Step into my film school! The importance of casting in breaking open movie stereotypes

Did any of you catch Matt Zoller Seitz’s pieces on underrated actors and actresses? Given that the purpose of “top ten” lists is to make people argue about who should really be on the list and obviously there are great people not on the list who are underrated, I’m going to say that any list that makes the argument that Wendell Pierce should be in everything is a list I can be happy about. I was especially pleased to see a nice variety of ages among the actresses.

The brilliant Wenhwa Ts’ao taught me to cast actors (with a little help from Judith Weston), and she taught me to look at every actor who came into the room to audition and ask myself “What will kind of character will this actor create in my story?” vs. “Does this actor fit the idea of the character I had in my head?” First, because as a low-budget filmmaker, you have to be flexible and sometimes rewrite your story to take advantage of the talents and resources you have around you. Second, for creative reasons, the actor you want is the one who makes you re-imagine your film. He or she makes your film possible in a way that it wasn’t before, just by existing and walking into the room.

I wanted my first-year film students to understand what happens to a story when actual human beings inhabit your characters, and the way they can inspire storytelling. And I wanted to teach them how to look at headshots and what you might be able to tell from a headshot. So for the past few years I’ve done a small experiment with them.

It works like this: I bring in my giant file of head shots, which include actors of all races, sizes, shapes, ages, and experience levels. Each student picks a head shot from the stack and gets a few minutes to sit with the person’s face and then make up a little story about them. I wanted to know:

  • What kind of story or genre do you think of when you see this person?

  • What character are they playing in the story?
  • Is there a specific role or type that comes to mind?

  • What is their job?
  • Maybe describe an environment, or period, or style of dress that you associate with the person.
  • The students then show off their actor’s photo and pitch their stories to the class and then we talk about the results. I’ve run this experiment a few times, and the students are very excited and creative with stories/genres and have a lot of fun with it. “I picture him in a Western. He’s the lone cowboy who rides through town and gets caught up in the trouble that’s going on there.”

    However, some troubling shit always occurs.


    Namely, for white men, they have no trouble coming up with an entire history, job, role, genre, time, place, and costume. They will often identify him without prompting as “the main character.” The only exception? “He would play the gay guy.” For white women, they mostly do not come up with a job (even though it was specifically asked for), and they will identify her by her relationships. “She would play the mom/wife/love interest/best friend.” I’ve heard “She would play the slut” or “She would play the hot girl.” A lot more than once.

    For nonwhite men, it can be equally depressing. “He’s in a buddy cop movie, but he’s not the main guy, he’s the partner.” “He’d play a terrorist.” “He’d play a drug dealer.” “A thug.” “A hustler.” “Homeless guy.” One Asian actor was promoted to “villain.”

    For nonwhite women (grab onto something sturdy, like a big glass of strong liquor), sometimes they are “lucky” enough to be classified as the girlfriend/love interest/mom, but I have also heard things like “Well, she’d be in a romantic comedy, but as the friend, you know?” “Maid.” “Prostitute.” “Drug addict.”

    I should point out that the responses are similar whether the group is all or mostly-white or extremely racially mixed, and all the groups I’ve tried this with have been about equally balanced between men and women, though individual responses vary. Women do a little better with women, and people of color do a little better with people of color, but female students sometimes forget to come up with a job for female actors and black male students sometimes tell the class that their black male actor wouldn’t be the main guy.

    Once the students have made their pitches, we interrogate their opinions. “You seem really sure that he’s not the main character – why? What made you automatically say that?” “You said she was a mom. Was she born a mom, or did she maybe do something else with her life before her magic womb opened up and gave her an identity? Who is she as a person?” In the case of the “thug“, it turns out that the student was just reading off his film resume. This brilliant African American actor who regularly brings houses down doing Shakespeare on the stage and more than once made me weep at the beauty and subtlety of his performances, had a list of film credits that just said “Thug #4.” “Gang member.” “Muscle.” Because that’s the film work he can get. Because it puts food on his table.

    So, the first time I did this exercise, I didn’t know that it would turn into a lesson on racism, sexism, and every other kind of -ism. I thought it was just about casting. But now I know that casting is never just about casting, and this day is a real teachable opportunity. Because if we do this right, we get to the really awkward silence, where the (now mortified) students try to sink into their chairs. Because, hey, most of them are proud Obama voters! They have been raised by feminist moms! They don’t want to be or see themselves as being racist or sexist. But their own racism and sexism is running amok in the room, and it’s awkward.

    The students aren’t stupid or malicious or evil for automatically slating the actors they way they did. They aren’t doing anything that casting directors don’t do every day. They are just reflecting the world they’ve seen on screen since they were born, the one where white men with strong jaws are the default human and everyone else is “other.”

