In the past week, there has been much controversy about ALOHA and the controversial casting of Emma Stone as Allison Ng as well as Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan mystic. In light of these events and the many discussions (and heated arguments) I had with my peers, these are my concluding thoughts:
In an ideal world, I fully support colorblind casting. Emma Stone should have every right to play a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character. Same with Tilda Swinton being a Tibetan mystic. Or Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver playing Egyptians in EXODUS. Because as actors, we should be able to play whoever we want, as long as we work our butts off, do our diligent research, and play the character convincingly. Which also means that if a white actor wanted to take on the challenge of playing Martin Luther King Jr.? I say, bring it. But on that same token, I as an Asian actor (or any non-white actor) should have equal opportunity to play a white character. Or anyone we want, as long as we are the right actors for the job.
Unfortunately this is not the case.
The main issue at hand is that there are so many opportunities for white actors to play whoever they want. They can play Egyptians. They can play Asians. They can play anything and the script (and everyone involved in creating the film) will work towards their advantage. But the same generous opportunity is not given to non-white actors. The playing field is so limited to non-white actors that when people get upset because a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character is given to an unquestionably white actress, it has merit because this would have been a great opportunity to cast an actor of ACTUAL mixed Asian descent. Or when Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver actually had to go out of their way and bronze themselves up to be seen as Egyptians? That would have been the perfect opportunity to cast an actual Egyptian/Middle Eastern/black actor to play the main leads. For these large studio & TV projects in America, it becomes a worrisome trend that we are constantly seeing characters of color get cast with white actors or their cultural origins wiped out completely.
On that note, people flip the conversation and ask that if people are upset when non-white characters are played by white actors, shouldn’t the same scrutiny be applied vice versa? To that, I say yes…and no. When it does happen, it happens RARELY. And when they do happen, a lot of these times, these traditionally white characters are not based on any non-white cultural origins nor are they essential to the story. There are exceptions however. While I’m totally down with, for example, Idris Elba playing a Norse god in THOR, I would have issues if Thor himself was played by a non-white actor. Or if you were telling the origins of Captain America and he was played by an Asian dude? That wouldn’t make any sense either. The casting of the character needs to be organic with the story and origins that he or she comes from and same can be said when you are casting an ensemble for any TV show or film.
So to reiterate, colorblind casting as an idea should be an amazing and beautiful thing in an ideal world. But we don’t live in that ideal world. Instead, we live in a rather complicated world where opportunities are more available to one group of people over others, mirred with centuries of racism, ignorance, prejudice, hate crimes, and oppression. There’s nothing quite immediate we can do about that but at the very least, we can make a change in telling stories about people that we normally don’t hear about everyday and to actually cast folks that are part of that world. That if the argument is about “we need to make money”, you can take a chance and cast that actor who isn’t white (and if you’re still concerned, you can cast white bankable actors to surround the said ‘unknown’ non-white actor playing the lead). We are so influenced by what we see and hear, to the point that it reflects the decisions and opinions we make of others so if we can’t effectively change the world overnight, we can at least portray making a start.