rhimes had to actively work against industrial assumptions that a racially unmarked character calls for a white actor, as emphasised by Isaiah Washington’s comment on Rhimes – “she said, ‘Look you [talent agencies] continue to bring me all blond-haired, blue-eyed people. I want to see all actors. You can’t tell me all the actors in L.A. are blond and blue-eyed,” (Long, 2011:1068). The revolutionary nature of Rhimes’ method is further echoed by the star of HTGAWM, Viola Davis who said she had seen no “precedent for this role. I’ve never seen anyone, 49-year old, dark-skinned, woman, who is not a size 2 be [in] a sexualised role on TV, film, anywhere, ever,” (Martens & Povoa, 2017). This highlights two very important issues, the first is the importance colour-blind casting has on creating job opportunities for individuals who otherwise would have lost out to the industry norm that unspecified race equals white. Secondly, it shows the significance of the stories that get to be told, with Davis’ shock at the creation of an older, powerful, well-educated and sexualised woman of colour being shown on mainstream television. This echoes the arguments made by McNamara in the very first chapter, the stories we tell and the stories we reward are telling of the kind of stories and people we value in society (Boram Chattoo, 2018:373; McNamara, 2016). Further, emphasising the need for more diverse casts, so people feel like they are being represented on screen.
Nevertheless, there have been criticisms of the practice in general and criticisms aimed directly at Rhimes’ use of colour-blind casting. The first was mentioned previously with the use of colour-blind casting in Annihilation, which resulted in the ethnicities of Asian and Native American lead roles being whitewashed. However, this could have easily been avoided if there had been further research into the book trilogy and was simply a research blunder, rather than a malicious attempt to erase the ethnicity of these characters (Mazzucato, 2018). Emil Martens and Debora Povoa conduct a lengthy critique piece on Rhimes’ use of colour-blind casting focusing on the American Law School drama, How to Get Away with Murder. They argue that her use of colour-blind casting has created a myth of a post-racial America, dating this start with Barack Obama’s presidency and ending with the election of Donald Trump, arguing that this is dangerous because the trend in diversity casting has succumbed to the failure of “acknowledging or addressing cultural and social differences” (Martens & Povoa, 2017). They use the example of the characters racial backgrounds being dismissed and only used as “proofs of authenticity,” through the example of the Latina character Laurel, her ethnicity only comes out at a family dinner in which she gets into a heated argument with her father and they start to speak Spanish (Martens & Povoa, 2017). However, considering the social setting, it makes perfect sense that Laurel would speak her native language with her family, it would not make sense for her to speak Spanish in the middle of cases with the rest of main non-Spanish speaking cast. It is this ordinariness that Martens and Povoa take issue with especially in relation to a scene with Annalise (Davis’ character) and her mother, where her mother combs her hair in an emotionally charged scene (Martens & Povoa, 2017). Furthermore, Danielle Henderson argues that the scenes were “so familiar, and something I’ve never seen before on TV . . . How to Get Away with Murder is so good at showing these small slices of Black culture,” (Martens & Povoa, 2017; Henderson, 2015). However, looking at Henderson’s initial article she praises this move, which showcases two older, dark-skinned African-American women with no makeup and their natural hair, whereas Martens and Povoa use her comments to frame a negative criticism of the scene (Henderson, 2015).
The last qualm they have with HTGAWM is when race becomes an issue in a court case surrounding a black man who has been falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend and is currently on death row. They argue that the episode addresses the gentrification and racial discrimination in the housing market within the context of an illegal incident, which in turn results in them neglecting the issues of structural racism and racial bias in American court proceedings (Martens & Povoa, 2017). However, we must take a step back and look at the purpose of the show, which is to entertain, it is a televised drama series. The premise of the show alludes to the political nature of United States law and court proceedings and it does touch on these matters. The crucial word being, touch, the show has no obligations to outrightly be political because it is a dramatized television series. The criticisms the show faces are like that of the recent Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, which faced criticisms of not representing all Asians and not being political enough, yet that is not the purpose of these projects (Cleo Yap, 2018; Ngyuen Scaife, 2018). They are television dramas and romantic comedies, their purpose is not to be political, yet they choose to acknowledge the racial politics that exist for minorities.
In conclusion, the casting process is fundamental in representing minorities on screen, but like the Academy Awards, the problem lies higher up in the hierarchy. It is the responsibility of filmmakers like Ridley Scott, the ones with power in the production process to fight harder for minority representation and nurture new talent in order to have marketable actors. The positive effects of creators using their power to fight for diversity can be seen in Shonda Rhimes’ productions that include extremely diverse casts behind the globally successful television series. Her method of colour-blind casting is a revolutionary move in a world, where white was viewed as the norm and the risks, she took to work against the system has paid off for her and for minority actors hoping to break on to the scene. However, it is not without its faults, as seen with the potential effects of erasing race too much, but it is a better alternative than accepting Hollywood’s norm of casting white actors when the race is unspecified. Finally, the act of whitewashing and its justifications that minority-led productions do not result in financial success is no longer valid with worldwide successes such as Black Panther. With the consumers and the acting community becoming much more vocal on the lack of representation in Hollywood, it is now Hollywood’s time to make the change.