“It was about this being the right person for the job, rather than what we as a society might perceive as the ‘right look for the job.’”
–White actor Mark Stanley on the casting of black actress Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn
“The American sense of reality is dictated by what Americans are trying to avoid. If you are trying to avoid reality, how can you face it?”
—James Baldwin, ABC interview, 1979
Meanwhile, in the real world, the lives of people of color, particularly those of darker hue, are erased.
Black lives matter, especially, it seems, when they are transmogrified into white ones – or light ones. This has meant that the opportunity to tell stories, both historical and fictional, focused on black lives has been squandered in a quest, as Quixotic as it is contradictory, to convince ourselves that color doesn’t matter, and that issues of race and racism can be engaged without confronting them honestly and directly.
The problem here is that America’s (and Britain’s and much of the world’s) grasp of history is already mired in myth and misrepresentation. It doesn’t need to be further muddied with the added confusion of race switching. Hollywood and Broadway need to realize that you can tell the stories of people of color without whitewashing or blackwashing them. Real life, if not yet reel life, is already kaleidoscopically diverse.
Of course, this assumes these agents of cultural production want to tell these stories. Their answer, however, seems to be that as artists it is not their mission to tell the stories of people of color but to tell universal, human ones. This implies that the stories of people of color are not, or as British author Nikesh Shula has observed, “White people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences.” Evidently so do some people of color.
The colorism controversy surrounding the lack of Afro Latinx representation in the Hollywood version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is recent but not new. As Ishmael Reed pointed out in his 2019 critique of Miranda’s Hamilton, in addition to glorifying its titular slaveholding hero and the Founding Fathers as a whole, it fails to present the voices of the “Native Americans, slaves, and white indentured servants” they victimized, voices Reed himself would subsequently include in his play “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.”
In response to such criticism, Miranda generously conceded his limitations, while still defending his melanated whitewash of American history: “All the criticisms are valid,” he tweeted, adding, “The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people [the Founding Fathers] I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical.” The implication: the oppressive weight of these complex individuals somehow justifies jettisoning acknowledgement of the reality of their failing as slaveholding white supremacists.
In an interview with Reuters, Miranda once again invokes “tonnage” to defend his film: “To be quaint would be a dream come true. No one movie can encompass the sheer tonnage of stories we have to offer.” But “tonnage” vision may not be the only reason for the film’s failure to see Afro Latinx people. (Ironically, the Reuters interview begins with the observation that Miranda is “hoping [his] musical In the Heights changes the conversation in Hollywood about the wider appeal of such movies, just as Crazy Rich Asians did in 2018.”)
Jon M. Chu, the film’s director, provides another, noting that while the casting of Afro Latinx people was “discussed,” “in the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get people who were the best for those roles.”
The sentiment is echoed by Melissa Barrera, one of the film’s white passing Latina: “I think it’s important to note though that in the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro Latinos there, a lot of darker-skinned people. I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles, for the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent.”
Certainly, Miranda and Chu were aware that the film’s casting did not accurately reflect the racial demographics of Washington Heights, any more than the cast of Hamilton reflects the racial composition of the Founding Fathers. (Read another way, the dark-skinned Afro Latinx Dominican community of the Heights were the wrong people to be represented in a film about their own community.) But Hamilton’s oxymoronic, color-conscious colorblind casting is intentional. A similar intentionality cannot be read into In the Heights, and not just the movie version. (One wonders how the original Broadway musical addressed these issues during its 2008-2011 run: Were dark-skinned Afro Latinx people represented any better? Sadly, it seems colorism plagued these productions as well.
This is unfortunate, since just as Hamilton whitewashed the emotional, financial, and intellectual investment of the founding fathers in slavery and genocide, the film adaptation of In the Heights opts to omit the reality of colorism within communities of color, an issue that was suggested, albeit fleetingly, in the original Broadway production in which the father of Nina, a light-skinned Afro Latina, disapproves of her black, non-Latinx lover Benny. (Not only is this subplot excised from the film, but the romance between the two characters has also been truncated and Benny’s overall role in the film reduced.). In fact, Miranda decided to remove this suggestion of racism from the film, telling the LA Times, The film “isn’t about the parental disapproval of this interracial relationship because we wanted to focus on the specifics of the racial microaggressions Nina faced at Stanford, which Benny very much understands and has her back on. So it didn’t make sense for her to be fighting that war on two fronts.” What Miranda fails to appreciate is that battles against racism and its handmaiden colorism are swaged simultaneously on multiple fronts and that his own film’s conscious attempt to minimize these conflicts may itself be interpreted as a not so micro microaggression.
