The problem with color blind casting in ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Harry Potter’
Color blind casting is a double edged sword.
The Tony Award-winning hip hop musical “Hamilton” has been hailed for casting actors of color to play Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Broadway’s smash-hit show celebrates diversity in a form previously unseen on the Great White Way.
But colorblind casting doesn’t always go over so well — the production caught flack in March when it put out a call for “nonwhite” actors to audition.
And there was a huge uproar when it was announced that white actor Joseph Fiennes was cast to play black superstar Michael Jackson in the British TV comedy “Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon,” about a fabled road trip taken by Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling was bombarded with complaints when black actress Noma Dumezweni was cast to play the character Hermione in her eagerly awaited London play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
Most recently, Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni stirred controversy when he expressed interest in casting Leo DiCaprio as the 13th-century Muslim poet, Jalaluddin al-Rumi. Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown told the Guardian they wanted to “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters.”
Social media responded with a big fat “no way.”
So why is it that colorblind casting is OK sometimes, but not others?
Well, like everything that has to do with race, it’s complicated. At the heart of it all is the issue highlighted by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign — the lack of opportunities in Hollywood for actors of color.
The consensus is that the entertainment industry doesn’t have a level playing field, so minority actors are consequently underrepresented when awards season rolls around.
In other words, a production with a diverse cast feels like opportunity, while hiring a white actor for a minority role feels like appropriation, considering how many white roles are available.
“I think it’s great for the industry to get to the point where they are hiring based on the most talented person,” American Black Film Festival founder Jeff Friday told CNN. “But no one wants to see a white man play Michael Jackson.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of “Hamilton” told Broadway World last year that a great deal depends of “authorial intent.”
Miranda’s diverse cast was purposeful and planned, he told The Hollywood Reporter.
“In ‘Hamilton, we’re telling the stories of old, dead white men, but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”
He explained further. “You don’t distance the audience by putting an actor of color in a role that you would think of as default Caucasian, you excite people and you draw them in.”
Yet there have been arguments that “colorblind casting” lets the industry off the hook when it comes to telling the story of people of color, because it focuses on inserting them into Caucasian stories instead of giving them their own.
In an article for the Atlantic titled “The Case Against Colorblind Casting,” writer Angelica Jade Bastién cites the example of John Boyega, an actor of color who stars in the big-budget film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“Colorblind casting might land a few promising actors prestigious roles, but it isn’t a sustainable strategy,” she writes. “It neither addresses the systemic problems that exist behind the camera nor does it compel Hollywood to tell more racially aware stories.”
Bastién argues that Hollywood needs to move beyond colorblind casting and start offering more opportunities for minority actors.
“Creating interesting roles for actors of color is a multi-layered challenge that can’t be solved by colorblind casting alone,” she said. “But it’s not an impossible one.”
By Lisa Respers France