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Sunday, January 26, 2014

So.. what's racist again?

I have a long and abiding love for movies and am fairly steeped in pop culture iconography. I was struck by the reaction of two different blockbusters (well supposed to be blockbusters) this summer: Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger. Why? Because of the political backlash to the casting. Specifically Johnny Depp (a white guy) being cast as Tonto and Lawrence Fishburne (a black guy) as Perry White. There was backlash against both. Now I don't have specific example but my impression is that there is marked inconsistency in the reaction to these castings.
Racist/Not Racist
Not Racist/Racist
The same people I heard loathing the Johnny Depp casting were also telling people to lighten up (ironically) about the Lawrence Fishburne. And the same people really upset about changing the Perry White character were defending the Tonto change. Or both. Or neither. What the hell?

So I am trying to understand what's right and what's wrong here. Only thing I'm sure about is the answer isn't so black and white. (See what I did there?) 

First off I have a very color blind mentality. So in most cases, I don't believe any character's skin color should define him as a person. That being said, could you really tell the story of Roots with an all white cast? Of course not. But is Perry White (last name notwithstanding) really defined by his skin color? I don't think so. 

But you say, he was originally conceived as a white guy, are we going to change Superman to a black guy? Well there actually was a a story of a racially diverse Justice League in a different universe where a black Superman was in charge. He was not the exact same character just changed to black, he was unique with his own back-story as I recall. The problem was the story came off as pandering to make white writers feel better about themselves. 

And that's really the crux of the problem I think. I don't have a problem with different actors of different races playing characters outside their race IF they are the best guy (or gal) for the job. But there is also a ridiculousness that comes from the pandering that looks like change for politically correct sake, and that's where I part company from the casting changes. 

So for these two castings, I really didn't have an issue with either of them. I like Fishburne and I think he lent a lot of credibility to the part. As I said, I don't believe Perry was really defined by being white. 

Tonto is a somewhat different matter as we are talking a place and time that the American Indian was a distinct culture and race (and still is but obviously more so at that time.) But Depp is a pretty eclectic actor and really... does anyone believe that there weren't a hundred talks about it and a pretty deep concern about offending the Native Americans of today? Do you really think they weren't aware that there might be some backlash? This thing was 200 million dollars or more. What actor are you going to take a chance on, an unknown or a proven money maker like Depp? Especially considering that the movie even with Depp was STILL a huge flop. Without his name on the poster, it wouldn't have gotten half of the people in the door that it did.

Also recall that Gore Verbinski, the director, had a long and successful history with Depp between Rango and the first three pirates movies. To attribute simple racism to their motives is just simple minded. 

There's probably also history to consider as long standing icons such as most superheroes are almost always white with minorities really not breaking through until the 70's.  So when the race of these long standing characters are changed, I think sometimes whites feel a little threatened that their heritage and much beloved stories are being taken away. I don't think that's such a wrong argument as it's the same one that was used against Depp playing Tonto. 

The flip side says that so many of these characters are so white and that minorities were so underrepresented they feel like they have no part in so much of pop-culture today. Also a valid argument but if casting a white actor for a minority character is wrong, why isn't the reverse true? 

Then there is the idea of pushing the envelope a little. Why not play with tried and true tropes a bit? The Man of Steel movie didn't make the other Superman movies go away (though I wished it would have maybe blipped Superman IV out of existence). Changing perceptions and playing with the characters is a way of making them fresh. I do however think that simply changing the skin color is a lazy and superficial way to do it. If you really want to push the envelope, make a story about black KKK members. Or an all white slave cast. Really show the idiocy and ravages of racism instead of pandering to politically correct cocktail parties attendees. 

Here's the double-edged sword questions: If Perry White is not defined by his skin color, what difference does it make who he's played by? If Fishburne was the best actor for the part, let him play it. BUT if his skin color play no part in the story, why bother to change it other than to create controversy? What does it add to the story being told? 

Both are valid questions. And honestly, I have no answer on this one. I think that being offended by one while lauding the other is crass hypocrisy, no matter which way you go. All I do know is I still long for the day when no one gives a shit. 

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