    The casting director and the studio will say “It’s just business. We’re trying to do what sells and give people what they want.” Let’s say you get to direct a big budget studio action film. Daniel Craig is interested in starring in the project. But you would love to cast Chiwitel Ejiofor, who is also great-looking and athletic and brilliant and who can definitely carry a film and even has a British accent! Both would do a bang-up job with the role, but with one actor you are guaranteed a certain box-office return and with one actor you are not, so you now have to talk your investors and the studio into shouldering more risk (and probably cutting your budget significantly or even un-greenlighting your movie or firing you, because what kind of idiot would turn down such a proven moneymaker?) So you think, I know! I’ll cast Craig as the lead but Ejiofor can be the partner (the one who dies horribly and inspires Daniel Craig to punch everyone in the world as revenge). The film will be good, everyone will make their money, no one is trying to be evil. Problem solved, right?

    The problem is that actors carry our dreams onto screens with us, and those dreams have power. More than one person (including Dennis Haysbert) has said that Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of the president on 24 paved the way for the Obama presidency, by making it something routine and normal for us to see. I think Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones is important. Ellen Ripley saved my life, too.

    A few years ago, I went to a special screening of Shaft attended by Richard Roundtree (Who was wearing Uggs! When Chicago winters fight fashion, fashion loses every time) who talked afterwards about the impact that role had on people around the world and what it meant for people to see him on the screen, kicking ass and taking names and how it made him think about representation. After that experience, he didn’t want children to see him doing drugs or playing a drug dealer, because it would affect the way they saw themselves. He also told stories about getting a script and immediately flipping to the end to see if his character was still alive, and the way black actors joke with each other make little bets with themselves – “I think I’ll die by page 80. It will be my noble sacrifice that takes us all into the third act!

    Side note: I haven’t seen Rise of Planet of The Apes yet, but, here’s a Spoiler Alert: The Black Guy Dies.

    And listen, I get that it’s complicated and subjective. Film casting is often about finding people who are instantly believable as their characters, especially in minor roles. (At the student/low-budget level, it’s often about finding warm bodies who can show up.) Some of that “rightness” comes from talent and craft and costuming and hair and makeup, but some of it just comes from having the “right” face and the right look so that the audience says “yep, that guy playing the security guard looks like a security guard all right, and that stoner college student is a believable stoner college student” and isn’t shaken out of the story by some jarring detail. It’s tempting to keep the background stuff a little predictable so that the audience will focus on what you want them to focus on and be attuned to things that are against “type.” Edited to Add: You don’t have to turn every single film project into a “very special episode” to make me happy. In fact, please do not do that. But you have to remember that your idea of “right” is subjective, and be open to the possibilities that an actor brings you when they walk in the door. It’s much more interesting and powerful to cast a talented actor, say, with a visible disability, and then say nothing about it in the story. Just let them play that character and fold that disability into the human being we see on the screen.

    If you want to talk strictly aesthetics vs. politics, I think movies that are populated only with skinny under-25 white people with perfect teeth and hair who try to find love within the same 10 square blocks of New York or LA (with maybe some charming ethnic neighbors or whatever) are just… boring. Movies that star THE WALL OF DUDE + 1 TOKEN HOT LADY are boring. And then…did anyone see the trailer for Larry Crowne (as described by Melissa McEwan)? Watching that piece of mediocre bullshit before every single movie I’ve seen this summer, I can’t decide if I’m angry, bored-angry, angry-bored, or bored-bored. The sad thing is that the filmmakers are probably patting themselves on the back for not having an all-white cast and those actors are happy to get the paycheck and work with Tom Hanks.

    So what I want to say to Hollywood industry folks is that you have so much power to change the way that people see themselves and the world, and if you would just dream a little bigger, we would follow you. While everyone likes looking at gorgeous people, there are a lot of definitions of gorgeous. The way we are represented on screen hold meaning and power and consequences for us. You can take risks and still be commercial. If Machete can pass the Bechdel Test, so can you.

    And for my talented and lovely students, who will make the films we’ll be watching years from now, it’s important to me to get this out in the open right at the start. Take the Red Pill, students! In school, when you’re not making commercial work and you’re not beholden to anyone for what you do, why bind yourself to reproducing what you’ve already seen?

    Because if this semester I have to watch 75 films about able-bodied middle class white guys with good abs being white at other white guys, relieved only by the occasional “hot chick”, “mom”, “love interest” ,”thug”, “maid”, or “black best friend”), I’m sure the writing will be sharp and the camerawork will be skilled and the acting will be good and your grade will be fine. But you’ll also be sending me and everyone else a message that you’re happy with the world just as it is. And the prospect of that makes me just a little angry-bored.

