On Television, Cinema and Race

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I had... let's call it "a moment" today that almost broke into me getting myself reprimanded/fired for going on a expletive-filled rant.

So, I was chatting with a few co-workers about the bookies picking Chiwetel Ejiofor as a potential next Doctor Who. Now, despite these kind of odds-makers almost always not getting the call right, but one of my co-workers made a comment that was pretty much the same as the "Featured" comment at the link. Namely that they couldn't/shouldn't make the Doctor anything other than an English white man.

I had to walk away. Primarily because i'm so f*cking tired of hearing this kind of sh*t, in real life and everywhere on the internet. Because it's such ridiculous, asinine bullsh*t.

1.) For the sake of all things holy, Dr. Who, nor Sherlock Holmes, nor James Bond, nor Peter Parker or Jason Bourne or Indiana Jones, none of those characters' ethnicity is an integral part of the character. Think of James Bond. Now make him black. As long as he's British, what really has changed? As far as I can tell, nothing. Because James Bond isn't specifically about a white guy, it's a about a secret agent flying around the world fighting megalomaniacs with ludicrous affectations and women with painfully puerile puns for names. The only way making Sherlock Holmes or Olivia Dunham or Dr. Gregory House a different race changes anything is if you think they're going to wander around, acting like an enormous stereotype of their particular ethnicity and that every episode is going to be a "very special episode" about race.

Does this work for everything? Of course not! You can't just do a scene-for-scene remake of "Goodfellas", except now everyone's Honduran. It'd look weird, because one of the key parts of the movie is its depiction of a part of the Italian-American experience. You certainly could do a remake, but you'd largely be left with just plot points, and have to change so much in the course of making it that it'd end up a significantly different movie. But Sherlock Holmes? You could set it in the Arabic Peninsula in the 1600s, and it's still largely the same goddamn story.

2.) What I really, really, really hate about this argument is that at some point, someone always comes out and says that it's ridiculous to make the character a different race because you're subverting the dominant culture, and you'd never make the Chinese/Japanese/other largely homogenous society do this, and the dominant culture couldn't identify the character, so it'd bomb.

So, first, that's a terrible argument, because, and there's no other way to put it, it makes white people look like horrendous bigots. Because literally every other ethnic group in the nation, and people all over the world have watched movies from Hollywood featuring primarily white casts, and identified and empathized with the characters. I certainly did it, I love Bruce Wayne, Ellen Ripley and The Man With No Name. I think Jason Bourne is the best action hero of the last decade by a exceptionally long distance. None of those characters, or the people portraying them share anything even remotely close to my ethnic background. Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter made billions of dollars worldwide, because a shedload of non-white people went to see movies with primarily white casts, and managed to do it without going "I just can't get into this movie, there's no Filipinos." But according to this terrible, awful argument, it's just too jarring for Caucasians to do. (There's a six-letter-word i'd like to use to describe this mindset, but I won't, because it always derails the conversation.)

I overheard my co-worker also say that it was a dumb idea to make Dr. Who black because imagine if they made Dolemite white! The NAACP would be up in arms!

Well, you could make Dolemite white, but the key here, is again, that Dolemite's blackness is a key aspect of his character. Hell, it's a key aspect of the genre he's working in. It's in the genre's damn name.

Basically, it's just mind-boggling that this is an issue for people anymore. If Tyler Perry says he's going to do a biopic of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but now everyone's black, yes, that is stupid idea and it makes no goddamn sense. But if Luke Skywalker suddenly was being played by some Latino kid? What has changed? What does his being Latino change about the story? How is anyone seriously getting annoyed by this? James Bond could be a Handicapped Gypsy, as long as he's sexy, drinks, is a British secret agent and kills people for M, it's still the same character. Bruce Wayne could be a orphaned tycoon from Bombay, it still works just fine.

I'm sorry, this turned ranty, but I do hope that perhaps Mr. Ejiofor gets his chance to play the regenerating, shapeshifting extra-terrestrial, or someone of South Asian descent, or whatever. Hell, we can even finally hire a Ginger to do it first. But if they remake Magnum P.I. or something, and hire Michael K. Williams or Idris Elba to do it, it'll be fine. Catwoman wasn't awful because Selina Kyle was black, it was awful because it was a terribly written and acted mess. And if Total Recall gets remade with The Rock in Arnold's role, it's not going to have any huge effect on the film.

Christ.

I don't have a lot to add: I agree, and instantly thought of this kerfuffle from last summer.

