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Monday, December 26, 2005

I find my first pass on a script tends to be a bit too Whitey McWhite. The main characters, whether in a TV pitch or a spec feature, usually have some ethnicity because there I'm thinking about balance, and I'm trying to give jumping-off points for stories to the core characters, and ethnicity is part of that. But the secondary characters often wind up lily-white the first time out. I'm thinking of the characters in terms of their contribution to the story. Unless their ethnicity is a story point, they don't get an ethnicity in my first pass.

You can leave a script that way and tell the casting directors to send you "ALL ETHNICITIES." But readers will tend to see a lily-white world. Then what happens is at the last minute everyone notices the cast is lily white, and they make the judge a black woman.

I like to do a diversity pass: go through the script and see which characters could be something else interesting. Can the doctor be Sikh instead of Jewish? You can always change your mind and make a Black character into an Asian or vice versa -- Dr. Bailey on Gray's Anatomy was originally Asian. But at least get the readers seeing a world like our own.

(I do all sorts of passes after the first, for example looking at ways to introduce more spice and conflict into one-dimensional scenes, or tracking a certain character's story arc or checking motivations. I can't keep everything in my head at once, so I do passes. This is why I'm a craftsman and not a greate artiste. This is also why I can turn an hour script around in two days if I have to.)

Because we live in an imperfect world, I think, you can't cast anybody as anything. My rule is you can't cast towards a [pernicious] stereotype. That rules out a few juicy roles, unfortunately. On our show, for example, Rick can't be Black because he's a shiftless, irresponsible rock star. Eve can't be black because Eve is dumb as a post. Instead, let the evil, Machiavellian Pierre Reynard be Black. Eve could be Asian; As Denis has been trying to do, it might be funny to have a stupid Asian character, for once, instead of having every Asian be a bright eyed keener. Casting for diversity doesn't mean ethnic characters have to be nice or good people; then ethnic actors would never get to have any fun. Just don't reinforce the stereotype.

Of course in Canada it's not all about Black and white and Latino. In Québec you really ought to have some francophone characters, and the occasional Newfie is a plus as well.

I'd love at least one of the characters on our show to be Native American. But I have no idea how big that talent pool is. We're already looking for girls who are stunningly gorgeous and can act.

I always wonder about the leads. I think Grey's Anatomy has shown that you can have major characters who are Black, Asian, etc.. Technically the lead character is that whiny little white girl played by Ellen Pompeo. But I bet more people are watching for Isaiah Washington and Sandra Oh. On the other hand have the networks learned that lesson? You wonder if GA would have got through the network without Meredith Gray as the "lead." I'm guessing if we found a great ethnic actor for one or another of our leads, our Canadian network would be totally behind it. The Americans, I have no idea. Hope so.

At any rate, still waiting to see if they like it down South...

UPDATES: A reader points out that Sandra Oh's character is exactly a stereotype. But not a pernicious one, I should have added. I doubt Asians mind being stereotyped as smart and hard-working. I mind it when someone stereotypes Jews as stingy, but not when Jews are stereotyped as articulate. It wouldn't have been a bad thing if Sandra Oh's character was something other than Asian, but then we wouldn't have got to see Sandra Oh in the character. I wonder if the stereotyping has anything to do with why Christina Yang's stepfather turns out to be Jewish...?

So I'm saying it's okay to have your Jewish character be smart, though you don't get any originality points for it, and it's fine to have your wise black person played by Whoopi Goldberg or Morgan Freeman if you can get'em. But I'd really love to see Morgan Freeman play an evil creep, and I'd love to see Denis's dumb-as-two-sticks big ha-yer Texas Asian gal.

Incidentally, you don't need to put skin color in your script. An indicative name will usually do it. Christina Yang is, obviously, a Western-born Asian girl. Paddy Schwartz is an Irish Jew. Lakshmi Singh is likely a Sikh woman. Bianca Melendez is a Latina. Janice Melendez is a Latina whose parents didn't see the need to give her a Latina first name. Etc.

Craig thinks I'm being too politically correct. Okay, lemme turn it around. Is it okay by you to (a) leave your script non-racial, which most people will read as white, or (b) have your one black character also be your one really dumb character? Or are you doing what I'm talking about, just without noticing it? Do you really think writers have no responsibility?

Here's his response, with a whole passel of responses from his readers.


]A note:

I hate how this diversity awareness makes most doctors black. HATE!

It's certainly not that I think black characters can't be doctors, but...COME ON!!! Viewers can tell when a script has turned too "whitey/mcwhite", so that, to compensate, the doctor turns out inexplicably black.

If the doctor is a real character, rather than a race placeholder, that's fine. But...COME ON!!!

I have a script where there are only three main characters. And one is a scientist/doctor. I would love an all black cast, because unlike Hollywood instinct, this would require an all-or-nothing bet with casting. It would nullify diversity-guilt. I'd love it, because with only three characters, THERE'S NO ROOM FOR DIVERSTIY-GUILT!!!

Your post acknowledges that, even if you write a script that happens in 800 AD Alaska, hollywood will try to figure out how to cast Jackie Chan and Denzel Washington together. I think a lot of movie goers would love a movie that right from the start, excused them form such expectations/demands.

