The Oscars are this weekend and since the OscarSoWhite controversy hit last month when the nominations were announced, a lot has happened. A few Hollywood stars flipped out publicly calling for a boycott of the famed Hollywood celebration, an actress even called the controversy reverse racism, and then the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced their piecemeal attempt to ‘fix’ the problem of diversity by changing some membership rules. I think The Screen Actors Guild Awards and the BAFTAS (in the UK) even handed prizes to actors (gender neutral) of colour, not sure what that had to do with the controversy and real recognition of good work, but they did their part to help address issues of discrimination and injustice against artists of color. The flip side (there is always one) argued how colorblind casting decisions were important to ensure that creative freedom of artists, directors was maintained. And more simply that artistic freedom is sacrosanct.
All of this got me thinking even more about this debate of Whitewashing and how creative freedom is impacted by ‘diverse’ casting/artistic choices. The question I asked myself was should whit washing be justified or acceptable in the name of creative freedom? And we are not talking about overt whitewashing, I am arguing that it is so ingrained that often it just is without the recognition of its existence. Or more simply, what should determine choices of casting people in roles.. .their whiteness or their talent? And should someone be handed an Oscar simply because they were not white?
I have to state at the outset that my victims here are not Caucasian heteronormative male actors, some of whom I like, for their acting prowess of course. But forgiving my victimization of the white man, I went through a list of roles that white heteronormative actors played over the past say five, ten years in mainstream films. There are the usual examples of Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club, then the exotic ones like Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia and the likes of Johnny Depp in Lone Ranger. But then again, these are the obvious blatant ones. There is this underlying belief that supports the decisions of casting mainstream actors, no matter what the role. The producer sitting in a studio office believes that they can only sell a film to a distributor because a bankable star (aka Johnny Depp, Matt Damon and Matthew McConaughey) is leading the film. This age-old ingrained belief has skewed our entire idea of what films in popular culture mean and who should star in them. While there is obvious blame at the doorsteps of these studio bosses, but we as an audience, as the masses have been ‘whitewashed’ with our notions of who can play these characters that we love and hate and enjoy.
As a writer, when I write my stories and create my characters, there is almost always a conscious choice I make, perhaps based on my own life experiences. I don’t write about ‘white people’, so my stories don’t always require those decisions beset with dilemmas of whitewashing vs. creativity. However, this entire idea was turned on its head when I went to cast for my first short film project. The film explored racism in the gay community of North America and the film was geared to facilitate a discussion through the prism of a ‘Faceless’ man who was the ‘other’ in the community. When I began casting for this role I struggled for months to find someone to play the part of my protagonist. Given the subject matter, I really wanted an artist of color to play that part. There were the obvious challenges of a small budget, first independent short film, etc., etc. But the biggest challenge I faced was finding an artist of color who could play the protagonist. The pool of people was frustratingly small.
This frustration and inability to find someone led me to one day very unconsciously decide, that the protagonist could be white. Now that I look back at my decision all those years ago, I am flabbergasted at how ignorant I was. It never occurred to me that my decision to cast a white actor to play the role that was clearly not white was erroneous. I even went as far as defending my ‘artistic’ choice to all my critiques, never once realizing that I had fallen prey to my own perceptions of what was my acceptable normal. At the time of making the decision I had rationalized it saying that the Faceless man could really be anyone, white or a person of color, because the film was more about the ‘other’ and not just people who were non-white. But the real problem was that I didn’t even know what I was doing by making that choice. This non-recognition became the graver error in this entire casting fiasco.
Perhaps institutional racism and long standing social, economic barriers can’t be wished away during one Oscar ceremony. While the space for artists of color has grown, albeit at a snail’s pace, there is hope that we will eventually be in a better place tomorrow. However, what is more essential is the recognition of this reality. Electing a black President in the world’s oldest democracy even when voting rights are being robbed from people of color is the real measure of our racial evolution. The first step is to call it what it is, racism, whitewashing, discrimination, heteronormative and then we can talk about solutions.