Recent article on Cracked that touched on this.

It would be easy to argue that the box office numbers are skewed because, say, Fellowship of the Ring was simply a better movie than Big Momma's House. But you can get the same results from focus groups with everything else being equal. In this 2011 study, white undergraduates were given the synopses of 12 made-up romantic comedies. Along with the summaries, they got cast pictures and fake IMDB pages, which were manipulated so that each movie had six versions of the cast; an all-white cast, an all-black cast and four different versions in between.

Same plot, same characters, same everything -- just different cast members. And unfortunately, the whiter the cast, the higher the likelihood of the students wanting to see the movie.

So how does this play out in real movies? Black characters end up in supporting roles, instead of being well-developed characters. They're just there so we can "judge the other (white) characters by how they treat them." In other words, we certainly don't root for racist characters, and we'll boo racist stereotypes. But our open-mindedness usually stops at the point of actually paying to see a black leading man. Other than Will Smith.

My takeaway from it was that even though most of the characters you mentioned don't have race as an important attribute, the convention is that when people of a non-white race are in a movie, their race is part of their character. The problem with conventions like that is that they're very hard to break in mainstream media.

Futurama wrote:
That's not why people watch TV. Clever things make people feel stupid and unexpected things make them feel scared.

Well if the brief is to be an English White Man then David Tennant and Sylvester McCoy are out for starters.

Only racists care anyway. English cities are incredibly ethnically diverse,; Ejiofor couldn't look more like a Londoner if he tried. Saying an English born man of Nigerian descent doesn't pass for English is like saying no-one would believe a hispanic actor could pass for someone from Los Angeles.

Was a similar experiment done with black students? I'm thinking it might be some subconscious tribal artifact from prehistoric times, that we feel safer within confines of our own ethnic group. After all, primitive tribes quite often slashed throats first and asked questions later when meeting strangers in the woods.

Luke Skywalker being Latino would totally matter, 'cause his parents are both Caucasian, and nothing matters to Lucas more than the canon

This makes even less sense than the complaints about Heimdall being black. THE GUY'S STILL ENGLISH, skin doesn't affect anything.

I think you're right in your observations, Prederick, and I think you're also right that it's time to start moving past the White Protagonist. But the question is, are black/asian/Hispanic actors not being cast because of the movie studios, or because of the audience?

That Avatar movie recently was a good example... the animated characters are all sorts of different races, with a strong Asian theme, but the director insisted on casting it all lily-white. Can't help but wonder if the movie wouldn't have been better with a cast that more closely resembled the animated one. From the sound of things, it probably couldn't have been much worse.

If he'd cast it with non-whites, would it have hurt ticket sales?

Most wrote:
Was a similar experiment done with black students? I'm thinking it might be some subconscious tribal artifact from prehistoric times, that we feel safer within confines of our own ethnic group. After all, primitive tribes quite often slashed throats first and asked questions later when meeting strangers in the woods.

I believe the original experiment was only done with whites.

It wouldn't surprise me, but that's probably compounded by the status quo being established in a white-dominant era. I'd suspect that non-white audiences are now more accepting of white protagonists than whites are of non-whites (simply due to exposure), leading to the perception by studios that ($ lost by non-whites avoiding a white movie) < ($ lost by whites avoiding a non-white movie).

An interesting movie to consider in that light is the remake of Death at a Funeral, where the numbers must have come out differently... possibly American ($ lost by non-whites avoiding a white movie) was thought to be higher due to it being a very English film and ($ lost by whites avoiding a non-white movie) was lower because a significant number would have already seen the English one?

It's tricky to tease out the distinction between audiences and studios there. I guess the problem is that even if 90% of the audience couldn't care less about race, there will still be a slight fiscal advantage to having a white protagonist due to the remaining 10% and so that'll be what the studios make.

Most wrote:
Was a similar experiment done with black students? I'm thinking it might be some subconscious tribal artifact from prehistoric times, that we feel safer within confines of our own ethnic group. After all, primitive tribes quite often slashed throats first and asked questions later when meeting strangers in the woods.

Wasn't something similar done with little kids around the time of Brown vs the Board of education?

http://varenne.tc.columbia.edu/class...

You know, Captain Benjamin Sisko was my favorite Trek captain. It had nothing to do with whether he was black or white or Hispanic or Korean or a man or a woman; it had everything to do with the fact that he was awesome. Likewise with Colonel Kira Nerys being my favorite first officer - didn't matter her race or gender, it only mattered that she was awesome.

