The Dramatic Exception to Nondiscrimination?

Many years ago when I was a teenager, I saw a version of Hamlet with a black actor in one of the leading roles. Knowing that the film was set in Medieval Denmark, I had a moment of being jarred out of the suspension of disbelief necessary for effective drama. However, I made the mental effort to thrust the issue aside and found no problem enjoying the play. Such casting has apparently now become common, and the reaction of viewers is now standard: we have decided not to care.

In fact, it turns out that Medieval Denmark -- if it were much like Medieval England -- probably did have a certain number of people of color in it. Several of the Round Table knights turn out to have been, a fact missed because the Medieval authors didn't make a big deal about it. It apparently wasn't that remarkable.

Nevertheless, one can see that the suspension of disbelief is a real issue for dramatic works. More than that, if a play is really partially about race, the dramatic vision of the whole could make it valid to cast certain roles in a certain way. It might be interesting to do a version of Roots or Tarantino's Django with racial casting reversed, but it makes a certain sense to play the casting straight. I'm not sure it would make sense to fail to take race into account at all: while reversing casting would make a point, you would lose something important to the drama if you gave the sense that race was of no importance in the time period being portrayed. It is the centrality of racism that is the issue, and casting has to reflect that somehow.

I'm thinking about this because the Hamilton musical has come under fire for a casting call asking for only "non-white" actors. There's a question about whether the law can support race-based casting. That's a separate question from whether or not it makes any sense to try to put on a play set in a particular time and place that doesn't take audience expectations into account -- either to smooth suspension of disbelief, or to challenge their preconceptions.

It seems as if the artistic concerns are valid, but they may be illegal. If they were illegal, should there be a nondiscrimination exception for art?


Joel Leggett said...

FWIW, There were only three Knights of the Round Table that were "of color," the Saracen Brothers: Sir Safir, Sir Segwarides and Sir Palamedes from Babylon. Apparently, Sir Morien and Sir Feirefiz were a mixed-race knights from Africa but were not Knights of the Round Table. Additionally, these are characters from a fantasy/fair tale story written long after the Crusades and used as literary devices. Consequently, I would not recommend using such characters to draw any conclusions about the racial diversity of medieval Northern Europe.

Grim said...

In fairness, there was no Round Table -- I meant to reference the assumptions of the writers, who lived from 1200-1450 (after the Crusades, as you say). But if Arthur was real, he lived in the wake of the Roman Empire. If we could know the racial makeup of his warriors, it might well prove that it was not drawn from the local British culture exclusively (and maybe not even largely).

ColoComment said...

I guess I'm too..., is "obtuse" the word? to get the point of deliberately casting a counter-race/color in a drama about real historical personages. Frankly, I'd have a pretty hard time getting past the discontinuity of a black person playing George Washington or Ronald Reagan, or a hispanic playing W.E.B. Du Bois or Harry Belafonte or Ray Charles.
Is that bad of me? I don't think I'd have the same difficulty with invented characters, but that's not what they're doing here, it seems.

And what's the purpose of this? "Hamilton" features minority actors in all of its prominent roles except for King George III, who is played by a white actor."

George III is, I assume, the bad guy in the play. So he's cast white to indicate... he's evil? or something?

Signed, Lost In The Diversity Universe

MikeD said...

Frankly, I'd have a pretty hard time getting past the discontinuity of a black person playing George Washington or Ronald Reagan, or a hispanic playing W.E.B. Du Bois or Harry Belafonte or Ray Charles.

There's been a great deal of controversy recently about the casting of a white man as Michael Jackson, and even some about casting Zoe Saldana as a darker skinned black woman (so apparently even THAT is a thing, you have to be the right KIND of black to play a black character). And to a certain extent, I get it. In a historical biopic, I think it should be pretty straightforward to cast actors who resemble (even if only vaguely) the historical person being portrayed. I believe there should be more leeways in historical fiction (fiction based upon historical events), for example the character of Azim in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And if you're casting a work of pure fiction, unless it's literally a piece about race (like the aforementioned Django Unchained), then race literally should not matter. Othello would be perfectly understandable if you had, say an entirely Japanese cast save for a Hispanic Othello, Othello's "Moorishness" is only important to the plot insofar as he is an outsider. You could set the play in Saudi Arabia with an Italian Othello and it would play much the same. We see Romeo and Juliet harmlessly passed into the streets of New York without losing the meaning.

Where I get annoyed is when we're told that there's no reason at all to get in the slightest bit worked up at the casting of Idris Elba as the Asgardian Heimdall, but that it's horribly racist to cast a white man as the Marvel character Iron Fist (who is, in fact, a white man in the comic... but something something cultural appropriation). If it is meaningless to change the race of a character, and just shows racism to get worked up about it, then how in the HELL is it racist to cast a character in accordance with that character's race in the source material? I mean really...

For the record, I like Idris Elba as an actor (he was perfect for the role in Pacific Rim), and I think he did a fine job as Heimdall. I didn't have a problem with his being cast for the role either (more of a "huh... that's weird, why would they do that?" kind of thing). But when I saw people losing their minds about casting Danny Rand (the aforementioned Iron Fist) with a white actor, I wanted to smack some folks.

Tom said...

This falls under the sort of thing that I was talking about with morality and legislation. I lean toward getting rid of racial discrimination laws for private citizens and business, except maybe in a few very limited circumstances. I think it's immoral to discriminate in most circumstances just because of race, but I don't think laws that deprive of us the freedom of association (and freedom from association) are the right answer.

So, I don't have a problem with legally allowing a casting call for all non-white actors, any more than I do with one for all-white actors. (I would just make it a general rule, rather than an exception.)

As for my personal preferences in drama, if I want to see a historical drama for the history of it, then I much prefer historical accuracy.

On the other hand, in part because of the long, long insistence in our culture on the importance of race, many people today dislike the Founding Fathers because they were white men. So if a play can cast non-whites, or women, in these roles and thereby open people's minds to the ideas of the Founders, why not?

Grim said...

A fine point, Tom. I hadn't thought of it just that way, but you're right: if it opens their eyes to the Founders, it will have been well worth doing.

Texan99 said...

The Kenneth Branagh version of "Much Ado About Nothing" cast Denzel Washington as Don Pedro. The more stylized a production is, the less important that the characters fit the dramatic assumptions about ethnicity. If the story is explicitly about race, though, like "Django" or "To Kill a Mockingbird," switching the ethnicities around requires conscious irony.