Wednesday, February 1, 2012
RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: THE 5 ROLES ONLY WHITE ACTORS CAN PLAY
This month we're going to do something a little different here at Movies By Bowes ™. February, which as you may or may not know is Black History Month in the United States, will mark the first ever themed month here at MBB ™, where for the whole month, each post will have something to do with race in cinema, culminating with the annual Oscar coverage, which this year is very much a related topic, with The Help having a Best Picture nom, as well as Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer being up for Best Actress and Best Supporting respectively. Noble attempt to elevate the discourse, or the dumbest fucking idea I've ever had? YOU BE THE JUDGE.
I'm not even going to blame this on RVCBard, even though she did threaten to revoke my “one of the good ones” status. The idea behind this first post came out of a discussion she and I had about the kinds of roles only white actors could play. Color-blind casting has been an institution for years in school plays because when the pool of potential actors is limited to the kids at the given school, sometimes there simply aren't enough actors (gender-blind casting is another common thing under these circumstances). At any level higher than maybe college, color-blind casting is a political decision no matter how much you want to whine about how difficult the casting process is. You know what else is difficult? Life. Nut up.
Anyway, I'm not talking about roles where the race isn't specified in the character description. Those are fair game. But that production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Motherfucker With The Hat where no effort was made to find Latin actors to play the specifically Latin characters in the play, and the cast was all white, or the thing more recently in Texas where some featherheads decided to do a production of the Hairspray stage musical with an all-white cast. Both these instances are bullshit, the former more so than the latter since if you can't find Latin people when you're an afternoon's drive from New York City it's because your head is up your own ass, whereas trying to find black people—let alone enough to cast Hairspray—in Plano, Texas is a slightly iffier proposition, but ya know, dudes, you could have done a different show. Especially when the one you want to do is fundamentally all about race.
But, as per the discussion I mentioned above, some roles absolutely have to be played by white people. Racial privilege being what it is, almost no one ever puts “white” in a character description, because that's the default assumption. Like any assumption, the Broken Clock Principle (to wit, it's right twice a day) dictates that occasionally the non-specified character does have to be white. Among them are these 5:
1—The Evil White Guy In A Suit
We'll get the obvious one out of the way first. I should correct something I said in one of my end-of-the-year wrap-ups for 2011, where I identified David Oyelowo in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Cate Blanchett in Hanna as being examples of an EWGIS not necessarily having to be white or a guy. Obviously I was mistaken, having failed to process a couple important bits of nuance. Namely, Oyelowo in Rise may not have been white, but he was English. And also, with Rise being about how Caesar needed to lead the Left against all of humanity, having what would ordinarily be the Evil White Guy In A Suit not be white underscores that point. Or, in other words, Rise was not an EWGIS picture. (Ed. Note: yet another reason why Rise was transcendentally awesome). And as for the Hanna example, well, that's just silly. Hanna was too weird to adhere to any rational criteria, as it was essentially a Chemical Brothers video about Saoirse Ronan killing people with an interlude about a bunch of English hippies on a road trip. Does that sound like a normal movie? No.
Look, it's really simple. Evil white guys in suits are plotting to kill every last one of us. They have all the money and power. They are the true 1%. Remember how in King Lear it was the Fool who knew what was up? Why else do you think it fell to Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2 to reveal the great truism of our age? “Every big crime has a rich white man waitin' for his cut.” If you roll your eyes at that and go “Oh please, you expect me to take Chris Tucker seriously?” then YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO SEE THE EVIL WHITE GUYS IN SUITS COMING. You're as good as done.
Self-explanatory, of course, but a little explanation beyond the obvious about why it's such a powerful signifier is necessary. A white person with a shaved head has a lot more whiteness visible. More so than the insane bullshit rhetoric and Nazi salutes, that simple touch may be the reason for this being such a powerful signifier. As for the exclusivity of this, a simple example: a white guy with a shaved head saying the n-word is terrifying. A black guy with a shaved head saying the n-word is Samuel L. Jackson (unless he's wearing a rug that picture). And Samuel L. is only scary if you're the one who fucked up.