Yes, there are stories where a character's ethnicity or gender matter. And in those cases, it would be nonsensical to simply replace the cast with people simply to score "diversity points." However, those cases are much fewer and farther between than people typically seem to think.

But the rest of the time, we honestly could use more color (pun fully intended) in our tv and movie casts.

Most wrote:
Was a similar experiment done with black students? I'm thinking it might be some subconscious tribal artifact from prehistoric times, that we feel safer within confines of our own ethnic group. After all, primitive tribes quite often slashed throats first and asked questions later when meeting strangers in the woods.

Even though I don't think I've seen that exact sort of experiment done with black students, Pred does mention the truth in his post that a white cast will do better across the board than a black (or latino, or asian, or whatever) cast will do among whites. So while I'm usually on board with waiting to see some evidence rather than listen to gut feelings and casual observation, I think this is a safe substitute.

You know, that actor has been just great in everything I've ever seen him in. Considering he's done well in both comedic and serious roles, I can't think of how he'd do badly in that role. I do agree that nothing about Dr. Who's identity has ever really been linked to his race, just his country. It'd probably be a different story if, because of this, the writers decided to just "make it urban (a nice way of saying "more black!")", but I doubt it.

Idris Elba would be an amazing James Bond.

NathanialG wrote:
Idris Elba would be an amazing James Bond.

He would indeed. I could stand to see a couple more with Craig as Bond though.

Sean Combs on the other hand....

Malor wrote:
If he'd cast it with non-whites, would it have hurt ticket sales?

I'd certainly hope not. I Cameron's defense, most of the Na'vi roles were played by minorities. All the humans were white. Although i'm not sure if that makes it better or not.

I'm not 100% sure why minorities don't get cast, but it's certainly true that their numbers are tiny. I tried to think of all the non-Will Smith/Denzel Washington films this year featuring minorities in lead roles, and I came up with 30 Minutes or Less, Colombiana and Harold and Kumar's 3D Christmas , Tower Heist and The Help. Of those five, only The Help was really a huge hit, and that has its own issues. Oh, and Fast Five. So six major movies, and only two "blockbusters".

I'd guess that it's something of a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing. Studio thinks as many people won't see minority not named Will Smith = Audience never is exposed to/gets used to seeing minorities in leading roles, doesn't express much interest in seeing films with minority leads, and the snake eats its own tail.

I'd like to see a breakdown of how Tyler Perry movies do by racial lines, because clearly, Black people love them some Tyler Perry (even though his movies are terrible). Tyler Perry is currently the only way many black actors can be guaranteed actual, substantial leading roles in films, so I do wonder how non-blacks view his films.

NathanialG wrote:
Idris Elba would be an amazing James Bond.

Abso-freaking-lutely.

Something that i've always found interesting is that eventually, if you have this conversation on the internet someone will say to stop complaining and do for self. Said same person will also frequently whine that BET is racist and discriminatory, thus missing their own point.

I think malor was referring to avatar: the last airbender, a cartoon that m night shyamalan viciously destroyed while simultaneously whitewashing literally the entire cast.

Prederick wrote:
I'd like to see a breakdown of how Tyler Perry movies do by racial lines, because clearly, Black people love them some Tyler Perry (even though his movies are terrible). Tyler Perry is currently the only way many black actors can be guaranteed actual, substantial leading roles in films, so I do wonder how non-blacks view his films.

It's funny you mention Tyler, I was just thinking of him.

I don't care for the writing in his films, nor do I care for the "big angry black woman" stereotype that Madea seems to portray.

That said, I actually like most of the cast in his films, and it's a pity they generally haven't gotten roles in better films.

I'm completely on the side that thinks Chiwetel Ejiofor would be a great doctor (having not been a fan of the new one at all - not that it really comes into it but i think he'd be a fresh take).... but i keep seeing this Tyler Perry come up time and time again. Who is he and why is he relevant? I mean, i've not seen or heard of any of his films (I had no idea he was in star trek)... but then i suppose i haven't watched any film in the cinema since Star Trek and then Salt (and that was by accident).... so maybe i'm just out of touch? Is he a big thing in the US only?

I've been saying since I started watching the show that a black or female (or both!) Doctor would be fantastic. I suspect some people would have an issue with that, but they're racist and/or sexist and shallow.

NathanialG wrote:
Idris Elba would be an amazing James Bond.

f*ck YES.

I know his reputation and all, but the closest thing to a Tyler Perry movie I've seen is The Boondocks episode "Pause", which had me in tears.

