Culture Magazine

Of Colorblind Casting and Shakespearean Minstrelsy

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Maya Phillips, ‘Hamilton,’ ‘The Simpsons’ and the Problem With Colorblind Casting, NYTimes.
Though egalitarian in theory, colorblind casting in practice is more often used to exclude performers of color. It’s 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’s 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 onscreen who were of Asian descent in the source material.
And though this trend so often favors white actors — if you have a few hours, or days, to kill, Google “whitewashing controversy” — it certainly isn’t limited to them. People of color are often tagged in to represent an identity different from their own, as though Chinese is synonymous with Korean or Mexican is synonymous with Indian.
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.
Let's consider the three examples. Yes, Mickey Rooney is ridiculous in Breakfast at Tiffany's, though I'm not sure how to distribute the blame between Rooney's performance and the role itself. I find it difficult to get upset over Alec Guiness in Lawrence of Arabia. (White 'privilege' I suppose.) 
But Phillips's complaint about Olivier in the title role of Othello, that is a marvelous thing. It is deeply confused, if not flat out wrong – though perhaps Phillips isn't complaining about Olivier so much as about the make-up. But somehow I doubt that an Olivier without the blackface would meet with her approval. 
I wonder what she thought of Denzel Washington as Don Pedro in the 1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing?
By any reasonable definition of "culture" any contemporary actor playing any role in Shakespeare has no choice but to "step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs". The culture of Elizabethan England is dead, to everyone, including to Londoners. The language, while recognizable as English, is nonetheless foreign. Contemporary speakers of English, any kind of English, cannot speak it fluently and, if transported back to Shakespeare's London in a time machine, they would have trouble making themselves understood and would, in turn, have trouble understanding others. The pronunciation is strange and many words are foreign – which is why you have to keep checking the footnotes when you read Shakespeare.
Moreover, as we know,  Shakespeare was white. Should he not have written the role of Othello? Were there any black actors available to play the role? Not likely. And then there is Desdemona. For maximum authenticity Olivier should have acted to a Desdemona played by an adolescent boy. For that's how the role would have been played in Shakespeare's time; women weren't allowed on the stage – another example of the cultural strangeness of Elizabethan England. Can adolescent boys give authentic performances of adult women?
Should Shakespeare even have written about Venice? He'd never been there. To him it was an exotic land, much like Cuba or Brazil is to contemporary Americans. Should he have set plays in ancient Rome or Egypt, almost as foreign to him as to us? What about 13th century Denmark, surely foreign to Shakespeare, his company, and their audience. What of Lear, from the 8th century BCE – if he'd lived at all?
Are we to conclude that any performance of Shakespeare these days is necessarily "an act of minstrelsy" for all involved and, furthermore, that almost all of Shakespeare's plays are FAKE and inauthentic because all but one are set at another time, and often enough, another place as well? But then, if the plays are inherently inauthentic, then what's wrong with inauthentic performances of them?

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog