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Saturday, June 23, 2007


Certain people are outraged that Angelina Jolie is playing Marianne Pearl,, the wife of murdered journalist David Pearl. Marianne Pearl, you see, is Afro-Cuban on one side, and Dutch on the other. And therefore, since she is "of color," only an actress of color should be allowed to play her. They have invoked the blackface performers of the 1800s and 1900s, as if Jolie is playing Stepin Fetchit or claiming to know nothin' about birthin' babies.

Marianne Pearl is, apparently, fine with being played by Angelina Jolie, as I suspect a lot of women would be. So far as I know, her story has nothing to do with her "race," whatever that is. Her story is about how her husband, Daniel Pearl, was beheaded by fanatic Muslims in Pakistan.

The argument is not, of course, whether Angelina Jolie looks like Marianne Pearl. She doesn't, particularly. To my eye, Marianne Pearl looks a good deal like Minnie Driver. The argument is whether Angelina Jolie has the right to play Marianne Pearl.

To me the outrage seems racist. It harks back to the old Southern attitude that any African ancestry at all made you a Negro. Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave/mistress, for example, was only one quarter Black -- a "quadroon" -- and therefore must have looked a bit more like Gwyneth Paltrow, say, than Thandie Newton; but to everyone at the time, and to posterity, she was Black.

The outrage also seems canned: it feels like it's coming from people who are just looking for an opportunity to stand up and feel insulted and be quoted in the paper -- a characteristic that seems to run through every ethnic group.

Can anyone give me a convincing artistic or moral reason why only African-American people should be allowed to play characters with any visible percentage of African descent?

And if so, how far are you willing to take this? Should Japanese actors be allowed to play Chinese characters, or vice versa? Should only full-blood Native Americans be allowed to play full-blood Native Americans? Exactly how much Native American blood entitles you to play Geronimo?

UPDATE: We just watched SELENA, the biopic of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, the Tejano singer. Apparently there was a fuss over Jennifer Lopez's starring role. Lopez, you see, isn't Mexican-American. She's Puerto Rican. (She nailed the role.)

Labels:

28 Comments:

I think it's a tough call, but clearly there's a very wide gray area here. For example, would you feel comfortable with a Latino actor playing Nelson Mandela in a movie? What about a Chinese actor? Or a women dressed in drag?

Outrage over shifting ethnicity is nothing new, though. There was outrage when Vanessa Williams was cast as a Latina in the movie Shaft (yeah, yeah) or when Kevin Spacey was cast in Pay in Forward (with a facial disfiguration apparently taking the place of him supposed to being black).

By Blogger Nima, at 8:43 PM  

One reason would be that there aren't that many leading parts for minorities in the first place, so to take the rare one that comes along and give it to someone who's already got plenty of options I'm sure would be frustrating.

Of course, the movie might not have gotten made at all if it weren't for someone like Angelina Jolie helping to bring in the financing -- and that would complicate things.

By Blogger Steve Peterson, at 9:55 PM  

If you believe that actors can transcend race in the roles they play, then you should be open to the idea of Chow Yun Fat playing George Washington or Morgan Freeman playing Robert E. Lee.

If your response is "Don't be ridiculous," then I'd ask you to consider how ridiculous John Wayne looked playing Genghis Khan.

By Blogger Isaac Ho, at 11:20 PM  

In this particular instance, the character is slightly more European than she is African, so it makes the question stickier. Why does an African American have more right to play a woman of mixed European/African descent than a woman of mostly European (and a tiny amount of Native American) descent does?

As for Chow Yun Fat: should he have the right to play Genghis Khan? The conqueror was a Mongol, from North of the Wall. Chow Yun Fat is Han Chinese. Not at all the same thing -- unless you think all Asian people look alike.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:44 PM  

And George Washington is an iconic character. To change his race you would have to change the telling of his story (or ignore an obvious aspect of his life).
I doubt most people know what Marianne Pearl's background is, or what she looks like. Unless it affected her while she was in Pakistan, it doesn't matter.

I bet John Wayne playing Genghis Khan was as ridiculous as Charlton Heston playing a Mexican.

I'm more offended that this TV-movie-of-the-week is being passed off as a feature worthy of $11.

By Blogger Tom, at 12:44 AM  

Though I am certainly not outraged by this, I can understand where people are coming from. There are so many actors and actresses out there and when such a great high profile part comes along, it is ashame to not give a chance at the role to someone whos ethnicity usually relegates them to bit parts. Similar complaints often arise on a smaller scale when a leading hollywood lady like Charleze Theron or Renee Zellweger gain weight for a movie role instead of casting an actress who may be just as talented and is already heavier.

I would like to point out that "the old Southern attitude" you describe was not just in the South but rather the entire country and many other countries for decades.

By Blogger Sunny, at 1:04 AM  

I would feel stronger about the "not enough roles for minorities" if I didn't feel sure that the alternative to Angelina Jolie would be (yet again) Halle Berry.

Instead of someone a talented actress lie, say, Angela Bassett.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:41 AM  

This reminds me of the controversy in the late 80s/early 90s when Jonathan Pryce was due to play the role of a half-Asian/half-European character in Miss Saigon on Broadway (a role he had originated on the London stage).

When the actor's union insisted that the role be recast with an Asian (John Lone, I think -- as if the character wasn't also half-European) the producers said: You know what? Go screw yourself. We're canceling the show. At which point union president Colleen Dewherst suddenly realized that all the other Asian actors in the show would be out of work.

I think the question about casting minorities in non-minority roles is whether it would be distracting to the story; Michael Clarke Duncan was perfect as the Kingpin in Daredevil, even though the comics character is caucasian, because the important element of the character is that he's so incredibly imposing, not that his ancestors came from Western Europe.

But casting him as George Washington would be as much of a catastrophe as casting Bruce Villanche; the story would suffer for the sake of the casting.

Come to think of it, some of the most memorable movie roles have been cast across ethnic lines -- Al Pacino as Scarface, Charton Heston as Moses, etc. And didn't Linda Hunt win an Oscar for playing an Asian male dwarf?

By Blogger Andrew, at 2:40 PM  

I don't think Chow Yun Fat has the English to play George Washington, but what if Morgan Freeman did want to play Robert E. Lee -- but in white makeup and a nose prosthetic?

He certainly would have the chops to play the character.

How would we feel then?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:56 PM  

I don't think Angelina Jolie is "white". I'm not talking about her Iroquois ancestry either. Down south, people who look like she and her father usually have African ancestry. I assume the same thing about Jimmy Carter and Bob Barr.

(The practice of categorizing anyone with African ancestry as "black" got started in the North, incidentally. It's called the One Drop Rule.)

As a practical matter, character driven dramas don't get made w/o stars, and there aren't any black women stars of Jolie's caliber. You can make an argument for Hallie, but then Hallie's mostly European in ancestry herself.

Angelea Basset and other actresses w/ a more African appearance aren't stars, mainly because white women in the audience don't identify with them. Since character driven dramas w/ geopolitical overtones are always aimed at educated white audiences, white actresses are going to get the parts.

Sad, but true.

By Blogger Odocoileus, at 3:05 PM  

A talented actor can transcend what we see and what we know. If we reject that capability, even in “just” one area such as race, we’re imposing limitations that undermine the quality and authenticity of the craft. Of course, it’s damn hard to achieve transformation on that level — and most actors should never be allowed to attempt it — but when it works, it really WORKS.

I know a couple of acting teachers who consider Laurence Olivier’s performance in Othello (1965) as THE gold standard for immersing yourself in character. Olivier pulled out all the stops to lose himself in the character and achieved what some consider his best performance ever.

I’m sure plenty of people today are offended by a white actor playing Othello. (I imagine there would have been a different outcry in 1965 had a black actor been cast opposite Maggie Smith instead of Olivier.) But racial politics seem out of place in this arena of debate. The acting profession is built on ILLUSION. If Morgan Freeman can convince an audience that he IS Robert E. Lee (prosthetic nose or not), does it really matter which box he checks on a census questionnaire?

