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Indignation on Twitter, a new casting criterion in Hollywood?

Such and such an actress not black enough for a role, such and such an actor who is too straight for another … The controversies denouncing the invisibilisation of minorities and the “systemic racism” of productions are increasing. Between political awareness and commercial opportunism, the risk of “bad buzz” shakes up Hollywood, but the hasty reactions are not always up to the stakes.

Before even auditioning for a film or series, will actors and actresses soon have to submit a DNA test detailing their origins, while providing information on their sexual orientation in order to be “compatible” with the expected role? This a priori crazy hypothesis is obviously a cataclysmic caricature, but Hollywood has currently brought to the fore the notions of representativeness, cultural appropriation and diversity on the screen. Controversies, more or less sincere mea culpas, and promises of change have upset a film industry already deeply shaken by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On October 23 The Hollywood Reporter published an article whose title sums up as much the rejection of the long-tolerated status quo as the difficulties in challenging it with nuance: Hollywood Agents Navigate New Complexities of Balancing the Demand for Diverse Voices and Artistic Freedom. Many artists’ representatives (actors, screenwriters, directors) have confided in the magazine, some anonymously so as not to risk their reputation nor expose their clients. One of them says:

“The insistence on more diversity has been growing for a while, but studios are asking for it in a much more transparent way now. It’s like “do you have Mexican screenwriters ?. Diversity requests are very specific, and some clients don’t want to be perceived like that. Some are keen to tell stories linked to their identity, others just want to be seen as filmmakers, regardless of their gender and ethnicity”.

This intense voluntarism is accompanied by clumsiness, such as sending a comedy script to an African-American director specializing in dramas. The reason for such a proposal? The heroine of the script was a black woman. A relative artistic incoherence that made the director’s agent wonder “if she should be grateful for the proposal or underline the obvious lack in sensitivity”, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Screenwriters are supposed to be able to weave stories that do not emanate from themselves, and their ability to create is hampered, quoted an agent, visibly uncomfortable with this somewhat condescending and sudden interest.

Twitter, the terror of studios

This increased forcing of American studios, between militancy and commercial opportunism, is the direct consequence of the online campaigns of activists outraged by such or such project announcement. Addicted to controvercy, the media flock to relay them – or create them themselves via forums or interviews – thus maintaining their progressive image while increasing their audiences. Agents are now reluctant to offer certain projects to their “white or male” clients for fear of the potential scandal. Another agent exclaims:

“Twitter and social networks are the only fear of the studios. We don’t want to waste our clients’ time on projects that the studios are going to shy away from”

Even studios that think they are “doing good” can fall victim to online intrigue and plotting. At the beginning of October, Paramount had beat to the punch competitors such as Universal and Warner Bros, as well as digital giants like Netflix and Apple, by acquiring a seemingly unassailable project: a biopic on Cleopatra. The film will be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins), written by a woman (Laeta Kalogridis), and of course, played (and produced) by a woman, Gal Gadot, herself at the roots of the project. By unveiling the project, the Deadline site evokes its potential as a “big female empowerment story”, trendy words in Hollywood. Unfortunately for Paramount and Gadot, many activists do not see things that way and are launching a campaign (sometimes tinged with anti-Semitism) indignant at the casting of the Israeli actress in the role of the Queen of Egypt. The actress, known having played Wonder Woman, would not have, in the eyes of activists and progressive media such as the Guardian, the adequate pedigree to lend her her features. And it matters little that Cleopatra’s ethnicity has never been formally established. : according to the Guardian, this casting is “a step back for representativeness in Hollywood”. According to the latest news, Paramount – which we imagine to have spent an astronomical amount to acquire this project – has not backtracked on its commitment.