Give me a sci-fi movie with an all-black-cast, rather than a mixed bag movie where half of the cast obviously met a quota.

My take, anyway...

By Blogger ideasmatter, at 1:21 AM  

God, this is just dispiriting to read, man.

Dumb characters can't be black???

So...all dumb characters must be white? That's just bizarre. And, frankly, racist. You know, there are dumb black people out there, and there are brilliantly funny black actors who play stupid quite well.

So Jews can't be smart? Can Arabs be terrorists, or should the terrorists all be elderly white women? How far do we go with this?

By the way, it's attitudes like this that are responsible for the most amusing of all Hollywood contrivances...the blond mugger. The Blond Mugger shows up in superhero movies all the time. As if New Yorkers were constantly preyed upon by roving bands of middle-aged Swedes.

Good Lord. A "diversity pass"? Sigh. You and I would have one absolutely unbelievably wonderfully amusing shoutfest/dinner. Email me the next time you're in L.A. I'm buying. :)

By Blogger Craig Mazin, at 4:05 AM  

Wouldn't Sandra Oh's character on Grey's Anatomy have failed your diversity pass? She's Asian -- and a competitive, perfectionist overachiever.

By Blogger RT, at 2:19 PM  

I was going to leave a comment here, but it's just too good...I'm going to write about it on my blog instead...

Sorry. I punt.


By Blogger DMc, at 5:00 PM  

[I'll post this as an update as well up top:]

I'm saying it's okay to have your Jewish character be smart, though you don't get any originality points for it, and it's fine to have your wise black person played by Whoopi Goldberg or Morgan Freeman if you can get'em. But I'd really love to see Morgan Freeman play an evil creep, and I'd love to see Denis's dumb-as-two-sticks big ha-yer Texas Asian gal. And there are some stereotypes you still have to stay away from, because we live in an imperfect world.

Craig, lemme turn it around. Is it okay by you to (a) leave your script non-racial, which most people will read as white, or (b) have your one black character also be your one really dumb character? Or are you doing what I'm talking about, just without noticing it? Do you really think writers have no responsibility?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:07 PM  

I'm gonna make my response an entire post on my blog. You've inspired me. :)

By Blogger Craig Mazin, at 5:35 PM  

Posted my ass off over on Craig's blog before I came over here to check the source -- oops.

Political correctness makes cowards of us all.

But mainly, we should all give up this idea of RACE.

By Blogger Chris Soth, at 3:40 AM  

Sure, let's give up the idea of race. Maybe then, we'll see more than one black agent in the industry (Charles King at William Morris). Maybe then, scripts about African Americans will get budgets larger than ten mil. Sure, let's give up the idea of race. Maybe then, minority writers won't have to struggle with making their lead characters white, versus black, since they KNOW that it will be read by people who have not a clue about their lives or the lives of black folks. For those of us who write in the real world, you know that from its beginnings, Hollywood has emphasized the stereotypes (Soul Plane anyone?) with a decidedly negative depiction of minorities, a diversity pass is the LEAST one can do in order to stop writing the insipid characters most minority actors are forced to play. Race still matters and it's not an idea, but a distinct reality. Saying it ain't so, does nothing to change that reality.

By Blogger Lawrence, at 1:00 AM  

Wow, I saw your book in Chapters so I decided to check out your blog. Have been reading but these ones on race...
Since I happen to be primarily African in make-up, I'll jump in to say, I for one take exception with the implication that a black person WOULD be automatically casted as dumb in the first place. It was a racist sterotype(perpetuated by racist/ignorant writers in the early days of hollywood) to begin with and so to make that statement as if there's some truth to the sterotype leaves me to pause...
You see, I've spent the first twenty-six years of my life in Jamaica, with the last four plus as an immigrant in Canada. This affords me great insight into the different cultures, and I must say that people are people but north americans tend to be ignorant and racist without even realizing it.
People are people. They vary, regardless of race. In Jamaica(I know some north americans see it as a beach with ganja and everyone is a rasta) but there are surgeons,chemists, biologist, software developers(of which I am/was),judge, criminal, architect, construction site foreman, street sweeper, civil engineer, reggae singer, cab/bus driver, pilot etc who are mostly black. It is in North America where black people seem to think they're limited to sports or music(Thank God for Obama, eh?) because of how they see themselves depicted on film. This is why your diversity thing is not a bad one given the sterotypes, but I'm concerned that you haven't recognize that there is something wrong with first assuming the dumb role to the black character to begin with... Remember, people are people.

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 3:26 AM  

@Jamaican: I don't think I was saying what you think I said. In real life, there are dumb Black people and smart Black people, obviously. However until the '60s and '70s there was a stereotype (from white writers and directors) of Black characters being not too bright. What I'm saying is that I consciously avoid writing any dumb Black characters, because of the history of that stereotype. If someone's dumb in a screenplay of mine, they're going to be white or possibly Asian. Hopefully we'll get to a point in our society where all characters have equal opportunity to be stupid.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:33 AM  

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