By Blogger Abigail Prescott, at 4:23 PM  

Having grown up in late 20th century America, I know full well that I'm racist. I struggle with my preconcieved notions of race and identity all the time, but I can't pretend they don't exist.

That said, my big objection to Angelina Jolie playing Marianne Pearl is that I *loathe* Angelina Jolie, and can't help but see this project as an exercise in pure narcissism.

That saddens me, because I feel tremendous sadness for Mrs. Pearl and her loss, and I would love to see her story told -- just without the distraction of Angelina Jolie in the foreground.

What is Thandie Newton doing these days? I loved her in "Flirting."

By Blogger Harriet, at 8:35 PM  

Abigail --

"A talented actor can transcend what we see and what we know."

That's a fine, romaticized notion, but it just isn't true here. The question isn't about "just" race, but appearance. Linda Hunt could play an Asian male dwarf, because -- in addition to her acting talent -- she was able to look the role. Paul Newman, fine and talented though he is, could not have played the Haley Joel Osmet part in Sixth Sense, no matter how stellar the performance. Katherine Hepburn could not have played the Bruce Willis role of a male psychologist, and so on.

Does that mean we're discriminating against older actors, or women? Of course not -- it would just be too distracting to the story to see Paul Newman with the bedsheets bunched up at his chin while he talked about seeing dead people.

We cross the boundaries of religion, creed, nationality, age, etc. etc. all the time without it ever being an issue. Johnny Depp plays a transvestite. DiCaprio plays a mentally handicapped lad. Rock Hudson plays it straight his whole career. And so on. Why do we suddenly get the urge to be politically correct when it comes to race?

By Blogger Andrew, at 1:06 AM  

I think Harriet is more typical than you'd think. I think a lot of people simply don't like Jolie, and make up reasons why she shouldn't be in the movie. I've read the `vanity project' comment before and I don't really understand it. She doesn't seem anymore narcissistic than any other actor, it's just the press seem to go out of their way to cover her more than most. Actors want to play good roles and I don't understand how Jolie wanting to play Pearl is any more narcissistic than Thandie Newton wanting to play the role. The attitude towards Jolie reminds me of when Gwenyth Paltrow became overexposed and culminated in her winning the Oscar. I was horrified by actual journalists (as well as regular people) questioning her show of emotions during her acceptance speech, as if she couldn't actually express emotions honestly. She ceased being a real person, in the eyes of the public. I think Jolie has gotten to that point.

As to the race issue, I think the whole talk about Chow Yung fat playing George Washington, or a Latino playing Nelson Mandela is exactly what these issues get blown out of proportion. It is ridiculous. It's all about suspension of disbelief. Chow Yung Fat playing George Washington would talk far too many people out of the moment because it wouldn't make sense. There's never been an American President that wasn't white, so it simply wouldn't work, especially considering the time period. Nelson Mandela is famous for being a black South African imprisoned for being black and outspoken during apartheid. It's doubtful anyone would believe anyone who wasn't actually black.

The ethnicity of Mariane Pearl didn't matter at all to the story. And Thandie Newton is neither Cuban nor French, nor Jewish, nor Dutch nor Chinese, which Pearl can claim as her own ancestry.

I would also like to know how many critics own Jolie being in the film actually saw the film. Personally, I thought the film was excellent and Jolie did a great job.

By Blogger highdough, at 1:28 AM  

As vigorously as you fight for the privilege of white actors to play non-white roles, will you fight as vigorously for non-white actors to play white roles?

By Blogger Isaac Ho, at 2:19 AM  

Absolutely. Why not?

More importantly, I almost never write "white" roles. And I don't cast on the basis of white/non-white, either. The two contenders for the role of "Buster" in my short film were Brett Watson and Omari Newton. Brett's white, Omari's black. Omari got the part. (And he rocked.)

Personally I'm dying for Chow Yun Fat to get rid of his accent so he can play leads.

Practically speaking, Hollywood casts non-whites in "white" roles fairly often. They had to do a bit of footwork to get Morgan Freemen into Medieval England for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but they managed it.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 12:08 PM  

Hey Alex:

Over on my blog I have an essay I wrote about diversity and how it relates to writing.