So, I don't know how accurate or fair that is, but it's damn funny, and it's not even the big musical number. And Spike Lee doesn't like him much, either.

And I'd watch the living hell out of Stringer Bell being James Bond.

What is wrong with you people?

Have none of you seen Taye Diggs in Way of the Gun? If we're making post-Craig Bond black, he should get it provided he can fake the accent.

Prederick wrote:
(There's a six-letter-word i'd like to use to describe this mindset, but I won't, because it always derails the conversation.)

I hate to be pedantic, but "cracker" has seven letters.

H.P. Lovesauce wrote:
What is wrong with you people?

Have none of you seen Taye Diggs in Way of the Gun? If we're making post-Craig Bond black, he should get it provided he can fake the accent.

Prederick wrote:
(There's a six-letter-word i'd like to use to describe this mindset, but I won't, because it always derails the conversation.)

I hate to be pedantic, but "cracker" has seven letters.

You can make Post-Craig Bond whatever color you want, but don't make him not English.

Tanglebones wrote:
H.P. Lovesauce wrote:
What is wrong with you people?

Have none of you seen Taye Diggs in Way of the Gun? If we're making post-Craig Bond black, he should get it provided he can fake the accent.

You can make Post-Craig Bond whatever color you want, but don't make him not English.

Sean Connery shaysh hello. If a Schotshman can play Bond, why not a Yank?

Jonman wrote:
Tanglebones wrote:
H.P. Lovesauce wrote:
What is wrong with you people?

Have none of you seen Taye Diggs in Way of the Gun? If we're making post-Craig Bond black, he should get it provided he can fake the accent.

You can make Post-Craig Bond whatever color you want, but don't make him not English.

Sean Connery shaysh hello. If a Schotshman can play Bond, why not a Yank?

Fine, fine.. not a member of the fellowship of Granbretanians - inclusive of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and the Isle of Man. Better? Sheesh.

Those people aren't all just English?

I agree to a point, and where i ahve made that statement before is where people stray from the original material. I Robot, i couldnt care less that they used Will Smith, but i do care that they destroyed everything else about the book. Only thing in common that movie had with the book was it contained robots and a murder.

Jonman wrote:
Tanglebones wrote:
H.P. Lovesauce wrote:
What is wrong with you people?

Have none of you seen Taye Diggs in Way of the Gun? If we're making post-Craig Bond black, he should get it provided he can fake the accent.

You can make Post-Craig Bond whatever color you want, but don't make him not English.

Sean Connery shaysh hello. If a Schotshman can play Bond, why not a Yank?

Unless MI6 decides to hire a Yank as an agent and makes him 007, I'd say "British Isles only" for Mr. Bond.

A Yank for the Doctor could be interesting, but I'd love to see him regenerate with a thick Scottish brogue and see how he deals with that. "Mah tongue! I dinna unnerstan' wha' happened ta me tongue!"

I think I'd prefer Mos Def as a new Doctor. I think the whimsy and boyish glee he showed in HHGTTG would fit it well. I've only seen Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity.

Prederick wrote:
Sherlock Holmes? You could set it in the Arabic Peninsula in the 1600s, and it's still largely the same goddamn story.

I would watch this show.

Also:
IMAGE(http://art.penny-arcade.com/photos/1132623538_Nzpbx-L.jpg)

So, let's just make this the Idris Elba is amazing "Catch All."

Before he got too old for the role, I liked the thought/rumor of Will Smith as Captain America. He was our GI Joe, All American Hero for over a decade in Summer Blockbusters. Robert Downey Jr. Put in a lot of work into his accent to become Sherlock Holmes, and I think he did a damn good job.

Just cast the best person for the role. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a fine actor. I think he would make a good James Bond. Just watch Serenity to see that he can do stunts, fight scenes, etc.

I feel like video games are worse than film and television with this phenomenon. I think Ryan or Jeff from GiantBomb said something like video game developers are generally afraid of addressing racial issues directly, so they often use allegories to talk about the issue. I'm not saying I want to see more black or Asian protagonists, because adding diversity for the sake of diversity doesn't seem like the right "answer." What I would like to see is game developers not being afraid of the weight race inherently carries in media (for better or worse).

Wow. I didn't realize there was a black dude in Thor. In retrospect, yeah, I guess there was. It never occurred to me to take note of their skin coloration. I mean, they're gods, right? They can look however the heck they want to look. Heck, Zeus can be a frickin merman if he wants to.

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