    This entry was posted in Entertainment, Gender, Movies, Popular Culture, Race & Ethnicity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

    50 Responses to Step into my film school! The importance of casting in breaking open movie stereotypes

    1. Manboobz says:

      But Larry Crowne has helpful black friends!

      True story: once I had a dream that was basically an action movie starring Clive Owen. At one point Clive/I had to escape the bad guys in a hurry and got some crucial help from … a colorful wacky Jamaican woman who drove some sort of colorful wacky food truck.

      When I woke up, I was like, could my brain’s casting of that role been any more stereotypical?

      She was basically my unconscious’ version of Sister Carol’s character in Something Wild:

    2. Brigid says:

      If you want to talk strictly aesthetics vs. politics, I think movies that are populated only with skinny under-25 white people with perfect teeth and hair who try to find love within the same 10 square blocks of New York or LA (with maybe some charming ethnic neighbors or whatever) are just… boring. Movies that star THE WALL OF DUDE + 1 TOKEN HOT LADY are boring. And then…did anyone see the trailer for Larry Crowne (as described by Melissa McEwan)? Watching that piece of mediocre bullshit before every single movie I’ve seen this summer, I can’t decide if I’m angry, bored-angry, angry-bored, or bored-bored.

      … But you’ll also be sending me and everyone else a message that you’re happy with the world just as it is. And the prospect of that makes me just a little angry-bored.

      This. This so hard. I’ve recently been contemplating writing a post about why I’m loving my project to read [almost exclusively] books by women (and why I don’t see any reason to stop anytime soon, thanks), and this is exactly what it’s all about: anger-boredom.

      Also, you’re doing amazing work. I’d love to be in your class on headshot day.

    3. Brigid, I did a similar project where I prioritized movies directed by or written by women (mostly recommended through Melissa Silverstein’s Women in Hollywood Blog), not just because I wanted women-helmed films to get my opening weekend $$ but because I wanted to see different stories on screen. I saw a bunch of great stuff and my shoulders came down around my ears for a little while.

      Stuff I saw/liked from the last few years:

      35 Shots of Rum
      White Material
      Whip-It (women doing sports for their own enjoyment? Breaking up with wispy band-dudes who don’t treat them well?)
      Bright Star
      Hump Day
      Wendy & Lucy
      Meek’s Cutoff
      The Hurt Locker
      An Education (full of YEESH but well-made)
      Fish Tank
      Tiny Furniture
      The Beaches of Agnes

      It’s very heavy on western white ladies, and I need to branch out (though unfortunately Mira Nair’s Amelia Earhart movie was godawful and I can’t recommend it– go back and watch Monsoon Wedding if you’ve got a craving).

    4. IvyKllr says:

      One of the best-written parts for a woman I’ve seen is in a small movie called Streets of Fire. Amy Madigan plays an ex-soldier and the hero’s buddy (NOT the romantic interest). It’s a great role, and she’s fabulous in it. It’s multi-dimensional, a painful rarity.

      What made the part so well-rounded? I suspect the fact that it was written for a guy might have something to do with it.

      Gee, could that be the seekrit formula for writing a reasonably decent part for, well, just about anybody? Write it for a white male, and then just drop a decent actor/actress in it, regardless of ethnicity?

      Sure, there are films for which this approach would not work. But quite a few really good actors and actresses might find work to showcase their talent using this approach. And most of the films for which this approach would *not* work would be the films that rely on magical persons of colour – or that otherwise notably pat themselves on the back for including actors or actresses of colour (or otherwise non-mainstream white males).

    5. Silver says:

      I’m reminded of this comedy skit:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpZY0xPjyhI
      The joke is the casting, but despite that, the girl still manages to sell the role.

      On a more serious note, I know it specifically mentions ‘head shots’, but presumably you can see the top of whatever clothing the people happen to be wearing. Can this make a difference? Are men more likely to obviously be wearing a suit and tie, for instance?

    6. William says:

      But you would love to cast Chiwitel Ejiofor, who is also great-looking and athletic and brilliant and who can definitely carry a film and even has a British accent!

      Seriously! I first saw him in Serenity and I thought “how is it that I’m just now seeing this guy? Why isn’t he A List?” Ejiofor is what made the conflict in the film work for me because the villain was written in such a way as to believe in his cause but was played in such a way as to seem like the hero of his own story. I love Nathan Fillion and think he was a perfect casting choice for Mal, but he looked like a cartoon next to Ejiofor.

      Ejiofor as the first black James Bond? I’d watch the shit out of that.

      • Captain Awkward says:

        Ejiofor is brilliant and would make a great James Bond. I’ve also seen Idris Elba mentioned as the first black Bond, which wouldn’t suck, but I think Ejiofor has more vulnerability (that can also be stone toughness).

