Alice Rush on minorities in film and casting controversies: the right person for the right job..?
Like most years 2014 had its fair share of film controversies. The Interview nearly sparked a war between America and North Korea (I use the word ‘nearly’ very loosely), Nymphomaniac attracted criticism for unsimulated sex scenes and Transformers: Age of Extinction became the highest grossing film of the year, arguably the most shocking feat of all. However 2014 also seemed to be the year of casting controversies, both in front of and behind the camera.
Arguments for and against castings in films are not new, and especially now with the rise of social media it is easier than ever to join in with the excitement or, as was the case with a lot of films in 2014, condemnation. Ridley Scott’s epic Exodus: Gods and Kings was vilified for its whitewashing with Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and Aaron Paul taking on the roles of Egyptian characters. When questioned on this controversial decision in Variety, Scott gave an either pretty truthful or pretty stupid answer, depending on how you look at it, when he said his film would not have gotten funding if his lead actor was “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such”. Similarly the upcoming movie Pan based on the J.M Barrie tale of Peter Pan also drew controversy due to its casting of Rooney Mara, a white actress, as Tiger Lily, a character originally written as a Native American tribal princess.
Whilst the latter example is much more confusing territory as it brings up the question of whether we should be changing a character whose portrayal now can be deemed as pretty darn racist both of these instances stir up the much argued point of a lack of diversity within the film industry. The 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report, which examined 172 films released in 2011, discovered that 89.5% of lead roles went to white actors, with an overall 74.4% of all leads being male. With statistics like this it is not confusing to see why when a major film set in Egypt comes around and the lead parts go to white male actors there is uproar, or when there is a chance for a female racial minority lead it creates controversy when instead a white actor is cast.
Some people ridiculed the outrage stating that it was “political correctness gone mad” or that the actors may merely be the right actor for the role. But as far as Scott’s comments go it doesn’t sound like he himself put effort into considering non-white actors for the part and with a wealth of Native American actresses out there it is hard to believe that Mara was perfect for the role and just so happened to be white. The issue of colour blind/conscious casting is one that has raged for decades, harking back to the era of blackface and whiteface, and time and again the argument seems to boil down to the actor being cast should be the right person for the job, regardless of race or gender. This argument was brought up again this year, but used against a very specific casting decision.
In world dominated by men Wonder Woman stands out as a shining beacon of girl power, a role model for young girls that you don’t have to have a penis to be kick ass. She shows that when it comes to being a hero, gender has no significance. She may not be a perfect hero but when it comes to representation of women in the comic book genre, which has arguably become the biggest genre now in movies, she may be all we’ve got for now. I was personally angry as hell when I heard that her introduction to the new era of comic book movies would be playing second fiddle to Batman and Superman so when it was announced that DC had plans for a solo movie and to top it all off Michelle MacLaren would be directing I was jumping for joy. Not everyone else was it seems.
The sexist comments came out, as they always did, but in a rather twisted and reverse way. Instead of saying that as a woman she was inept to direct this film there was the implication that she only got the job BECAUSE she was a woman; that she was a token of political correctness, only given her big break in an attempt to possibly change those statistics we saw in the Hollywood Diversity Report. And this is what ground my gears. Once again the argument was made that DC should be looking for “the right person for the right job” and not giving it to a woman just because Wonder Woman is a female. The argument against MacLaren seems to have been derived a lot from her status as a “nobody”. However James Gunn was arguably a “nobody” when he took the reigns of Guardians of the Galaxy and yet there didn’t seem to be a problem. To me MacLaren’s validity as a competent director was being questioned because she was a woman.
If it had been announced that Joss Whedon was directing along with the script he wrote back in 2006 no one would have questioned his validity, instead people, would have rejoiced and claimed that they had found the right person for the right job. I myself would have been very happy as I think Whedon is a great director. To many it seemed a crime that there was possibly an emphasis on finding a female director for the female led movie. Why? Why would that be a bad thing? In a world where there are 15.24 male directors to every 1 female director and only 29.8% of filmmakers are female is it such a crime when confronted with a film about a strong, female character to think that maybe this would be a good opportunity for female film maker? Is it wrong to think that maybe a female would have a better idea of the challenges females face? Women and racial minorities struggle to break through in the creative industries and is it any wonder when they are either denied roles or questioned and discredited when they do attain them?
I’m not trying to say that only women should direct films about women. I am calling those people out who opposed MacLaren’s position on the grounds of a stupid and, ultimately, sexist argument. Film now more than ever is woven intrinsically into our lives and from an early age, and this demands a more balanced approach to casting. In our multi-cultural world it is an insult to suggest to the only role models available in film and television are white and male and whilst there has definitely been a move towards including more minorities on and behind the screen the Hollywood Diversity Report statistics say it all, really.
Yes, I do think talent should be prised above all, however if this means that a person who has had to fight more oppression to attain their position is swept aside for someone more marketable and who has had many more opportunities available to them then that’s wrong. No, I don’t think women and racial minorities should be used as token or gimmicks however these examples from the past 12 months only serve to demonstrate that good talent is obviously going unnoticed because every time a chance for an underrepresented minority arises they are either cast aside, as with Exodus, or their status is questioned under the pretence of political correctness, as with MacLaren. The representation of women and racial minorities is never going to change unless when the chances for it to are taken and promoted instead of being broken down and dismissed by cynics.