Diversity

Cheers,

Isaac

By Blogger Isaac Ho, at 12:31 PM  

Yeah, as a woman of color, I was annoyed when I first heard Angelina was playing that part. I wasn't annoyed to the point of anger, but it did rub me the wrong way. And it really ticked me off when I saw the curly wig and the brown contacts.

Whether intended or not (of course, it wasn't) the implication to us is one of two things. Either you're saying you can't find people who already look like Marianne who can handle the weight of the role or it's more desirable to have someone like Angelina Jolie play her because she's more beautiful than someone with darker skin.

So, what's the difference between Angelina's make-up and Charlize Theron's transformation in Monster or Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose in The Hours? I don't know. I can't logically say. But it triggers a very different response on a gut level.

I've not seen the movie, so I can't speak to performance. I probably won't see the movie. I won't be able to get past the get-up. Can I give you a good reason? A logical answer? No. It's a purely emotional response.

By Blogger angela, at 4:49 PM  

If, say, Thandie Newton starred in the film, it probably wouldn't get made, or if it did, most of us wouldn't know about it. Like it or not, the money goes to projects with name stars. Jolie is a name star. Once in a while, a film, like United 93 or Apocolypto, get made without any stars, its extremely rare. It's hard enough to make a film WITH a big name actor. Making one without is nearly impossible.

By Blogger highdough, at 3:35 AM  

Brad Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston when his Plan B Productions bought the rights to Marianne Pearl's book. It would be interesting to know who would have played that role were he still with Aniston.

By Blogger angela, at 8:44 AM  

People like to be upset. Especially nowadays when you can sign up for a free blogger account and tell everyone about it.

"Maybe if I make up a lot of fuss over something people will read my blog"

Feh. Nontroversy. I say ignore it.

And for the record, I saw A Mighty Heart, and not only is Angelina Jolie very good in it, I almost never remembered I was watching Angelina Jolie. I was just watching the character living her sad life. (by the way, I'm adding Karachi to my list of places to NEVER GO)

And for those who just hate Angelina Jolie: please take a time out to check your empathy level, you're running low. She's just a person, same as you. Get over whatever you think she did to deserve your loathing. (ooh, she fell in love with a married dude; ooh, she adopted some underprivelged kids; ooh, she's evil; whatever)

By Blogger Dante Kleinberg, at 11:58 AM  

I can't believe this came up and I missed it. There is a HUGE problem with Jolie playing a mixed race woman, simply because it closes opportunities for minority actors. Also, this is a real person, not a fictitious character.

There's a perceived notion that whites are free to stretch their acting chops by playing any role, but it's looked upon as ridiculous for a minority actor to play a real character of another race.

We could all lie to ourselves and say that Morgan Freeman could play George Washington, but come on. The immediate question would be why is Freeman playing Washington? More gimmick than depicting the real man.

Here's the real deal: Minorities in Hollywood are paranoid about roles, opportunities, etc. We just look at things realistically. A Thandie Newton would have been a more accurate depiction of Angelina Jolie, but Jolie puts butts in the seats. But how does a Newton get to the Jolie level? When she's given a chance to play roles, those few and far between one in a life time roles, and knock them out of the park.

In my fictitious scripts, sure, I can create characters who can be played by any race. But remember that the reality is that when you don't depict racial characteristics, the default is white character. That's why it's always noteworthy when a Denzel gets a role for an adapted script.

BTW, I think people like to trivialize the racial component because they're either not sophisticated enough to talk about it, or nowhere close to understanding the subject to give an intelligent opinion. But race in Hollywood is not trivial by any means, and like any consumer good (and films are both art and commerce), those who are offended should speak up.

By Blogger Lawrence, at 2:53 PM  

"BTW, I think people like to trivialize the racial component because they're either not sophisticated enough to talk about it, or nowhere close to understanding the subject to give an intelligent opinion . . . those who are offended should speak up."

Maybe the race issue is something that has to be lived in order to be fully understood. Like non-veterans don't really "get" military life. People who don't know what it is to be constantly trivialized, marginalized and stereotyped just don't "get" it.

