Is Hollywood Guilty of Cultural Appropriation in its Casting?

The art of acting creates something of an illusion for the audience. The actor plays the role of another person but often becomes so immersed in the character that audiences often associate the actor with the character instead of the real-life person. In most cases, it is the performance above all else that’s compelling to viewers.

As movie-goers (and at-home movie watchers), we are hoping to escape our lives for a few hours and hope the film we’re watching can help us achieve that. Sometimes the stars align and a movie has all the elements to make a film stand out, but many times, it is the strength of the performances of the actors that elevate the material to something watchable, and often, enjoyable.

Casting for films and television takes a lot into consideration, but for most casting agents the question is, “Can this actor pull off the role?” There’s no issue with race and ethnicity due to the diverse pool of talent from which casting agents can choose. This wasn’t always the case. In 2017, it would be absurd to cast a Caucasian actor to play the role of a Native American in a reboot of Arrowhead, a western from 1953 starring Charlton Heston and Jack Palance. Palance is the son of Ukrainian immigrants but played Toriano, the son of an Apache chief. Today, a casting agent would have no problem finding a Native American actor to play the role.

In the last couple of years, there have been a spate of complaints about who gets cast in particular roles in films. The transgender community was unhappy with the casting of actor Eddie Redmayne as artist Lili Elbe in the movie The Danish Girl; they expressed similar anger after Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for his role as HIV-positive, drug-addicted trans woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Both Redmayne and Leto are straight. The transgender community feels the roles in question should have gone to trans actors.

A similar situation arose with actor/director Mark Ruffalo:

Ruffalo and Bomer starred in HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” in which Bomer plays Ruffalo’s love interest. Bomer won a Golden Globe for the film.

When news broke that Bomer, a cisgender but openly gay actor, would play the transgender role in the film, people took to Twitter to express their frustration that a real trans woman wasn’t cast in the film.

Some even called for Bomer’s role to be recast, but Ruffalo revealed the film had already wrapped.

“The movie is already shot and Matt poured his heart and soul into this part,” said Ruffalo. “Please have a little compassion. We are all learning.”

The issue is not limited to the transgender community. Recently, Samuel L. Jackson took issue with British actor Daniel Kaluuya, who was cast in the horror movie, Get Out. Jackson said:

“I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that,” he said. “Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for 100 years. What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal but [not everything is].”

Jackson later backtracked somewhat, saying he wasn’t slamming Kaluuya, but instead merely observing that Hollywood did “interesting” things at times.

Such controversies are wholly manufactured. The actors in question are playing a role. Gay actors including Jodie Foster, Victor Garber, and Neil Patrick Harris have all played straight roles in movies. Andy Garcia is Cuban, but one of his most famous roles is that of Italian mobster Vincent Mancini in The Godfather III, for which he received an Oscar nomination. There were plenty of British actors playing Americans in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, including Damien Lewis, who portrayed Major Richard Winters of the 101st Airborne Division.

It’s hard to make a compelling case that other actors would improve the roles mentioned if the only artists cast were straight, Italian, or American, respectively. Their skill in the art of acting makes it irrelevant.

One of Hollywood’s most iconic figures is actor Robert De Niro. In three of his most memorable roles, he portrayed men of three different ethnicities. In Raging Bull he played Italian boxer Jake LaMotta. In Goodfellas he played Irish mobster Jimmy Conway. In Casino he played Jewish casino manager Ace Rothstein. Can you imagine anybody else playing the roles of LaMotta or Conway or Rothstein?

Acting is art and actors are artists. If Hollywood succumbs to protests over cultural appropriation in casting, the art will suffer. Seeing a great actor fully inhabiting a fascinating character, regardless of either the actor’s or the character’s race or ethnicity, is what makes movies so compelling to watch.

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3 responses to “Is Hollywood Guilty of Cultural Appropriation in its Casting?

  1. I am looking forward to watching Gal Gadot play wonder woman, though It’s a pretty clear case of cultural appropriation. As an Israeli actress of central European descent, she was cast at least partly because she looks as though she could be Turkish. Wonder woman, coming from classical Greece, would most likely have had curly blonde hair and blue eyes. That population in Greece was largely exterminated as the Ottomans pushed into Europe and the eastern Mediterranean two millennia later. Sometimes you can’t be too picky about the details and try to just enjoy the movie.

  2. I am not sure it is absurd to think that a caucasian would be cast in a clearly native american role in 2017. Johnny Depp was cast as Tonto just 4 years ago. And pretty much no one thought he did a great job with the role.

    I think acting does matter. No one wants a bad actor in a role. But lots of bad actors get roles all the time.

  3. Acting ability matters more than anything else, but I have a slightly harder time disagreeing with critics in this case. I am in a wheelchair and it would be nice to see truly disabled actors play the roles of disabled characters. Obviously, there are exceptions. Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking was excellent. The progression of Hawking’s disease was shown, so the role required an able-bodied actor. Even when a character is paralyzed throughout the movie, acting ability is still paramount. Most people, myself included, would prefer an able-bodied good actor to an abysmal paralyzed actor. It would, however, be nice if disabled actors were sought out first. As they gain more experience, they should be up for bigger roles.

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