        Now imagine in that scenario where you are casting that theoretical action movie that you are a lady director (or a nonwhite director, or a nonwhite lady director) and this might be your one shot to direct a movie EVER and if you fuck it up you might never work in this town again and your name will become a watchword for why we can’t trust non white-guys to direct anything even though the white guy who directed this is still working (currently in post on Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked, which, oh god, Lord Jesus make me blind. And deaf.). The pressure multiplies 1,000-fold to make the “safe” choice.

    7. Captain Awkward says:

      @Ivykllr, I’ve read that advice given by a male screenwriters to other male screenwriters (I want to dig up a link but can’t find it) – basically, the way to write women who don’t suck (like Ripley) is to write them as if they are men (and have the full range of desires and emotions and thoughts, imagine!) and then change the names. Which is what I think David Mamet weirdly tries to do in a very literal way?

      @Silver, sure, how the actor is dressed in the photo will have something to do with it, and actors often get shots with a few different outfits so they can target themselves better for certain kinds of roles. Maybe that explains a tiny bit of why it was easier in some cases to lock onto a profession? But I’m wearing a t-shirt and jeans right now and tomorrow I’ll wear a cute dress and I’ll still be a college instructor the whole time, even if I am a “quirky fat best friend.”

    8. renniejoy says:

      Interesting look into the process, thank you.

      I especially like “Was she born a mom?”

      also, angry-bored describes my feelings about far too many things. :(

    9. Shakatany says:

      I loved it when years ago they cast Frances Sternhagen in the doctor role in “Outland” opposite Sean Connery – a role that was originally written for a man. I read every once in a while that an actor will come in to read for a role and makes such an impression that they cast her/him in a role that might not be the role s/he read for.

      Another work I loved was Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata” where they sort of blind cast often ending up with actors of various backgrounds – European, African, Indian etc – who played characters who were related to each other and ignoring the fact they did not look like each other.

    10. EG says:

      On the bright side, the phrase “WALL OF DUDE” just made my day. Consider it stolen, and thank you.

    11. Brigid says:

      Captain Awkward: Stuff I saw/liked from the last few years…

      Oh, excellent! Thanks for the list!

    12. scrumby says:

      Shakatany:
      Another work I loved was Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata” where they sort of blind cast often ending up with actors of various backgrounds – European, African, Indian etc – who played characters who were related to each other and ignoring the fact they did not look like each other.

      I remember watching this when I was very young! Unfortunately to few people have seen it so I’m forced to fall back on Grey’s Anatomy as an example of why blind casting can make for some really cool selections.

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    14. The Amazing Kim says:

      It’s pretty much the same in the games industry, except first we make the roles, and then we make the people who play the roles, so we don’t even have boring real people to worry about. And yet…

    15. LC says:

      There is nothing about this post that does not make me want to submit a head shot for you.

      Also, Shakatany and scrumby love for Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”! I had that whole damn thing on VHS as a kid, because it was awesome. (And, weirdly, I brought it up yesterday at work as a generally awesome thing not enough people know about.) Now I want to see that again.

    16. Fat Steve says:

      Captain A,

      I had a similar classroom experience, but because it was anonymous, the responses were not able to be questioned. When I was starting out in comedy as a fresh faced 20-something, I worked as an assistant to the teacher of the ‘standup for beginners’ class at Caroline’s comedy club. The very first thing we opened the class with was something we called ‘the first impression excercise’, which was basically each student stands in front of the class for 10-20 seconds while the other students write down words that come to their head just by looking at them. I then compiled all the peoples descriptions on to one list for each person and in the following class the teacher read them out.

      While there was never anything outright mean, there was so much stereotypical stuff (as I said it was anonymous, so when I compiled them I just removed anything I found offensive or phrased it more sensitively.) And it’s hard to make these judgement calls because part of the exercise was knowing what prejudices people would have of you when you walk on stage. So, I would get comments like ‘she looks like she gives good blowjobs’ and change it to ‘sexually experienced.’ But certain things I never knew to leave in or not, if someone said a guy ‘looks like he has a big penis’ is this using a black stereotype or was he wearing tight pants? If a woman gets ‘lesbian’, is it because she’s not wearing a skirt or because she has a rainbow bracelet on that i didn’t notice. And if I get a comment like ‘huge tits’ I would have a real dilemma because someone deserves to know that 6 men and 7 women all put that as the first thing as an audience will be thinking it. However, I felt bad for the fact that my friend Tommy (the teacher) was going to have to say it to her, and he was very uncomfortable with that sort of thing as it was the Clinton/Lewinsky era and he was obsessed with the ‘appearance of propriety.’

