Hollywood serves up a symphony of questionable casting

If you're still in thrall to the Iron Man series (personally, I peaced out midway through the ear-bleeding cacophony of Iron Man 2; professionally, obviously, I'm still right up in it with Kevin Feige and the rest of the Marvel Studios crew), you'll be all over the latest news from camp Iron Man 3

That is, a teeny tiny teaser trailer, and the first look (other than at the last San Diego Comic-Con International) at Ben Kingsley as Stark's latest nemesis, The Mandarin:

Pretty cool, huh? Except, wait, hang on a minute, doesn't The Mandarin - as his name suggests - look more like this?

Yes, because The Mandarin was born in China to an English mother and a Chinese father. Kingsley, on the other hand, was born in Yorkshire, the son of an English mother and an Indian father. 

Fan reaction has ranged from muted to hostile, with the release of the official image reopening wounds last poked back at SDCC time, as this New York Times blog and accompanying comments demonstrate. 

Said commenter DH at the time, "I cannot believe that anyone would think this a good idea and am shocked that Kingsley, who is biracial himself, would take such a role. It is terribly racist and astounding that people would condone this. I am aware that we are still a deeply racist society, but something like this seems so incredibly antiquated. There are so many extremely talented East Asian actors out there who have a hard time finding work." Recent comments on the release of the still are a little more succinct: "WTF"

There's been scant word on whether or not Iron Man 3's incarnation of The Mandarin will retain the character's family history, or if they've adjusted his bio and just kept the now nonsensical name (which itself is a product of a less-than-savoury time in race relations).

It's just the latest in a string of questionable casting decisions for major studio releases.  

Recently, the casting of Zoe Saldana (whose father is Dominican and mother Puerto Rican) as Nina Simone (a dark-complexioned African American) drew widespread ire

And, in perhaps the queasiest of all upcoming films' casting decisions, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's Cloud Atlas features various members of its cast engaging - via special effects makeup - in yellowface and brownface (the POC castmembers also appear in whiteface). A sampling includes:

Hugh Grant

Jim Sturges

Hugo Weaving

As Racebending's Mike Le put it, "In watching the Cloud Atlas trailer, the parallels are clear. As with these other films, we see that white creators and performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian. It’s frustrating, because the trailer suggests a story that comfortably meshes with preconceptions and stereotypes of Asians: of a futuristic world of high technology and little soul, where the “all-look-same” vision of Asianness is directly translated into racks of identical, interchangeable Asian “fabricant” clones. It suggests a world where white actors (in yellowface) and Asian actresses enter into romantic trysts–while excluding the voices and faces of Asian American actors."

If you need a primer in why all of the above are worth getting upset about - and why "But Halle Berry and Xun Zhou are doing whiteface, therefore the playing field is equal!" isn't an appropriate reaction - cast your mind back to this year's Oscars, during which Billy Crystal wheeled out his old Sammy Davis Jr. impression, a "hilarious" throwback otherwise known as blackface. 

This chart put together by Racebending in response to the furore that arose after the ceremony is a handy way to understand the situation: 

(Click to read full-size)

It's depressing to think, after all these years, that so little has changed in Hollywood. 

As the debate over the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games demonstrated, unless otherwise specified in the body of the screenplay, the tendency when it comes to casting is to assume whiteness of all characters. 

But where a character's ethnicity is explicitly stated in the script or the material to be adapted - especially when said adaptation is a biopic - the mind boggles as to why casting agents and directors seem to throw caution to the wind and go for whoever happens to be available. 

It's the 21st century: why does filmmaking seem to be slipping back into the early days of its 20th century incarnation? 

profile of clembastow

4 comments so far..

  • Sole's avatar
    Date and time
    Tuesday 23 Oct 2012 - 8:05 PM
    Aren't you being a little oversensitive?
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • Joel1's avatar
    Date and time
    Tuesday 23 Oct 2012 - 10:54 PM
    I don't know anything about the whole Iron Man thing so I'll leave that alone.

    However, on the Cloud Atlas issue, a little bit of context suggests an entirely different analysis. Sure, that picture of Hugo Weaving just as a stand alone image looks bad, but in the context of what appears to be interpretation of the book that the filmmakers have gone for, it becomes inevitable. Cloud Atlas is made of six interconnected mini-stories set across a number of centuries in, respectively, the south Pacific, Belgium, California, England, Korea and Hawaii. They begin in the nineteenth century and end in a distant, post-apocalyptic future. The characters in each are loosely connected to one another in a way that is quite open to interpretation.

