May 13, 2009

Mizuo Peck in Night at the Museum

Mizuo Peck is Sacagawea in 'Night At The Museum'She has appeared in New York stage productions, television commercials, and music videos but I admit I have never seen her prior to watching the Ben Stiller comedy "Night at the Museum" (which, though not a great movie, is certainly better than all the critics have said it is). Mizuo Peck is a young Caucasian-Japanese actress who steps onto the big screen as a wax replica of Sacagawea that is brought to life--along with many other replicas--each night at New York's American Museum of Natural History, thanks to a magical Egyptian tablet.

Mizuo's magic is not just her beauty, but the grace she brings to the role of America's second most famous Native American woman (only Pocahantas has received more attention through the centuries). Many Native Americans were disappointed to learn that this role was given to someone of different ethnic heritage, but then no one in the Italian community complained that the role of Octavius (Augustus Caesar) was given to a British actor (Steve Coogan). In the end, the movie is what it is.
Coogan and Caesar may be different ethnicities, but they're the same race. And since Rome once ruled most of Western Europe, including Britain, it's fair to say their ethnicities overlap. Many of Coogan's ancestors probably had Roman blood.

In other words, this writer's argument is pretty weak. Here's a Native writer's rebuttal:

Tara Beagan presents a Native American PerspectiveFilm is a powerful medium. The disappointment in the Native American community is an honest reaction to the ongoing pattern of dismissal of our people by the dominant culture. Mizuo Peck is a stunning woman who gave a fine performance. By casting her, the masters of Hollywood continue to perpetuate the stereotypical Indian Princess.

This would have been an unacceptable stereotype in any of the other existing cultures represented in the film. Suppose Ben Stiller had embodied the stereotypes that so many lazy, uninformed people assign to Jews? I will allow you to imagine how that might have gone down, and how ugly and inappropriate that would clearly be.
And:Hollywood is Hollywood. We all know it is glossed and shined and white-washed (pun intended). What we have the capability of doing today is to cast actors representative of character. A First Nations actor by the name of Tamara Podemski won the Sundance Jury prize for acting this year--I sincerely doubt she was seen for the role.Comment:  Mizuo's magic may not be "just her beauty," but I'm guessing that's about 95% of the reason she was chosen. With her delicate face, she's got none of the "ethnic" features a Native woman might have. As Beagan indicated, she looks like Hollywood's fantasy of an Indian princess.

Beagan could've made her argument even better. Consider all the historical figures in the Night in the Museum franchise. Were any of the white figures played by people of other races? I don't know, but I'm guessing not.

If not, why not? Why not have a black woman play Amelia Earhart or a Chinese man play Teddy Roosevelt? Heck, why not get Denzel Washington to play Earhart and Lucy Liu to play Roosevelt? Do you want the best actors possible or actors who are "politically correct"--i.e., race- and gender-appropriate?

Would anybody object to these choices? Of course they would. White people are played by white people because they're the norm. You don't tamper with something that "everyone knows" is right.

Only exotic "others" (e.g., an Egyptian or Sacagawea) get cast as if their race doesn't matter. To most Americans, a Japanese woman is as "foreign" as a Native woman. Because they're not (white) like us, the details don't matter. One brown-skin is as good as another.

Night at the Museum embodies an attitude we see whenever non-Natives are cast as Natives. We might call it the "They all look the same to me" attitude. Needless to say, it's racist.

For more on the subject, see Friday, Tonto, Jacob Black, et al. and The Best Indian Movies.


Anonymous said...

It'll just be cool to see how the characters interact. I'm guessing Darth Vader betrays the bad guys at the end.

Anonymous said...

are they FREAKING KIDDING??!!!

Anonymous said...

Remember the Steven Seagal film, "On Deadly Ground?" I had hope that after that professional film makers would not make such a distasteful "whitewashed" casting decision.

Rob said...

I've never seen On Deadly Ground, but I posted something about it in Stereotypes in On Deadly Ground.