A discrete category from the Evil White Guy In A Suit, because while there can be overlap, it isn't inherent. Old money landed gentry ancien regime types can be kind of all right sometimes, even if they rarely have any connection to modern reality and occasionally say offensive stuff because they just don't know any better.
But why, you may ask, does this character have to be a white guy? Surely there are rich dudes in Africa, Asia, and South America who've owned shitloads of land for generations? Well, the three c's—colonialism, capitalism, and cronyism—mean that even there a significant percentage of the super fuckin rich feudal lord types are still white guys. Or, in countries where skepticism about the free market pervades (which is to say, where commies and theocrats run shit), there simply aren't those super fuckin rich feudal lord types at all.
Basically, this character archetype was personified to perfection by James Fox in Remains of the Day (left). James Fox may very well be the whitest dude ever; nota bene his under-seen Evil White Guy In A Suit sans tie in The Mighty Quinn, where the whole purpose of his role is for him to get his ass handed to him by Denzel, but the argument could be made that Denzel movies exist for him to hand people their asses, be it verbally, sociopolitically, or (recently, especially) the old-fashioned way, with violence. That James Fox was a flat-assed straw man is just the way things go, but the profundity of his whiteness is infinite. If you need to picture this character archetype, picture James Fox.
4—The girl in the horror movie who just fucking has to open That Door.
We've all been there. Buncha pretty young people in a house where the slasher/monster/ghost is fixin' to fuck some shit up, and right after the first person (usually the one black person) randomly gets iced the rest of the pretty people start wanting to know what's going on. So, the chick with the nice tits (aka the second one who gets killed, provided she's the one who the second-to-last person was shtupping; the virgin makes it out alive, as per regulations) goes up the stairs as the music gets louder, and she finds a door that's bleeding green shit with “THIS IS THE ROOM THE SLASHER/MONSTER/GHOST IS IN! ENTER AND GET KILLED HORRIBLY!” written on it at eye level, and what does she do? Opens the door. RIP.
There are slight variations. Sometimes she doesn't get killed immediately, sometimes it's just that opening That Door unleashes the evil that kills the rest of the pretty people. Sometimes she's a guy; vide Daniel Craig in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo immediately pre-Enya. But you'll notice Daniel Craig isn't exactly walking around in a bowtie selling copies of The Final Call. And that's the important thing, more than gender, here. If you have a character who can't leave well enough alone, or who alternatively just ain't got no fuckin sense, and you want to really sell that point, accept no substitutes. Cast a white actor.
By which I mean Kevvo in Dances With Wolves, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, and most recently Sam Worthington in Avatar (side note: Sam Worthington is never going to fucking make it with that many syllables in his last name; he needs to change his name to Rock Barkley or something.) So here's the deal: white man is giant dick to non-white man. Dickery consists of oppression, genocide, dehumanization, the industry standard “we're assholes and you have land and/or other resources we want” package. For the movie, since the audience needs a POV character they don't have to feel ugly about identifying with, an anachronistically sensitive and progressive lead character appears!
While having the sensitive white dude get all gaga about the profundity of the culture with which he—somehow—assimilates is an easy way for the movie to get its “aren't they noble” message across, it's a horrible way to discuss things like the Native American genocide, the forced Westernization of Japan, or when we nuked the Smurfs. It's like “oh yeah, the ruling classes of my culture imposed their will on this other culture by force, but those oppressed peoples would like me! Fapfapfapfapfapfapfapfap.”
That's why the lead in these pictures needs to be white, because these movies are specifically about deflecting and assuaging oppressor's guilt, which is itself a uniquely Western thing. There aren't big, lush, massively budgeted movies in Japan where the lead is the one guy in all of Japan beating his chest and going “The Rape of Nanking was wrong! I was not in favor of it!” Does that hypothetical movie sound reductive, dumb, and wildly insensitive? Well, you win a prize. So is Dances With Wolves.
There may be others, but these are the five clearest-cut cases of roles only white actors can play. I'll entertain suggestions for others in the comments, and will be following up my month-long project of tap-dancing on the third rail with other meditations on race in cinema. I'm taking suggestions on other topics as well. And, well, we'll see how this all turns out.