    Judging by the trailer, it seems that what the producers have opted for is to have the same actors play the characters in each episode as 'versions' of the same characters. These apparently connected characters are of a variety of races, so some make-up of the sort that prompts articles like this one becomes inevitable. We get Hugo Weaving as a Korean, and Hugh Grant as a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian tribal warrior, apparently. But we also get Haley Berry as a white woman.

    Personally, the racial issues bother me less than the cack-handed way the producers appear to have gone about getting into the complexities of the novel. Perhaps it was just my reading of the novel, but I certainly never saw the characters in each story as reincarnations of one another. Well, at least not more that one single line of possible reincarnation. In at least one case, the lifetimes of these characters overlap anyway. I'll give it a go, but I predict the same-actor device, and all it implies, will prove distracting.

    One concession before a final defence: the line in the trailer about Korean waitresses who 'all had the same face' is unfortunate. Again, I never really envisaged the Korean scenes in that way, and it does go to an ugly Western stereotype of Asia.

    It goes in the other direction as well, though. In the book, so far is I can remember, Luisa Rey's (see: car accident scene) race is never specified. I pictured her as white. And ashy blonde, incidentally. So I guess I'm also guilty of 'the tendency ... to assume whiteness of all characters', 'unless otherwise specified'. The producers have resisted this tendency in casting Halle Berry. Which I think is a great piece of casting - not just because it makes just as much sense for Luisa to be black as white, but also because she's exactly the sort of character that I can picture Berry playing well. I'm already adjusting my mental image of Luisa to fit. (I'm much less enthused about Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks, but that's another issue).
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • Demis's avatar
    Date and time
    Thursday 25 Oct 2012 - 4:41 PM
    Joel, I couldn't agree more. Clembastow : Cloud Atlas was a very poor choice to use to make your points in this article. I agree with what you're saying in principle, but Cloud Atlas is most certainly *not* your enemy when it comes to racial intolerance.

    I have not seen the film as yet, but Cloud Atlas, the book, makes several strong points *against* racism... the first story, for instance, when an upper-class white person saves a black stowaway from certain punishment/death, whilst aboard a tall ship on the high seas. The same themes of humanity and personality asserting themselves regardless of race, time or station are quite strong throughout the entire book, and while I have not seen the film version, I would think the producers will have tried to keep some of this most important stuff in there.

    If anything, your "blackface" claim regarding Hugh Grant could just as easily show that you yourself have possibly been a little guilty of generalisation yourself in your article. Unless you have seen the film and it contradicts my own assumptions from the material in the trailer (apologies for the rest of this paragraph if you in fact *have* seen the film), you appear to have assumed that that image depicts a white actor playing a black man. Without giving too much of the story away, this could just as easily be one of the scenes in the book involving a post-apocalyptic tribe whose races, never clearly defined, are descended from the current inhabitants of Hawaii after some terrible castrophe has befallen our planet (which I would assume to be a blend of all the many races currently living there today, set hundreds of years from now). He could also be playing a man from a pacific island tribe from a few hundred years ago, and yes, therefore possibly what many would describe as "black" (though, given the tribes proximity to the southern islands in the book, I had always assumed more of an "islander" descent for those characters). Either way, it's unclear from the image which of these tribes Hugh Grant is dressed up as in the photo you provide. He could be one, or the other, or hell, even both. I don't know... and neither, I'm assuming, do you. It's dangerous for people to generalise, and I believe by using the Hugh Grant image in particular to make part of your point, you have performed just as poorly in stereotyping as the attitudes you attack in your article.

    I'm with you on what you're saying, but please do your homework next time. And seriously : read a book every now and then, rather than just waiting for the movie to come out and ranting on about a trailer without actually understanding any of the deeper context behind the images you saw in it ;) Cloud Atlas is actually quite a good read, and promotes exactly the kind of tolerance and acceptance of humans as humans (not colours) as you yourself seem to be inclined to embrace. I personally feel that by using actors to play characters of multiple races and multiple classes in this particular film, the producers are doing the side of tolerance and universal acceptance a favour, saying: "race isn't an issue here - it's the deeds of the individual that count".

    Either way, it's a very poor example for you to use in your article (apart from being able to hold up the single line Joel mentioned). No matter how worthy your ideas are, and I should think you could have easily found much better material to have made the same valid points without trashing a work whose ideals and themes are very much aligned with your own.
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.
  • BillyMumphrey's avatar
    Date and time
    Friday 26 Oct 2012 - 10:41 AM
    "First they have "The Mexican" with Brad Pitt, now they have "The Last´╗┐ Samurai" with Tom Cruise, Well i've written a movie, maybe they'll make mine - "The Last Ni**er On Earth" starring Tom Hanks" - Paul Mooney
    This comment has been flagged.
    This comment has been marked for removal.
    This comment has been marked as spam and will be purged.