It will be noted that the media outrage is of variable geometry. Less than three weeks after this controversy over Cleopatra, it is in a much more benevolent media climate (with the exception of a spicy Belgian media column evoking a woke revisionism) that the black British actress Jodie Turner-Smith has been announced to play Queen Anne Boleyn for an upcoming English historical series. Boleyn was the white wife of King Henry VIII, but the Deadline website article announcing this casting does not mention the difference in ethnicity between the performer and her character, settling for the euphemism “defying convention” to qualify the project. In the comments of the site, a user named Lennox, presenting himself as African-American, reacts: “I would have applauded this outside-the-box casting before the whole cultural appropriation/caste/ethnicity of the actual character debate that’s been going on of late”. “I detest double standards”, he adds before explicitly referring to the controversy over Gal Gadot as Cleopatra. His reaction highlights the tension linked to the castings now systematically scrutinized from a political instead of purely artistic angle.

Thirteen years earlier, director Todd Haynes had permited himself to break narrative standards by casting six actors (including an African-American woman and child !) to embody different facets of musician Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Would such aesthetic risk-taking be possible today for a project on James Brown or Miles Davis with a cast of actors of different origins?

Black Lives Matter, the return

How did we get here? The movement for better treatment of minorities by Hollywood has been going on for a long time, but it has gained momentum in recent months. In this particular election year across the Atlantic, the socio-political climate became seriously tense during the spring confinement. On May 25 2020, the death of George Floyd, an African-American victim of police violence, brought Black Lives Matter, the anti-racist movement established in 2013, back to the fore. Despite the health crisis, demonstrations follow demonstrations for weeks. The systemic racism of American society pointed out by activists is once again becoming a major subject in the media ecosystem, and the film industry is not spared by these challenges.

In early September, they culminate with the announcement by the (regularly criticized) Oscar Academy of the inclusion of new criteria for its selection. A few days earlier, the death at 43 of actor Chadwick Boseman, interpreter of the superhero Black Panther in the Marvel blockbusters, recalled the importance of representativeness on the big screen.

Between the death of Floyd and that of Boseman, many controversies punctuated the summer. One of the most emblematic remains that of the film Gone with the Wind: the multi-Oscar winning canvas by Victor Fleming, released in 1939, was temporarily withdrawn from the HBO Max streaming platform, before making its return, preceded by an introduction presenting it as a “reference document on the racist practices of Hollywood which took place in the past”. Strictly speaking, no “canceling” here, since it is a recontextualization via warnings, similar to that announced more recently by Disney for its SVOD Disney+ platform.

Other more recent productions have been more heavily altered, such as episodes of series deleted from certain platforms, sometimes for questionable reasons. In the unwelcome “cancel culture” department, let us cite the case of an episode of the Community series withdrawn from Netflix because of “blackface”, a sign of a manifest incomprehension of the work’s intentions, but as Numerama writes, “denouncing a blackface is still showing a blackface”.

The “shameful casting” lists

This summer’s examination of conscience did not stop at the content of fiction, old or contemporary: it extended to the production system, and in particular to castings, that is to say the process of choosing the actors asked to play a character.

For years, the English-speaking press has regularly echoed accusations of cultural invisibility in Hollywood. In 2012, an American association representing people of small stature had rebelled that “normal” sized actors embody, via digital effects, dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman.

In 2015, the BBC published an article entitled When White Actors Play Other Races. The same year, the Indiewire site listed The 25 worst cases of Hollywood Whitewashing since 2000 in the form of a photo slideshow with compulsory click – therefore additional page view – to discover each case; indignation remains a guaranteed way to boost attendance. A year later, the Washington Post went further by publishing 100 times a white actor played someone who wasn’t white.

Carried by the Black Lives Matter current, such publications have multiplied this 2020 summer. The symbol of this expiatory climate remains the reaction of Zoé Saldana, interpreter of the artist Nina Simone in the biopic Nina (2016). The actress, who nevertheless identifies herself as black, was heavily made up to embody the musician with a darker complexion than hers. In tears, the actress of Dominican, Haitian and Puerto Rican origins apologized live in early August on an activist Instagram account, declaring: “I should never have played Nina Simone. (…) I should have done everything in my power to entrust the role to a black woman so that she could play the role of an exceptional black woman”.

