Forget cultural appropriation, forget whitewashing, and forget colonialism. Whether or not you believe that these terms are still relevant today (and I believe they are), you can’t argue that race politics is a thing of the past.
I mean, take a look at the situation with Zoe Saldana and the row over her playing Nina Simone in a biopic. It’s almost as though Hollywood, scared by the fact that Chris Rock is so funny that he goes over their heads, have decided to pitch a black actress who they are pretty sure wouldn’t have a hard time scraping an Oscar. All they need to do is black her up a bit, add a flat prosthetic nose, and she’s on her way to golden glory. It’s unfair, both for black actors and Nina Simone.
Was it really so hard to cast formidable actresses like Viola Davis? Saldana has said that playing Simone means a lot to her. That’s nice. I’m sure it means a lot to the darker actors who end up playing slaves or murderers. They probably agree that an iconic black woman, like Nina Simone, means a lot to them too. The fact that Saldana’s politics haven’t always matched Simone’s is irrelevant. Okay, so Saldana doesn’t see colour (maybe that’s why she got cast), and colour is kind of, you know, integral to Simone’s recognition, but at least Hollywood didn’t go one step further like it did with the 9/11 Michael Jackson film.
It’s not okay to get white people to play black people. Even if it’s Joseph Fiennes and the black person had a skin condition which made their skin lighter. It’s not okay to look at the colour of a real, human being’s skin, and just pick the most palatable shade and then colour them in a bit. These actors may be no Rachel Dolezal, but they’re not a substitution for someone’s identity. Hollywood just can’t get it right. First, they cast a white person as a black person with light skin. Then they cast a lighter black person as a darker black person. Is it me, or is this symbolic of the obsession with whiteness?
The danger of ‘whiteness as success’
Let’s think about this. Why do ethnic minority people need to stick to their station, or change radically, in order to be successful, or even understood? Here are a few examples:
Zoe Saldana – played Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy, green woman) and Neytiri (Avatar, blue woman). Saldana’s problem is they never seem to paint her right.
She has had some great roles, sure. However, that does not reduce the fact that directors and producers think it’s okay to make her more appetising, a sexy alien, by adding a dash of something else. Oh, and let’s make sure that her characters always need rescuing by some white man who’s doing her a favour and making her less primitive somehow. Because that’s not how colonialism worked at all.
Chris Rock – successful comedian, with hits like Everybody Hates Chris, and presenter at the recent Oscars. Oh Chris, what are we going to do with all the ribs you cracked at #OscarsSoWhite this year? I mean, the uncomfortable looks on people’s faces, when they were unsure whether to laugh or not, certainly made for reassuring(?) evidence that Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with actors of colour. This account from the Oscars website just says it all. No doubt, Rock isn’t perfect. But he did this right. When you have an audience full of people who apparently want diversity, but people of colour aren’t involved in the conversation, how are you going to expect them to be able to lead the way in their own liberation? Give the people a break; we’ve had to deal with enough whitesplaining as it is.
— Live Tweeting (@BlavityLive) February 29, 2016
Just about every Pakistani or Muslim actor of colour- I’m really struggling, actually. I’m trying to think of a Pakistani or Muslim actor who hasn’t played a terrorist in films or TV shows I’ve watched. My Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts will tell you I consume a lot of film and TV, yet I’m struggling to think of inspiring roles that Pakistani actors have had.
Is this a coincidence? I think not. Just look at the fact that anyone vaguely brown gets chosen to be a terrorist or linked to terrorism somehow. Or that shows like Homeland like to focus on how brown people and Arabs are always the problem. Or that the media gets scared when brown people go viral, regardless of whether they are Muslim. Oh, and it’s funny how the parents of brown people in films always seem to have a South Asian accent or something. Why does the assumption exist that ‘immigrants’ can’t have accents local to the place they now call home?
Facebook star, Showry – Now this is someone I can get behind. Showry’s videos are essentially a big middle finger up at the white concept of Koreans-must-be-cute-and-well-behaved. It’s a racist, sexist, and frankly damaging convention which Showry works to tackle. The ‘mukbang’ trend of eating for audiences inspired her to put a feminist spin on the matter, and challenge the stereotype of the hypersexualised Asian female. If only Korean actresses didn’t get cast in really cutesy roles, right? (Though it’s hard to think of many non-men Korean actors…). Margaret Cho broke with the image of cute Korean in The Interview and still ended up stuck with a stereotype, but at least they picked a Korean actress for that film. But the attitude of “it could have been worse” simply won’t cut it; not now, not ever.
So it’s kind of obvious from my short foray into problematic film stereotypes that some kind of effect must be filtering down to us Z-listers. But that’s a whole new kettle of fish. For now, we have to fight the notion that actors of colour must simply take what the white people give them and accept it’s for their own good. We must actively challenge the idea that actors of colour have to stay in their lane and play to stereotypes. We must ensure that people aren’t picked to play people of colour because their lighter skin is more appealing, or because there’s a “shortage” of darker actors with the same, if not better talent.
White must never be the new black, brown, or anything else in between. Hollywood has a long way to go before the rest of the world can have a chance of correcting its social conventions.