      In college I also experienced a lot of acting classes where, under the guise of ‘breaking through barriers’ we were encouraged to use the most offensive terms. I still fell guilty about yelling the n-word at my acting partner, even though he kept encouraging me to ‘say it like I meant it,’ and I just couldn’t make it sound authentic.

    17. Angel H. says:

      This seems like such a good exercise. And the best thing about it is that the issue of racial and gender stereotypes is being taught outside of a social sciences class. I like how it kind of sneaks up on the students: “Today we’ll talk about characters and storytelling. Haha! Fooled you! This is really about racism and sexism in casting!”

    18. LC says:

      Fat Steve: I still fell guilty about yelling the n-word at my acting partner, even though he kept encouraging me to ‘say it like I meant it,’ and I just couldn’t make it sound authentic.

      So in the 9/11 piece I was in last year (which sadly I won’t be performing in the New York revival), there’s a rant by one of the rescue workers where he says “those goddamn sand monkeys are laughing at us”.

      The actor couldn’t say it at first. He kept dropping it, sotto voce, when he hit the line.

      It probably took him a month to say it.

      I, meanwhile, kept trying to get the line changed to “sand n***er” because I really thought if we were going for a line that stops the room in its tracks (including the ranter) then we should go big.

      (And why am I not shocked you do stand up?)

    19. Captain Awkward says:

      @Angel H – we also talked about creativity in casting! Like, some people look like they stepped out of a certain era, and when you looked at their photo you could say “I’d cast her as a 40’s era tough-talking lady reporter.” The racism and sexism are so endemic to how movies and TV are cast, we just couldn’t avoid it.

      @Fat Steve, those survey results sound eye-opening…for everyone. My favorite (least favorite) incident of an anonymous audience survey involved a white student telling a black student, completely without irony, “You make too many films about black people and should branch out more and be more diverse.”

      She brought it to us, the instructors, and we told her to cut it out and tape it to her monitor as a reminder of why she had to keep making films and doing what she does.

    20. Andie says:

      I had a facebook debate with a guy about some character in a new superman movie was being cast with Laurence Fishburne and surprise, the character is ‘traditionally’ white. He was irked because “blah blah politically correct, something about black Kingpin and we don’t have Japanese Wolverine”.

      My question was mainly why he assumed the casting choice was political correctness and not just because Fishburne is a pretty decent actor? Why does the character need to be white, just because that’s how he’s always been? If the race/gender is not a intrinsic part of how we understand the character, and there is no issue of historical context and suspension of disbelief, then why can’t we change up these factors?

      It was an interesting conversation.

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    22. Fat Steve says:

      Andie:
      I had a facebook debate with a guy about some character in a new superman movie was being cast with Laurence Fishburne and surprise, the character is ‘traditionally’ white.He was irked because “blah blah politically correct, something about black Kingpin and we don’t have Japanese Wolverine”.

      My question was mainly why he assumed the casting choice was political correctness and not just because Fishburne is a pretty decent actor?Why does the character need to be white, just because that’s how he’s always been?If the race/gender is not a intrinsic part of how we understand the character, and there is no issue of historical context and suspension of disbelief, then why can’t we change up these factors?

      It was an interesting conversation.

      And yet no one complained that a green actor didn’t play the Hulk….

    23. Travis says:

      When I read or see something about filmmaking, especially the outrages and institutionalized injustices, I can’t help but think back to my own industry: video game development. Maybe it’s because we borrow so much vocabulary and thinking from film (and commit the same sins—did anyone play Crysis 2 and notice we got elbow-jabbing distance from a Magical Negro trope?), or because we’re in the same business of conveying plot and narrative through sight and sound. Whatever the reason, video game developers are guilty of the exact same thinking as some of your students, and we’re only just starting to have a conversation about it.

      In both games and film, the audience is drawing on a lot of information to determine a character’s role, motivation, personality and history—dialogue, dress and appearance, action, location, etc. But one thing film has that games don’t have is actors, people trained or talented enough to take direction like “your motivation is…” and turn it into a believable performance. When you’re first conceiving of a character you know is going to take several months to 3D model, paint, animate, write artificial intelligence code for, record dialogue and build setting around without ever knowing how it’s going to come out until thousands of people-hours have been spent, and besides it’s about the GAMEPLAY not the STORY, just get on with it…you’re tempted to paint in broad strokes.

      So you get “Giant White Space Marine Saves Suspiciously Helpless Lady from Ugly Aliens” eleventy-billion times because you know you can get that story across because it’s been done; You get incidents like “Metroid: Other M” where the team has no idea how to portray a beloved female character who has both emotional attachments and a laser gun on her arm; and you get far too many developers creating blandly attractive white male characters and excusing it by saying “The character is a blank slate! Any [read: straight white cis male] person can project themselves onto him!”

