January 04, 2012

Beach calls out wannabe actors

Getting "Native" with Adam Beach

By RachealCBC's winter season is about to start and they asked me to come in and chat with some of their stars. Adam Beach is a familiar face on both sides of the border, with am impressive resume ranging from North of 60 to Flags of Our Fathers; yet somehow the first thing I ask him about is Twilight.

People talk a lot about Taylor Lautner, being this young leading man who's also a native actor...

Adam quickly cuts me off.

"Well, it's very controversial, cause he isn't native. And there's speculation of a couple of other "native" actors who aren't native. And for me, when it comes to the demographic of native actors and filmmakers, there's a very small percentage. And when you take a movie that has a worldwide success and you're not hiring native talent, you're really pointing fingers at them saying "you're not good enough. You're not worth playing yourselves. We're going to hire a non-Indian to make you guys look good." And I don't believe that they're taking any of the steps that I've been struggling and striving to do in the past 15 years. It kinda makes me feel that Hollywood has no intention to change when it comes to changing that perspective and demographic of minorities in film and television."

Wow. This is not the conversation I expected to get into. On the other hand, it does bring up a nagging question: there are some people who would say that it's colour-blind casting and they're just hiring the appropriate person for that role. I mean, I'm Irish and there's always non-Irish people playing Irish. So how do you ride that balance between colour-blind casting and the need to embrace history and heritage?

"Well, you know, you're not going to see me try and play Martin Luther King. You're not going to see me try and play Irish folk. I stay in my group. I'm not going to play someone of Latin descent, 'cause that's just not my priority. When you look at the demographic of Native peoples and their struggles, to get out of the poverty that they're in, it's important that we maintain a certain honesty of who they are as a people. Especially when you're dramatizing them in this traditional way, and make a story that they're werewolves and shape shifting, and for them it's a direct message to the consciousness of a people that's been stripped of their identity, because of residential schools and land claims, and they're still doing in this medium of film and television.

"But they decided to take a few of the native actors and give them very minimal parts. It's unfair. And you know, I understand; like you demonstrated, when it comes to playing Irish, as long as you look white, it works. I understand that. But when you look at the portrayal of native people throughout Hollywood, they were always non-Indian and we're at a time where it doesn't have to be that any more, especially when they've so distorted our image and made us the victim, the alcoholic, the killer, the one that was raping and pillaging, when it was the other way around.

"For me, you're not going to be able to stop the Hollywood studio machine. All I could do is stop it within my circle. So I will not do anything where they're not representing in the right way."
Comment:  I imagine the other actors Beach is referring to include Tinsel Korey, Julia Jones, and Boo Boo Stewart. Not to mention Johnny Depp and Brandon Routh.

Someone on Facebook raised the inevitable counterargument. Since people are just acting, why can't anyone play anyone? Beach covered this point in his comments, but here's my response:

Adam could've gone further. Not only wouldn't he choose to play Martin Luther King, he'd never get the chance. Nor would he get the chance to play JFK, Columbus, or Superman. As I discussed in my blog:

Adam Beach as Superman?

When Adam gets cast as, say, Albert Einstein, then we can talk about casting Tinsel Korey and other non-Natives as Quieute werewolves or whatever. Until that happens, color-blind casting--aka choosing the "best actor for the role"--is a Hollywood myth. In general, whites are cast to play whites and whites are cast to play Natives.

For more on casting issues, see Gyasi Ross on Breaking Dawn and Taking Issue with Rene Haynes.


Anonymous said...

All you need to know about "colour-blind casting" is two things:

1) When will John Ritter play Malcolm X? (Thank you, Chris Rock.)
2) Why does it only go one way? I mean, at best, you get "all brown people look alike" if you're an Indian. At worst, you're the only Indian...in a movie ostensibly about Indians.

Anonymous said...

John Ritter is dead, so never.

Anonymous said...

I have seen in different instances where Tinsel Korey has been challenged with being "native" or not. Still hasn't provided a response or the truth to the questions raised or asked. If being married to another native makes you native then maybe she has that down...but, I've seen articles claiming she's India Indian. So, in regards to Adam stating his such opinion, I too agree to a certain extent as to what he has stated.