As a filmmaker, I've written and cast characters of all different races and often tried to juxtapose stereotypes. But I don't think I would ever alter one person of one race to make them look like a person of another.

It's not just a black/white thing. It disturbs me just as much that Mickey Rooney plays the Japanese "Mr. Yunioshi" in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

By Blogger angela, at 6:44 PM  

Wow... I know this post is ancient but I felt I had to comment. Wow...
How would you feel if a lead jewish character in a holocaust story is played by an anglo saxon. Only he's given prosthetics to carry off the ethnic jewish features?
But then, Jews have plenty roles(in movies) anyway so who cares, right?
btw,Thandie Newton's father is caucasian, for the record, so she's not "more black"...

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 3:54 AM  

If young Jodie Foster or Anna Paquin had wanted to play Anne Frank, say, I wouldn't have had a problem with it. And if that required a nose, I wouldn't have had a problem with it.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:56 AM  

Alex, unless you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes, don't belittle other people's arguments and insinuate that people are being overly sensitive to a non-issue, or claim that it's fine for a white actress to play a woman that looks(yes, looks. I've seen her pictures and the one you posted made her african features prominent) more african than white. Caucasians don't have hair that tightly curly as the woman does, niether do they have brown toned skin(even when they tan).

Angelina Jolie has more than enough opportunities available to her so why box food out of a less fortunate actress's mouth?

Long before Barbara Straisand graced the silver screen, other jewish actors have been prominent in film so it isn't even analagous to black actors(yes, I know I brought up the jewish comparison, but I did state that they've been in a plethora of films if you recall). You guys are both in the front of the camera and behind so it's easy for you.

That said, recently a (Scottish-Canadian)guy says he thinks Tyler Perry is racist. Why? Because he makes films where the cast is mostly black. The guy claimed he felt uncomfortable in the theatre with all the black audience watching a black film(It was one of Perry's). I asked him if he thought films where the cast are all white(almost all films are like that)if that is racist as well. I asked him how he thought a black person felt in a mostly white population, in comparison to how he felt for an hour in a theatre.
In the end he still insisted that Perry is racist, even if his films never talks about race. For me, it was interesting how he felt about race yet quick to say blacks gripe too much...

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 5:05 PM  

There are two separate issues here. One is opportunity. I'm not convinced that African-Americans are underrepresented onscreen. Non-Hispanic African-Americans are 12.15% of the country; I'm not sure that fewer than 12% of the faces I see on TV and in movies are Black. I would venture to say that Asians are probably much more underrepresented in the movies than Black people are. And let's not even talk about Arabs. There are major Black stars both female and male. It is practically a rule of US TV that at least one core cast member of an ensemble drama has to be Black.

The other issue is whether ethnic groups must only be represented by their own people. It's generally felt that only Black people should play Black people, but it's okay if Latinos play Italians or Armenians play Arabs.

But this is a special case. Can only Black people play mixed-race people? That's where I feel the argument starts to become special pleading. Or should only mixed-race people play mixed-race people?

I do appreciate the sensitivity of the question. But I also think you have to acknowledge that this sort of movie is star driven. It's not a question of the role going to some deserving, talented Black actress. It's a question of this movie gets made because someone took the story to Angelina Jolie and she decided she wanted to play Marianne Pearl. I think any producer would have taken it to a relatively Caucasian-looking African-American actress (e.g. Halle Berry). But I don't think this originated with a producer. So at that point I think it would be unfortunate if Ms. Jolie can't make a movie about a mixed-race woman because of some kind of reverse paper bag test.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:49 PM  

It's not true that non-blacks are generally decried for playing black characters. For years Tatianna Ali played a black girl on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air". Not a peep heard. But Tatiana didn't need makeup to have a brown complexion. Bear in mind the historical context with white actors in "blackfaces", regardless of the context/intent.
It has nothing to do with paperbag skin test because Ms Jolie's skin wouldn't even be included in the test since it's not a shade of brown.
But then, Robert Downey jr wore a blackface for a recent film and African-Americans had shown surprising restraint... Maybe you protest too much...

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 12:45 AM  

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