Over the years there has been a push for more diversity in movies. Essentially that means that the people making movies are saying they want more people that aren’t white in their movies, but they don’t want them either. You might be thinking huh? How can they say they want more diverse people, but not want them? Well that goes back to their long standing tradition. White people make up the majority of the actors in movies. When a movie starring a primarily white cast fails, they move on to the next one. When a movie starring a primarily minority cast, they take a step back and re-evaluate the risks. Thus we end up seeing minority actors composing small portions of a movie. The real issue that we are running in to is the desire to have a more diverse cast intersecting with the popularity of remakes, reboots, and bringing franchises to life. As such, many of these characters come from an already established background. Captain America is blond haired and blue eyed. James Bond is a white British man. However, in order to make a work more diverse, minority actors are being cast into roles the characters they are portraying were not. This is also happening in the other direction. Traditionally minority roles are cast with white actors to give the studios their supposed wide appeal.
There is not a problem with casting an actor against their character’s race, provided that their race does not impact who that character is at their core.
There I said it. This may ruffle feathers, this may not be agreeable to all, but that is what I think. When you really break it down it makes perfect sense and indicates that those in charge are actually making their decision thoughtfully. Casting decisions need to be made with the characters in mind. Yes, a casting director is often looking for the best look alike to what they envision. However, that is not always the best for the character. In order to determine if casting against a character’s race is justifiable, one simply needs to take a look at the character at hand. How will changing the race impact the story? In some cases, that could completely shatter the core meaning behind the character. In other cases, it proves to make no difference at all. I’ll throw this out there, but this also goes for the gender bend.
Captain America is a blond haired, blue eyed American fighting the Nazis. Steve Rogers is literally fighting them while embodying what they idealize. He is the Nazi idea of a perfect specimen. There is a power granted to Captain America by his rebellion against people who would accept him. In his case, his appearance shapes his very interaction with his opponents. Changing his race, changes his narrative. It changes the power he has over the Nazis. It changes how he is perceived in America. Thus his appearance, his race largely impacts his narrative. It wouldn’t be the same if he was anything but a blond haired, blue eyed, perfect specimen of a soldier.
Now take a character like Johnny Storm (coincidentally played by the very same Chris Evans). Traditionally Johnny Storm is portrayed also as a blond haired, blue eyed kid. However, his race does not impact the core of his character. Johnny Storm is a younger brother. He’s a goofball. He’s a ladies man. He loves his family and likes to make jokes. None of those traits dictate that he needs to be white. He could be Korean, or Mexican, or South African. It doesn’t matter because the traits that make Johnny Storm who he is are not intricately tied to his race. If he had originally been written as part of an Asian American, he as a person would not be different. He wouldn’t be facing any major character differences. As such the fact that Michael B Jordan, a black actor, was cast as Johnny Storm is not a big deal, as long as his other traits are still in place.
Some of you may be cawing that in comics, characters are often recast. They change who portrays the hero and with that their race changes. This is entirely true. They are also fair game. However, one would note that when these changes are made, the characters aren’t just simply changing races. These are new people with new backgrounds. They share the same name, the same ideals, but will often change many other things. The fact that Falcon, a black character, is the new Captain America is okay. The white Captain America wasn’t erased from existence. Falcon simply inherited the new title and all it’s responsibilities. He’ll still bring his own issues and face things a bit differently. He is a different person entirely, it’s the title they share.
What is not okay, is something like Avatar. The movie was an entire mess. However, what made the casting of white actors so egregious was the way it was handled. The societies in Avatar were portrayed as various societies, many of them of Asian origin. They were fictional, which gave casting leeway. However it is not cool when you cast white actors to portray members of a region of people, and then cast the extras of an entirely different race. When you then add that you openly cast another race of people as the villains, it makes it feel like only white people can be the heroes.
Recently, Scarlet Johansson was cast as Motoko in the live action Ghost in the Shell movie. Some people are in an uproar that a white actress was cast as a traditionally Japanese character. While, yes, I feel that it’s a shame that they felt that they could have an Asian actress portray the character and the movie would sell, I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Would I love a Asian or Asian American actress to be in the role? Absolutely. However, having Scarlet Johansson play the role isn’t going to change the movie. The fact that Motoko is Japanese is not the core of her character. As long as they change her character name to not come off as pretentious the movie still has the potential to embody the soul of the story.