What makes the current conversation about colorism even more remarkable, is that we’ve had it before. This is not the first time Chu has been criticized for colorism. In 2018, when the Singapore-based Crazy Rich Asians was released, it was criticized there for not accurately portraying that nation’s diversity. The film’s leads are light-skinned East Asians, those in subservient roles are dark-skinned Southeast Asians. As Singapore journalist Kirsten Han, put it, “The focus is specifically on characters and faces of East Asian descent, which plays into issues of racism and colorism that still exist, not only in the U.S. but Asia.”
Responding to his critics, Chu told a press conference, “We decided very early on that this is not the movie to solve all representation issues. This is a very specific world, very specific characters. This is not going to solve everything.” Now, three years later, Chu has directed another film about a specific world and specific characters that excludes specifically dark-skinned people, creating more problems than those it was not intended to solve.
Still, Hollywood has had plenty of opportunities to clean up its act, only to squander them as it deliberately continues to erase people of color from their own lived narratives. The film 21 (2008), based on a true story about a group of MIT students gaming the tables in Vegas, replaces Jeffrey Ma, a Chinese American, with a white character renamed Ben Campbell, while the rest of the real Asian American members of the blackjack team are similarly whitewashed. In an interview with The Tech, Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House, the book on which the film is based, said that he had been told by a studio executive involved in the casting that “most of the film’s actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female.” In Stuck (2007), based on another real life incident, this one involving a black woman who accidently hits and kills a homeless man with her car, not only does the main character undergo a name and race change, but, adding insult to injury, the film’s race-switched white female lead sports cornrows.
Fictional characters of color are also subjected to whitening. In 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), the sequel to2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bob Balaban is cast as Dr. R. Chandra, the creator of the sentient supercomputer HAL 9000, quite a departure from the Dr. Chandra, a.k.a. Dr. Sivasubramnian Chandrasegaram Pillai, of Arthur C. Clarke’s original novels. In the film Wanted, based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, The Fox, a character physically modeled on Halle Berry, is played by Angelina Jolie. Reuben St. Clair, the black social studies teacher featured in the novel Pay it Forward (2005), in the film becomes white Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey). Presumably, in the eyes of the filmmakers all these actors were “the best fit for the role,” even where the race and the names of the characters they portray were changed to accommodate them. If the shoe fits – alter it.
Movies, television and Broadway shows are entertainments not history (though they can be both). To be sure, actors should be given leeway to practice their craft, and escapist histories can provide a means of critically reexamining contemporary constructions of race and being (see for example, Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad). But such imaginative excursions devolve into extravagant indulgence when they substitute for or impede the production of stories that attempt to engage history, particularly history that has been erased by what Reed calls the “Historical Establishment.”
Sure, in the eyes of producers, a film about Anne Boleyn will capture a greater audience share than one about Sojourner Truth. A film about Boleyn starring a black woman could potentially outperform them both, if only because of the controversy it will generate. After all, Boleyn is a known quantity, a brand, a bankable historical commodity. Truth is not, at least to the gatekeepers of popular historical dramaturgy. As history, Gone with the Wind (1939) is irredeemable trash. Yet, for many, both in America and abroad, it offers, like its predecessor The Birth of a Nation (1915), a distorted vision of past American greatness. As for Hamilton, aside from the entertaining irony of turning the melanophobic Founding Fathers into people of color, it tells us nothing meaningful about either but a lot about the marketability of sanitized history, just as In the Heights’s erasure of an entire darkly pigmentated community of color from its own storytells us all too much about our present.
1/ In referring to black people in this article, I have chosen not to capitalize “black” until substantive transformation of American police enforcement and the criminal justice system that results in the criminal prosecution of those who use excessive force and produces a quantifiable, long-term reduction in the number of police killings and brutalization of black people is realized.
2/ This is assuming that we are not living in a Matrix-like computer simulation, as some philosophers speculate, a hypothesis I place alongside the existence of an omniscient, profoundly sadistic God that creates life only to damn it to pain and suffering, lunar green cheese, and stealthily “won” lost elections. Such are the wet dreams of mental masturbators who would relegate slavery, genocide, war, and illegal and immoral occupations to the products of a bored, super-intelligent mind. Or do they expect those who are subject to such injustices to wait for a “Game Over” sign to appear and provide them with hope that the next time around they get to be master of the universe – or, in the case at hand, casting director.
3/ For discussion of the issue, see my “Trading Races:Albescence, Staining, Xenoface, and Other Race-Switching Practices in American Popular Culture.”
4/ Let me provide a few examples: the Scarlett O’Hardy’s Gone with the Wind Museum, which boasts visitors from around the world; Japan’s Takarazuka all-female revue’s musical stage productions of the film, complete with blackface renditions of Mammy and Prissy; the naming of the Gone with the Wind Museum at Historic Brumby Hall as “Travelers’ Choice” by Japan’s online Tripadvisor website; and, with the blessings of the Turner Broadcasting System, Gone with the Wind wine (on shelves right next to the Life is Beautiful Barolo).