August 29, 2011

Acting-class experiment reveals biases

An acting-class experiment shows how people think about minorities:

Step into my film school!  The importance of casting in breaking open movie stereotypes

By Captain AwkwardIt works like this: I bring in my giant file of head shots, which include actors of all races, sizes, shapes, ages, and experience levels. Each student picks a head shot from the stack and gets a few minutes to sit with the person’s face and then make up a little story about them. I wanted to know:

  • What kind of story or genre do you think of when you see this person?

  • What character are they playing in the story?

  • Is there a specific role or type that comes to mind?

  • What is their job?

  • Maybe describe an environment, or period, or style of dress that you associate with the person.

  • The students then show off their actor’s photo and pitch their stories to the class and then we talk about the results. I’ve run this experiment a few times, and the students are very excited and creative with stories/genres and have a lot of fun with it. “I picture him in a Western. He’s the lone cowboy who rides through town and gets caught up in the trouble that’s going on there.”

    However, some troubling shit always occurs.

    Namely, for white men, they have no trouble coming up with an entire history, job, role, genre, time, place, and costume. They will often identify him without prompting as “the main character.” The only exception? “He would play the gay guy.” For white women, they mostly do not come up with a job (even though it was specifically asked for), and they will identify her by her relationships. “She would play the mom/wife/love interest/best friend.” I’ve heard “She would play the slut” or “She would play the hot girl.” A lot more than once.

    For nonwhite men, it can be equally depressing. “He’s in a buddy cop movie, but he’s not the main guy, he’s the partner.” “He’d play a terrorist.” “He’d play a drug dealer.” “A thug.” “A hustler.” “Homeless guy.” One Asian actor was promoted to “villain.”
    Learning to overcome stereotypical thinking:Once the students have made their pitches, we interrogate their opinions. “You seem really sure that he’s not the main character--why? What made you automatically say that?” “You said she was a mom. Was she born a mom, or did she maybe do something else with her life before her magic womb opened up and gave her an identity? Who is she as a person?”What the experiment tells us:The students aren’t stupid or malicious or evil for automatically slating the actors they way they did. They aren’t doing anything that casting directors don’t do every day. They are just reflecting the world they’ve seen on screen since they were born, the one where white men with strong jaws are the default human and everyone else is “other.”

    The casting director and the studio will say “It’s just business. We’re trying to do what sells and give people what they want.” Let’s say you get to direct a big budget studio action film. Daniel Craig is interested in starring in the project. But you would love to cast Chiwitel Ejiofor, who is also great-looking and athletic and brilliant and who can definitely carry a film and even has a British accent! Both would do a bang-up job with the role, but with one actor you are guaranteed a certain box-office return and with one actor you are not, so you now have to talk your investors and the studio into shouldering more risk (and probably cutting your budget significantly or even un-greenlighting your movie or firing you, because what kind of idiot would turn down such a proven moneymaker?) So you think, I know! I’ll cast Craig as the lead but Ejiofor can be the partner (the one who dies horribly and inspires Daniel Craig to punch everyone in the world as revenge). The film will be good, everyone will make their money, no one is trying to be evil. Problem solved, right?

    The problem is that actors carry our dreams onto screens with us, and those dreams have power. More than one person (including Dennis Haysbert) has said that Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of the president on 24 paved the way for the Obama presidency, by making it something routine and normal for us to see.
    Comment:  We can just imagine what people would say about a Native actor in modern dress. "Angry veteran," "alcoholic," "criminal," "casino owner," "environmentalist," "shaman," "wise spiritual type," etc.

    Worse, they'd say he was a Latino, Asian, or Middle Easterner because "Indians don't exist anymore."

    How many people would say he's a doctor, lawyer, executive, astronaut, or leading man? One in ten thousand? One in a million? Something like that, I'm sure.

    For more on casting decisions, see TV Grows Whiter in 2011-2012 and Adam Beach on Hollywood Stereotyping.

    Below:  Try the experiment yourself. What's this person's story?

    No comments: