Writer: Gabrielle Poole
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul
Article Section: Opinion
Color-blind casting, or racially blind casting, is a form of movie role casting that does not consider a person's race or ethnicity. There is much debate over whether this act is seen as progressive or insensitive. Numerous news outlets disagree with color-blind casting, such as the Guardian, stating, “It’s dangerous not to see race.” To explain, they believe that ignoring race altogether proves to be regressive in relation to the fight for BIPOC to be accepted into society. On the other hand, the New York Times states, “Such time-honored stories belong to all of us, regardless of race.” This statement shows the implication of color-blind casting and welcomes the idea that the dismissal of race doesn’t necessarily prove beneficial in particular circumstances. Color-blind casting is viewed as progressive and an opportunity for inclusion, but it also implements forms of racism and stereotyping.
Casting white actors to portray BIPOC roles can exacerbate racism and promote racial inequity. August Wilson, a Black American playwright, rebutted the idea of color-blind casting in 1996. He proclaimed that “The idea of color-blind casting is the same idea of assimilation that Black Americans have been rejecting for the past 380 years… Many whites say, ‘Oh, I don’t see color.’ [But] We want you to see us.” Here, Wilson explains how people of color want to be recognized for who they are; casting white actors in place of Black roles without the consideration of their history erases their presence further in a space that already lacks representation.
Conversely, attempting to perform inclusivity by implementing non-white actors into traditionally white roles is also controversial. Color-conscious casting, proposed by Omari Newton, enables people of color to access roles in production and ensures appropriate recognition of what it means for an actor of color to have a particular role. To briefly explain, color-conscious casting is casting a person based on their gender, race, or ethnicity. The inclusion of BIPOC artists strengthens the entertainment industry because they are able to bring new and real stories to the screen or the stage. Therefore, tying into the idea that although racial inclusivity is important, color-blind casting can result in forms of racism if not handled properly.
One example of the debate between color-blind and color-conscious casting is “Hamilton” (a musical written by Lin Manuel Miranda). Many consider this an example of color-conscious casting. However, there is a latter between both concepts; Lin Manuel Miranda and his team of directors only cast white actors in one main part as well as a few ensemble roles. Otherwise, they were barred from the cast to implement more artists of color. Reserving space for BIPOC performers is only one small element of a successful color-conscious approach, as stated above. There is much responsibility for writers and directors to make an effort to undergo an in-depth evaluation of the cultural connotations and the impact this has on the characters. Lin Manuel Miranda, unfortunately, did not align his musical with these principles when creating Hamilton. Although the composer attempts to be open-minded and progressive, his prioritization of diversifying the production causes controversy. He is casting only BIPOC performers to act in a piece that details historical events that benefit their oppressors.
Another widely controversial and recent example of color-blind casting is the new “The Little Mermaid” movie with lead actress Halle Bailey. The new movie has sparked much debate and discussion about diversity and casting equity in entertainment. Social media platforms have discussed this news vigorously, and the reactions are varied. Many angry Twitter mobs argue about the importance of “sticking to the original material”. However, many view these statements as bigoted and how they are only concerned about preserving white supremacist structures in the media.
The Twittersphere erupted in outrage in regard to other racialized-casting that discerned cultural tolerance and reinforced white normativity. People do not react as intensely when white actors falsely portray characters of color. Some examples of whitewashing in the film industry include Scarlet Johansson’s Major in Ghost Shell (2017) and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dastan in Prince Persia (2010). Even the early ethnic Disney princesses Jasmine and Esmerelda were voiced by white women.
The film director behind The Little Mermaid, Rob Marshal, inexplicitly hinted at color-blind casting, but there was no agenda with Halle Bailey. He stated to reporters, “We saw everybody, but [the role] was [Bailey’s]. However, it’s important to still examine color-blind versus color-conscious casting and its implications and/on representation. Mermaids are mythical creatures, and Ariel's race is seen as arbitrarily white. However, her character is not impacted by her “whiteness”, so this story was deemed suitable for color-blind casting, thus allowing more representation on the choice of actors without worrying about how their race impacts the story. In previous Disney years, cultural inclusion was severely lacking, and this new revelation has left millions inspired by the progressive changes in the entertainment industry. Although many online viewers are upset by this casting, a handful more are, have been, and will be, inspired by Halle Bailey and her talents to portray such a majestic character in the Disney universe.
Although color-blind casting has its varied benefits (in the sense that it promotes diversity and inclusivity), it also has its drawbacks. Race is not something that can simply be ignored. This does not only apply in the entertainment industry, but also in life. When casting roles, it is important to think about the implications or effects that the race of the character may have on the history of the story. In the example of the Little Mermaid, Ariel was originally white, but her race had very little to no impact on her actual character. For this reason, the director of the new live-action movie saw it fit that Halle Bailey, an incredibly talented performer, was the best fit for the part. Color-conscious casting is a far better technique for directors to use while choosing artists for their productions. It does not dismiss race, acknowledges cultural relevance and how this affects production.
“Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.” - Jesse Jackson, 2007.