Knee Jerk Racism When Casting Movie Roles
This is a delicate post for me to write. I live in a country (USA) where the issue of racism is probably more prevalent in the media than it’s been in twenty years. Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, the Charleston, South Carolina church shootings; the list goes on and on. My country also has a racist, pompous, misogynist, clueless asshat currently running for President sowing discord and exacerbating the problem.
There’s a lot of truth to these incidences of racism. I won’t deny that. There’s also a lot of sensationalized media coverage. I’m looking at you Fox News and CNN. “Clickbait” has entered the societal lexicon for a reason. Stories are designed to create emotional responses rather than report facts. Anyone with at least a modicum of critical thinking recognizes this. Racism is an issue that permeates all areas of life.
This includes the movie industry, especially with book to movie adaptations.
We’ve all seen instances where black actors have been cast in white roles. Denzel Washington was cast as Gray Grantham in 1993’s The Pelican Brief and more recently Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four. Invariably, there’s an outcry of people who rail against the decision, not necessarily because they are racist (although that is sometimes the case, I’m not stupid) but because they want to preserve the integrity of the book and/or the character in the book isn’t black or Latino or Asian.
Additionally, there tends to be what I call “knee jerk racism” from people who feel that just because someone disagrees with a casting choice it automatically makes them a default racist. This concept is ridiculous to the point of absurdity. In fact it’s kind of disingenuous if you think about it. These people are making an automatic assumption about someone based on an opinion regarding an acting choice.
What prompted me to write this article was the recent announcement that Idris Elba is the frontrunner for the role of Roland Deschain in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. This movie has been in Development Hell for so long, that I’ll actually believe it’s happening when I see a trailer. So the fact that Idris Elba is in the lead may be a moot point. Regardless, there’s naturally people who think this is a bad choice because Roland is white in the books. Although people have given numerous reasons based on the novels as to why Elba’s casting wouldn’t work, the cries of racism have arisen. Don’t believe me? Please take a moment to peruse the comment section for this website about the casting:
Wow. To say some of these posts from Keyboard Cowboys come across vitriolic is an understatement. Is this really necessary? In a word: no.
Personally, I agree with the people who think Elba would be miscast in the role of Roland Deschain. Not because I question Elba’s acting talent. I think he’s one of the best actors working today and if he doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in Beasts Of No Nation, I’ll be shocked. In point of fact if he does get the role I’ll still watch because A: his acting talent and B: the movie will actually be a reality and I’m a huge fan of the series.
No, the reason I believe it’s not the correct choice is because Roland Deschain is a white male in the books. I’m not talking about physical appearance though. Roland has blue eyes and black hair but that’s not important. I know this seems contradictory but I’ll explain in a bit. Note what I wrote is different from saying Idris Elba shouldn’t get the part because he’s black. Now THAT would be a racist statement. The character simply isn’t written as a black man. If Hollywood adapted Octavia Butler’s brilliant science fiction novel Kindred and wanted to cast a white female as Dana, the main protagonist, I’d feel the exact same way. It wouldn’t make sense. The fact that Dana is a black female is intrinsically tied to the novel itself.
Just as Dana’s African-American heritage fundamentally correlates to the multiple themes of Kindred, so too does Roland being Caucasian tie to The Dark Tower series. In the second novel The Drawing of the Three, race plays a big role. There’s a conflict between Roland and ‘Detta Walker that revolves around the fact that Detta hates white men. It’s an integral part of the dynamic between the two and bears on the novel and the followup novels as well. Casting Roland as a black male completely undermines this relationship and in my opinion would ruin an important part of the book.
My point here is that I think people unjustly jump to the racism reaction without examining the facts or the reasoning behind someone’s opinion. In situations where casting a white or black actor would have no bearing on the film I have absolutely no issues. There’s plenty of parts out there that are non-specific when it comes to race. If race has no bearing on the part and you object to a casting choice based solely on the person’s race, gender, or ethnicity, then yeah that’s bigoted. It’s like the people who object to the all-female Ghostbusters film based solely on the fact that they are women.
Whether or not Idris Elba eventually lands the part is irrelevant. His situation is just part of a larger race issue that comes up every time a non-white actor gets cast in a white role. While these are discussions that should happen, need to happen, making baseless racist accusations will not forward racial equality in the movie industry. In fact it’s just the opposite. Until we take the time to analyze and examine the various instances that come along individually and promote rational discourse, we’ll never get anywhere on this topic.
You can follow me on Twitter as Darth Gandalf at @DarthGandalf1
Knee Jerk Racism – remember when internet trolls accused The Force Awakens of being racist, months before its release?
Some people really cannot tell the difference between racism and questioning the choice of an actor/actress because it causes issues with the source material. Remember when Roger Moore said that James Bond should stay white (poor old Idris was in the line for this one too)? So many people were up in arms about this.
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I completely get where you are coming from when you say Elba is wrong for the role of Deschain in The Dark Tower. The character’s whiteness plays an integral role in the story so changing that will force the adaptation to fundamentally change things from the original work.
It is the same reason why I immediately discount the comic book fanboys who say silly things like “If The Human Torch can be black then why can’t Black Panther or Luke Cage be white?” as if Panther and Cage’s blackness isn’t a primary part of those character’s foundations while the Human Torch being white is incidental to the character’s core.
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