      Developers are starting to have conversations about this, though. Some publishers (i.e., the guys who give me money to make a game in a way they believe will create a return—the guys who tell me to use Daniel Craig) are “sensing” a “audience shift”—more and more women and non-white PoC are playing video games (like they always have been, natch) and are considering catering to those audiences more. Others are a little higher-minded, and are beginning to see that video games aren’t just for people wanting to test their skills or fulfill some kind of fantasy—they’re for people who want to experience stories and narratives in a whole new way (if you play video games, please play Bastion if you haven’t yet. It’s an amazing example of video game storytelling). People will go to a movie to watch people not like them do things they wouldn’t do, or maybe don’t even want to see done, because it moves them. And we believe video games can move people, not just amuse or titillate them.

      A lot of us—many much smarter and more experienced than I–have been doing a lot of thinking on this topic, but what Captain Awkward has really shown me in this article is that we need to get quicker about it. Because if it’s true that, ”actors carry our dreams onto screens with us”, I can only believe that fact is ten-fold true for interactive media. If people’s views can be normalized by watching a rooting for a character who is like (or not like) them, becoming that character and acting out the dream can only be more psychologically effective. The games industry has to realize this, in a major way, and soon.

    24. Andie says:

      Fat Steve: And yet no one complained that a green actor didn’t play the Hulk….

      TRUE~! and his skin color is DEFINITELY intrinsic to the character. Kind of.

    25. LC says:

      Andie: He was irked because “blah blah politically correct, something about black Kingpin and we don’t have Japanese Wolverine”.

      Why does the character need to be white, just because that’s how he’s always been? If the race/gender is not a intrinsic part of how we understand the character, and there is no issue of historical context and suspension of disbelief, then why can’t we change up these factors?

      Which is why I wanted a Hispanic Peter Parker for the remake of Spider Man. I mean, why the hell does Spidey have to be white? He has to be a nerd who dotes on Aunt May. That’s it. (I am glad that in Ultimate they seem to be trying this out.)

      But yes, especially in a reboot or new media or what have you, go nuts. Sometimes it will be irrelevant. Sometimes it will add something interesting in subtext (that may be worth exploring in text). For instance, if they ever do another Flash Gordon, what do you do about Ming?

    26. Captain Awkward says:

      @Travis, thanks for your comment. I’d be fascinated to know more about those conversations inside the game industry.

      Most of my computer gaming involves Civ, where I like to play Askia of the Songhai or Haroun al-Rashid (mud pyramid mosques and bazaars are wicked useful) and because it’s the only environment where you get to say things like “Fucking Gandhi!” and “Again, Gandhi? Goddamnit!”

      I think it’s good for non-white guys to get to play characters who look like them, and I think it’s good for white guys to play characters who DON’T look like them. To set white guys up as The Default Human is insulting to other humans. To set white guys up as Blank Slates is insulting to white guys. Homogeneous media is more boring media.

    27. Verity Khat says:

      Captain Awkward: I think it’s good for non-white guys to get to play characters who look like them, and I think it’s good for white guys to play characters who DON’T look like them. To set white guys up as The Default Human is insulting to other humans.To set white guys up as Blank Slates is insulting to white guys.Homogeneous media is more boring media.

      THIS. Times eleventy-billion. Actually, this entire thread times eleventy-billion. I write/draw comics (someday professionally, rarr!) and, believe me, all the issues presented here apply. Comics are essentially movie storyboards (IMO), except your actors can look any way you wish. But, again, you want your audience to believe it. This causes me more internal wrestling than I care to admit.

    28. Andie says:

      Verity Khat: THIS. Times eleventy-billion. Actually, this entire thread times eleventy-billion. I write/draw comics (someday professionally, rarr!) and, believe me, all the issues presented here apply.Comics are essentially movie storyboards (IMO), except your actors can look any way you wish. But, again, you want your audience to believe it. This causes me more internal wrestling than I care to admit.

      One of the arguments I made with my friend about the comic adaptations, in rebuttal to his argument that movies should ‘stay true’ to the artists conception is that over the years there’s a lot of editing going on.. how are we to know which characters may have been female, or non-white or such in the artists conceptualization only to have them masculinized or anglicized during the editing process for fear that audiences wouldn’t be able to “Relate” to a POC or female protagonist?