The Yellow Simpsons

This act of contrition had been preceded by a series of speeches which were equally marked by repentance, especially in the field of animation. Actress Jenny Slate got the ball rolling in June by announcing her departure from the animated series Big Mouth. This Saturday Night Live comedian dubbed the character of Missy, a mixed-race teenager.

However, Jenny Slate, a Jew from Massachusetts, is white. By giving her voice to this character despite their epidermal difference (invisible in the animation of course), Slate engaged in “an act of erasure of black people”, according to her text published on Instagram. “Ending my portrayal of Missy is one step in a life-long process of uncovering the racism of my actions”, she adds, paving the way for a slew of actors.

A few hours after her, for the same reason, Kristen Bell gave up the dubbing of an also mixed-race character in the animated series Central Park.

In the process, the producers of The Simpsons announced that henceforth no white actor would dub a “coloured character”. Matt Groening’s cult series, broadcast since 1989, had already taken a step in this direction with the announcement, in early 2020, that white actor Hank Hazaria would stop dubbing the character of Indian grocer Apu.

The case of this character is anything but anecdotal, and in 2017 he was the subject of a highly commendable documentary, The Problem With Apu, directed by American comedian Hari Kondabolu. This son of immigrants from India and fan of the cult series was traumatized by Apu as a child. According to him, this character was, back then, the only recurring representative of Indian origin on television, which earned him (and many other young people of Indian immigration) numerous taunts during his youth. The fact that he is played by a white actor taking an outrageous accent obviously did not help.

Kondabolu’s grievances, clearly expressed in The Problem with Apu, illustrate the two main demands for castings: the desire for more diversified representation, coupled with the need for those concerned to represent themselves. For Kondabolu, at a time when stars from his community now benefit from increased visibility, the role of Apu, which is moreover dubbed by a white person, is a relic of a bygone past. His documentary recalls that it was with a grim face that the English actor Peter Sellers played the awkward Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party, a 1968 American comedy classic by Blake Edwards, in which one would hardly imagine with such a cast today:

The commercial argument

This desire for increased representativeness does not always stand the test of reality. While it is of course an artistic decision, the choice of a performer remains in many cases a commercial argument, synonymous with additional resources allocated to the production. The more expensive a feature film, the more its producers require the presence of “well-known names” for the main roles, even if their ethnicity does not correspond to that of the characters.

In 2014, Ridley Scott justified to Variety the choice of white actors Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton to play Moses and Ramses, respectively, in his biblical canvas Exodus, with a rather money-oriented tone:

“I can’t mount a film on this budget (…) and say that my lead actor is called Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up”

An economic explanation to which some retort that it is not by excluding racialised actors that future non-white stars will be able to emerge: the eternal dilemma of the chicken or the egg.

***

Does the necessary taking into account of voices long ignored by Hollywood risk compartmentalising, in the long term, each actor into an assigned category from which they should not move away, as we feared at the beginning of this article?

Not so sure: In a Slate article titled Why Straight Performers Keep Playing LGBT + Characters, none of the wrathful activists interviewed “want queer roles to be reserved to queers only, nor that actors and actresses be limited to characters who share the same sexual orientation”. One of them specifies:

“It’s about getting queer people to have the same opportunities as straight people, and to have the opportunity to tell the stories that matter to them”.

This legitimate objective – transferable to all minorities – will require profound changes, through thoughtful actions rather than hasty reactions. As such, the small Hollywood community would no doubt be inspired to take a step back from the countless Twitter shitstorms rather than being paralyzed by them. And to institute deep changes over time rather than façade adjustments and hasty purges to calm the crowds.

A recent study on diversity in cinema 1 suggests that in September 2020, 92% of management positions in the main audiovisual industry companies were held by white executives, and 68% by men. A slight improvement compared to 2015 (96% white, 71% men), still a long way from the reality of a country where ethnic statistics are authorised: minorities (meaning: non-white people) made up 40.2% of the US population in 2019.

By 2050, according to projections by the United States Census Bureau, they will represent 53% of the country’s population.

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