Writer’s Note: I find this mundane compared to more important topics, but it deserves a few words.
A few weeks ago I watched Ghost In the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson. Around the time it came out there was criticism (rightly so) that her character should’ve been played by someone who was based on the source material or after the creators image. We seen this same thing with that terrible adaptation of Dragonball.
Just a few days ago I had a conversation with my cousin about a childhood classic, Short Circuit II, which starred a robot, Johnny 5, and an Indian man who unbeknownst to me wasn’t Indian, but later revealed by Aziz Ansari in Master of None to be a white guy disguised as one.
Most recently, I scrolled through Twitter and saw The Rock has a movie out where he plays a disabled person. I doubt there’s a public outcry because Twitter is no different than the news these days, but seeing some of the comments I read from it is why I decided to write this. In the first two instances above I can understand the criticism. Why? Because calls for representation don’t make any sense outside the obvious. The obvious being white people playing Egyptians or Native Americans in old cowboy films to name a few whitewashing examples.
Those complaints I feel were worth adapting to because these are physical characteristics we’re talking about and it was a tradition worth ending from a cultural point of view. That point of view being characters portrayed by white people and portrayed negatively for all to see; often reinforcing stereotypes that ultimately play a role in shaping behavior toward certain groups (think how Muslims have always been portrayed as villains who use bombs or just watch True Lies).
As I write this I’m reminded of something Anthony Mackey once said about film and superheroes. That it used to be that people went to the movies to see a Stallone picture, but now people are lining up to see these fictional characters, essentially moving beyond the traditional star as he so put it.
But seeing this influx of other special categories beside ethnicity like sex, gender and now disability go beyond what I would call reasonable in regards to art. Why? Besides the idea that a character’s sexuality or some other like attribute is invisible in the sense that it’s malleable and easy to mimic by a skilled actor or actress. It also because I remember going to see Avatar for the first time and I had no idea what the movie or characters were about. I just knew it was at the theaters. And seeing Jake Sully roll out in a wheelchair I didn’t feel any remorse or ill-feelings toward him because he played a paralyzed man. After all why would I? He’s acting. That’s what they get paid to do.
But even as I say this, why should it be necessary to get an actual paralyzed man to play the lead role in Avatar when you have a seasoned actor, that has a history of making good action films and does an awesome job at convincing people he’s (or she’s) the person being portrayed? The only time I can remember an actor with a disability given a role was in that one film with Rihanna, called Battleship. He (Greg Gadson) and his role wasn’t central to the story, but he was definitely someone with a “disability.” I say this because I understand that representation matters, but it’s not a golden rule nor standard and shouldn’t be one.
However, I look at race as the more important factor than any other form of representation because it’s the obvious one to find fault with. The other special categories that people would rather see played, and by people who are those other categories in real life, creates a particular dilemma.
The dilemma being I now should overlook a Denzel Washington-like star who’s going to play a FBI Agent but instead take a chance on hiring an actual FBI Agent that I may lose money on because he’s no Denzel, and the Denzels of the world bring a crowd, which is part reason why you hire a Denzel to begin with.
It’s also like being a music producer where you make the beat and want the best artist you can find to be on it. I think that process shouldn’t be that big of a deal unless you’re a cynic. But sure, I can take a risk on that FBI Agent but at what cost? To satisfy all the law enforcement officials who find fault that I didn’t cast someone from their unique background? That’s silly when the whole point of acting is portraying someone you’re not. Better put, how would movies (or other modes of film) be if they all were ordered to only cast people who matched the character beyond ethnicity?
- A role about a married woman can only be played by a married woman.
- A superhero who is of Russian origin should only be played by a Russian actor (J. Law and Scarlett again for breaking the rules).
- A role about a fat man (or woman) can only be played by a fat man (no fat suits allowed, ok Eddie and Martin?)
- A role about a lawyer can only be played by a lawyer or former lawyer.
- A role about an old man can only be played by an old man, so that means no Johnny Knoxville type of performances.
- A heterosexual character can’t be played by someone who’s not heterosexual.
- A paraplegic should only be played by a paraplegic (see Sympathy for Delicious)
You can go on and on with this rigid representation racket because that’s what I’m seeing. People have no legitimately reason why The Rock shouldn’t portray an amputee character or why Will Smith shouldn’t play a struggling father with a kid because it’s somehow taking away roles from real fathers in the struggle. But that’s where, at least to me, this all gets pointless because what is it that people are fighting for?
Who benefits from this preferential treatment simply because you identify with the character? Because it can’t just be about representation when it’s possible to feel represented by an actor or actress who does the character in question justice. That doesn’t require makers of film to undermine their vision to serve some opaque view on what is culturally right for them to do as creators. Because what is righteous is to get people into the theaters to see the movie. A known and familiar face across the globe and someone you want to work with can do that.
They can have this new cultural standard and cast a person based exactly as the character and I see nothing wrong with doing that. But saying you should almost always do that takes the fun out of seeing someone you like adapt themselves as the Clown Prince, or an actress who traditionally plays comedic roles do a supervillain. You love acting for those reasons. To see Leonardo DiCaprio play a guy from Wall Street or a band of actors play as soldiers.
It’s the beauty of seeing them act these roles out that we love because they’re good at what they do. It requires skill, talent and a good dose of persuasion. Just because you resemble the character doesn’t mean you’re right for the job. Film makers deserve that right to not hire you because of it.
And yes, I understand. You’re disabled, your this, your that but can you act and draw a crowd? Can you bring in a crowd that will make the movie worth watching and possibly a cult classic? Or should movie makers, the people who fund them, only hand out roles because you check all the right boxes? All in all, I imagine the average person finds little to complain about on this subject. Representation matters but only to a certain degree. If The Rock can pull off what being disabled is like, then what harm does that truly do?
But don’t get me wrong. I can see why hiring someone who matches the character beyond ethnicity. It creates a more inclusive industry to a pool of overlooked people who can identify with a character more. It can break new talent instead of relying on a familiar face to sell your movie. And it pushes the envelope on what it requires to make a good film. My only complaint is with art there should be free range as to who can or cannot be involved. I’m all for artistic freedom and that affords people to mold themselves after other people without it breaking their careers. Hell! You wouldn’t have Madea movies or a Tyler Perry if standards were that strict.
If you’re passionate about the inclusion in film, then don’t support films that go against that passion. But I don’t think film is going in this direction for progressive reasons. The worst case is you’ll not have films made if roles are filled “properly.” It’s a poor excuse in an industry and art form in my opinion.