    29. Meredith L. says:

      Both would do a bang-up job with the role, but with one actor you are guaranteed a certain box-office return and with one actor you are not, so you now have to talk your investors and the studio into shouldering more risk (and probably cutting your budget significantly or even un-greenlighting your movie or firing you, because what kind of idiot would turn down such a proven moneymaker?) So you think, I know! I’ll cast Craig as the lead but Ejiofor can be the partner (the one who dies horribly and inspires Daniel Craig to punch everyone in the world as revenge). The film will be good, everyone will make their money, no one is trying to be evil. Problem solved, right?

      That right there is the crux of the problem. I think that you are definitely doing a mitzvah – to non-cisgendered, non-hetero, non-white, non-able-bodied, non-dudes everywhere, but also to the film industry at large.

      But solving the problem needs to go beyond just training future casting directors, directors, and writers – we have to get more open-minded people in the producer chairs and in the roles of financiers. Otherwise the Chiwitel Ejiofor movie you mentioned risks being marketed as just another “black” movie, just like any film with a woman in the lead role is just another “chick” movie.

      Brava for this entire piece. You rock my socks off.

      Also, this: http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/a71d4bb3a0/black-best-friend-with-casey-wilson

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    32. Jackie says:

      For another spin on this topic, I highly recommend the essay,
      “The People The Writers Don’t See” (http://www.sfwa.org/bulletin/articles/cassutt.html) by Michael Cassutt.

      At this point, I’m not holding out a lot of hope for change from mainstream sources. I find myself looking at the fall tv previews and movies with very little interest. The little voice in my head is saying, “white guy, white guy, oooh look, more of the same”. Rather than sit there and be bitter about it, I’m trying to find films to support like Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” which turns the black thug trope into something different when an alien attack is thrown in.

      The bigger question for me is financing. Who controls the money? And who is financing what film? How can I as a movie goer throw my money behind a Black film that appeals to what I want to see and isn’t Tyler Perry?

    33. Alexa D. says:

      Andie:
      I had a facebook debate with a guy about some character in a new superman movie was being cast with Laurence Fishburne and surprise, the character is ‘traditionally’ white.He was irked because “blah blah politically correct, something about black Kingpin and we don’t have Japanese Wolverine”.

      That’s funny because in the comics Wolverine has a half-Japanese son who has also gone by “Wolverine” in the past. In fact, the title of his book is “Daken: Dark Wolverine”

      That’s the thing I can’t stand about comics fans. Every single character has at least 3 “versions”, yet they’re the first to complain if someone of the non-original race (which has only ever been white up to this point in superhero movies) gets cast.

    34. Travis, I was just thinking about the same thing. My Partner works in the video game industry, and when we play games we often discuss the issues of racism and sexism in character selection and portrayal. He said He really noticed a difference when playing a game like Mass Effect where you are able to design your own female main character and make her look like a fighter, as opposed to sex object, and have the same “personality” the male main character is written to have.

      I wish I knew more about you and where you worked/how to talk to you! This topic has been so much on my mind recently.

      Also, great post Captain Awkward. What a great look into the internalized racism and sexism that we suffer.

    35. mclicious says:

      This is so wonderful. Thank you. I’m working on a novel and a graduate degree right now to (eventually) pay the bills, but ideally I’d love to get into screenwriting and producing, and it’s great to read about how racial politics play out from someone who is actually in the know. There are tons of fabulous editorials about what whitewashing does to viewers, but I hadn’t seen a perspective like this before. Thanks.

    36. TeakLipstickFiend says:

      It figures. As soon as I saw David Oyelowo in the Planet of the Apes trailer I had a feeling he’d die. Just like he did in Last King of Scotland.

    37. Javan Nelums says:

      I notice something about movies:
      That the POC has no lines
      If so they are consider for a villian role against the white people.
      WOC:
      I noticed that they are used for fan-service for the white males.
      For more on this: http://arsmarginal.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/representation-in-media-tower-prep/

    38. Ann Marie says:

      Be willing to expand your idea of casting a character and see what happens to the story–any writer ought to totally eat this up.

      Shanghai Noon, a western starring Jackie Chan, has some interesting nudges because of this.

    39. IvyKllr says:

      Captain Awkward: One version of the advice (on How to Write for Women) is: Just write the roles for *people* …

      And then cast women, as needed.

      (Anyone with any kind of awareness would realize that the default for “people” is “men”, and might even figure out that *women* are “people”, too … but I wouldn’t count on it.)

    40. Andie says:

      Alexa D.: That’s funny because in the comics Wolverine has a half-Japanese son who has also gone by “Wolverine” in the past.In fact, the title of his book is “Daken: Dark Wolverine”

      That’s the thing I can’t stand about comics fans.Every single character has at least 3 “versions”, yet they’re the first to complain if someone of the non-original race (which has only ever been white up to this point in superhero movies) gets cast.

