October 21, 2009

"Colorface" yesterday and today

J. Chang continues his series on race and casting. In part one, which I excerpted in Visual Verisimilitude in Movies, he noted the importance of authentic casting in movies. Now he discusses the inauthentic casting that occurred in the past and still occurs.

Note that "colorface" is his term for the collective practice of "blackface," "brownface," "yellowface," and "redface." In other words, of whites playing minorities on the stage and screen.

Casting & Race Part 2:  Defacing Color

By J. ChangAs white actors took up the work of portraying characters of color, many of them if not most of them probably had little actual meaningful interaction with people of color. Combine that with the prevailing notion that races were actually fundamentally different, these white actors would have to turn to safe places from which to draw their characters, Stanislavsky be damned. And that source would be, of course, minstrel shows and vaudeville, which had a history of portraying black characters, even if it was terribly racist--after all, the racism of yesteryear was actually the common sense of those that perpetuated it. (Although more than a thing or two could be said today about how a slightly more subtle racism still masquerades as common sense today.)

One of the significant problems of colorface at the time, beyond just keeping actors of color out of work, and being a tool of widespread proliferation of racism, was that, because of racism, it also impeded the actor's craft. Due to the segregated society and the limited meaningful interaction of people between races, people of color were likely mysterious to the white actors, and believing what racism would be telling these actors, they consequently restrained themselves from actually performing anything more than a series of stereotypes. In that sense, people of color watching these films would immediately be able to point out that, "that black person is nothing like an actual black person!" (using the vernacular of the time, of course). Unfortunately, also because of this racism, I'm pretty certain that the vast majority of the audience (likely white), also would not be fazed by these ridiculous portrayals of people of color.
Why the practice continues a century later:I think there are several factors feeding the continued acceptance of colorface. First, I think the audience's ignorance is playing a big factor here. In some cases, the audience just doesn't know that the characters are supposed to be characters of color, so when they see a white actor playing a character of color, they just assume that the character is white too. Second, producers often will choose bigger name actors to headline their film because it creates a greater chance at profits and well, there aren't many A-list actors of color to choose from (which itself proves that societal racism is still very active today)--this also helps ease investors into joining a film. Third, I think that the notion of colorblind casting, from theater, has made its way into film, but in a rather selective form which disregards the abstraction of the theater and often, but not always, to the favor of white actors.

Finally, I think that, for the large part, the mainstream audience has largely bought the Mighty Whitey myth. Part of that also includes this concept that white equals neutral, as opposed to a distinct race, and can consequently fill any role. Which is why I think the public response to characters getting actors of the wrong race cast can often be so minimal. Well, that and the cynic in me screaming that the mainstream audience (as well as the majority of people) tend towards apathy when it comes to more "invisible" issues like systemic racism that don't obviously impact their daily lives in a tangible way.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Friday, Tonto, Jacob Black, et al. and A Brief History of "Redface."


Ojibwe Confessions said...

I wonder about that practice. Remember the little movie Remo Willams with Joel Gray? He was a Korean. Watermellon the movie was interesting. Can it be viewed in the same vein as the movies with someone playing a different ethnicity or race? The practice is not limited to race, look at the Godfather. James Caan as an Italian. Same with the Sopranos. Medow as an Italian. Or the Geisha, with Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang as Japanese. It seems to still a common practice.

Rob said...

Yes, whites play people of every race, not just Indians. That's why this posting talks about "colorface" rather than "redface."

But the examples you gave are of people playing different ethnic groups within the same race, not different races. That's not quite as bad a problem.

People did protest the casting of Chinese actresses in Geisha--and rightly so, if you ask me. With all the talented Japanese actresses out there, there's little or no excuse for using Chinese actresses instead.

Convinced of One Thing said...

Work out who made this comment about the movie "PARTITION" and many of your questions will be answered:

"When I first heard that Kristen was playing this role, I was like WTF? How does that make any sense? But when I saw the trailer, I was like wow she really does look Pakistani. Someone posted before that Pakistan is full of people with different looks; which is true.

Do I think they should have casted someone authentically; ofcourse. At the end of the day though, it should be the best actor for the part. Now when actors are playing different ethnicites other then what they are; I think they should emerse themselves in the culture. Understand the causes facing the people they are representing. Too many times you get actors doing "black face" and not doing a person's culture justice. They don't even care about that culture, they're just doing it for the money.

Ashwyaria and Lisa are too old for this role, Naseem is supposed to be 17, they can't pass for that. Also someone brought up the nudity thing. I'd find it hard to believe there were alot of pakistani parents lining up to have their daughter be naked on screen. But hey, I could be wrong.

Also the director is South Asian, so he know's what Pakistani women look like (I think). If some 40yr white guy had cast her, I think It'd bug me a little more.

I do agree that Kristin having a name did help her get cast in this. She has fans who will go see her in this movie. Had they of cast an unknown, it would be hard to get this film out there; unless it got festival cred ofcourse.

So where do I stand on the casting of Kristin Kreuk? I guess I will have to see the film and see how good her performance is. Judging by the trailer though, her accent was horrible and that could totally ruin the film for me."

Ultimately it is for the people who's cultures are being portrayed to decide what is acceptable or unnacceptable. Any commentators from outside - like myself - however grand our intentions - are still disempowering all peoples right to police themselves (I hear you Lee) by presuming we may judge or even comment.

It is a legacy of our colonial power that we simply don't fear the consequences of our comments for ourselves in the way that people we believe we are supporting must. (The violent racist, angry at the 'white' civil rights activist's speech supporting 'people of color', won't beat up a random 'white' person as revenge!)

We are still contributing to colonial tactics of 'divide and conquer'. We may even be contributing to peoples support of misappropriations they might otherwise have rejected - because political unity, but more especially, reclaiming the right to define their own identities, is ultimately more important than dealing with individual acts of identity theft.

I sincerely hope this will be the last I will be posting on this particular subject!

Rob said...

You do know we're talking about American Indians and not Asian Indians, Convinced...right?

When people like Taylor Lautner get cast as Indians, you know moviemakers aren't looking for the best possible actor. Hollywood routinely casts actors because they're young or hot or marketable, not because they're the "best."

FYI, Indians have been protesting "redface" casting for a century. I'm not speaking for them, I'm speaking what they've already spoken. I'm echoing their complaints.

I've posted tens of thousands of opinions on Native subjects even though I'm not Native. Most Indians support my work and few have criticized it. Therefore, I'm not about to stop doing it now.

Convinced said...

Yes Rob but what if we're talking about Canadian Asian Indians who 'play' American Indians trying to resolve their own morality on the issue of 'colorface' by discussing the 'blackface' of a Chinese-Dutch Canadian playing an Asian Indian?


The issue of who has a right to comment about this may be wider than you assume I intend because the person in question appears to have implied affinity with numerous groups of people they do not belong to - not only Native (various groups) but also Jewish, Eastern European and adopted people. Of course all this is conjecture depending upon who made this comment and what the truth really is.

Lynette said...

I am Convinced!



Add to this the fact that Tinsel is clearly a method actor and has said at Twilight conventions that she is both a Native activist and plays her roles by becoming them and it is pretty clear that she believes she is strongly supporting the Native community but does she understand what that means?

On the issue of 'colourface' generally I am a huge fan of Maori actor Cliff Curtis who regularly plays roles such as Middle Eastern and Latino - he would never get enough roles to suit his calibre playing purely Polynesian roles - so this is a double edged sword but I think there is a very different power relationship for great actors of very small minorities playing ethnically diverse roles to that of 'hot' 'white' kids playing the parts of minorities to make the audience feel 'the other' is within 'their/our' 'control'.