      That’s actually really funny that you mention that… I had no idea about Wolverine’s son, however I did say to the guy that given that there have been Japanese families living in Canada for generations, a Japanese wolverine isn’t *that* much of a stretch ( a First Nations Wolverine would be totally believable, too).

      I’m with you on the ZOMG NOT A BLACK DUDEEEEEE arguments.. So ridiculous. I pointed out to the one guy in the thread that comic characters get changed all the freakin’ time in the books. One only has to look at the evolution of Hank McCoy, aka the Beast.

    41. William says:

      I did say to the guy that given that there have been Japanese families living in Canada for generations, a Japanese wolverine isn’t *that* much of a stretch ( a First Nations Wolverine would be totally believable, too).

      Funny that you mention that. Wolverine’s character has a whole bunch of Noble Savage in his backstory revolving around him living with the Blackfoot Tribe after his powers first manifest. Thats where he has his oldest Woman-In-A-Refrigerator moment, too. Japan is pretty much the other side of that coin, playing up western perceptions of Japanese culture as a means of civilizing Wolverine. Again he falls in love pretty much just so his love interest(s) can come to a bad end and give him some cheap emotional punch. Except now he’s a ninja. Also, somehow descended from wolves. Comic books are weird.

      /nerd moment.

    42. LC says:

      Given how Wolverine keeps being the “White Guy learning wisdom from those exotic others”, I’d like to see that script flipped a little. Of the two. I’d far prefer making him First Nations, personally.

      Mind you, I would expect him to just end up even MORE “Noble Savage” if you did that.

    43. Fat Steve says:

      …describe an environment, or period, or style of dress that you associate with the person.

      Has anyone ever said something like “she looks like she has a really heavy period”?

    44. thestray says:

      Great article Captain Awkward.
      What I like about this is that it illustrates that the people who perpetuate racism and sexism aren’t necessarily racist or sexist, or aware at all of their actions, because these stereotypes are just parts of our culture we internalize. We need to be woken up.

      I’m an artist/aspiring writer, I’m more interested in cartoons and comics, but I’d like to get into film too. For a long while I’ve always made it a habit of mine to NOT make my lead characters straight white able-bodied thin good looking males. This wasn’t always the case. I’m black, and when I was younger I made all my characters white males by default without realizing I was doing it, until a family member asked me “Why don’t you draw any black people?” That was an eye-opener for me, and was definitely the first step in me changing the way I looked at creating characters.

      Present day, I seldom write a straight male character as the lead character, just to do my small part in trying to balance things out. I think it’s important for every type of person to be able to see someone like themselves represented, not just in the margins as sidekicks, villains and supporting characters, but as the stars of their own movies, books, cartoons, video games, comics, and etc.

      I’m a huge comic book nerd and fan of Spider-man, and the response to the new Spider-Man being bi-racial really made me a little depressed and frustrated. The crazy thing is it’s not even the original Spider-Man who was replaced, it was the off-brand alternate universe Spider-Man being replaced with a minority, and people were still outraged. The original white straight male Peter Parker is alive, still Spider-Man, and can still be read about, but that’s not enough for some people apparently, they want BOTH their Spider-Men to be white. What annoyed me most were people calling it “politically correct”, or a “pandering”, etc. It was very disheartening to me to see that if you try to make an effort to be diverse that people (most people with privilege) automatically scoff at it, as if diversity was some stupid thing that nobody should ever consciously make a goal of theirs. At the same time these people who were complaining would say “I’m not racist” and tell you how much they don’t care about race. They’d make the argument that comics should focus on good writing, and not about issues. As if you can’t focus on telling good stories and simultaneously focus on diversity. *sigh* Very frustrating, very sad.

      I’m working on a comic right now that’s about a lower-class Mexican woman in her 60’s who is endowed with super abilities. This could easily be a joke premise, but I’m treating her as a serious character. We’ve already seen every variation of what happens when a white guy gets powers (and as a nerd I love a lot of those variations) but to me it’s really interesting to explore the juxtaposition of telling these types of stories with someone radically different from what we’ve seen in this context. I have no illusion that this is a project that a major publisher would be interested in, or that it’ll be optioned as a movie or anything. But I’m going to do it anyway and put it out there, because I have to do my part in offering something different.

      Sorry for typing so many words, haha.

      • Captain Awkward says:

        Your comic sounds awesome! I want to read it, for sure. For serious. Please email me when it is done.

    45. Corinne says:

      This is like my favourite post of the year. THANK YOU.

      Also, thestray, I ditto Captain Awkward: That concept sounds fantastic. I hope to see it on the (virtual) shelves some day.

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    47. Javan Nelums says:

      @thestray: It’s rare to see a Latina get the spotlight without being sexuality. Also she is elderly no less.

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