Casting & Race, Part 3: The Race Lift

by Guest Contributor J Chang, originally published in Init_MovingPictures

While there is a tension between the actor’s craft and the necessity for verisimilitude in mainstream entertainment film and television, we’ve noted that cinematic verisimilitude is critical for enjoyment of a film. In the case of race, that means casting actors who would believably appear the race of the character.

Of course, I then devoted an entire entry this this series to analyze the fact that producers, filmmakers and actors ignored this requirement for cinematic verisimilitude by donning prosthetics and face paint to play characters not of their own race. I also noted how this practice, dubbed “colorface”, was steeped in a history of racist practices, both in its historical origin in minstrel shows and in its denial of casting of actors of color.

But, the racism present that resulted in white actors playing characters of color was not only a product of individual attitudes towards race in the industry, but a result of systemic racism. The kind of racism that suggests to producers, investors, directors and casting directors that people of color can’t lead a film, which leads them to cast a white actor, not because they necessarily because of a lack of talent, but because they were afraid for their bottom line. The kind of racism that results in less actors of color joining the A-list. The kind of racism that causes audiences to ignore films not featuring A-list actors of color at the box office, further causing actors of color not to get cast. This is not the fault of any individual or cabal, but rather reflective of the racism present in society as a whole.

But, of course, we’ve still made some progress. While colorface still does occur (its modern incarnation often uses much less face paint), it is more commonly and widely deemed unacceptable and we are even less likely to see horrifically stereotyped caricatures in mainstream film and television.

White-Out

So, say that you’re a producer who has a script or other existing property (book, comic book, older movie or television series) that has one or more characters of color. However, you want to cast a white actor in the role of a character of color, maybe because you think it might be a bigger draw with this particular actor or your investors are pressuring you into using a more recognizable name. You certainly don’t want to resort to colorface either. Enter the Race Lift.

Coined by the informative and amusing folks over at tvtropes.org, it’s a clever term to describe changing the race of a character for whatever purpose. tvtropes’ contributors did a great job of describing the functions and examples of a Race Lift, so I will leave the general description to them. The prevalence of such casting decisions, even through today, as noted in tvtropes’ examples, demonstrates the continued presence of systemic racism’s influence in casting.

At its very core, a character of color Race Lifted for a white actor serves the same purpose as colorface–it continues providing white actors with visible roles at the expense of actors of color and “whitens” the landscape of film and television. It’s better in one sense, that it reduces the likelihood of ridiculous stereotypes being transmitted by insensitive actors/writers/directors, but it also reinforces the “normalcy and neutrality” of whiteness at the same time. Finally, in many cases, it also serves as a value judgement (socially) for characters of color, and consequently, people of color: their differences are unimportant and/or insignificant.

That’s not to say that every character of color that becomes a white character is necessarily negative. Some characters of color were created with roots dipped deep in racism and continuing their portrayal as characters of color might prove to be worse than having them turned into a white fool. For those of you who might be inclined to cry foul about having white people play the fool and that they’re unfairly Acceptable Targets, please note that white characters have the greatest range and diversity in mainstream media and that white characters are rarely stereotyped (unless they happen to be a part of another non-racial minority class). Consequently, for every white fool, you have a large ratio of other characters to serve as counterexamples. This does not exist with characters of color and so how they are drawn actually does have a social impact–but that’s another discussion.

Minority Tokens

However, the Race Lift wasn’t just used as a tool by systemic racism, but was also used as a clumsy tool to improve on-screen diversity. Enter the Token Minority. Now, tvtropes again provides a great description of the token minority, so I’ll leave the describing to them.

Early on, I suppose token minorities served an immediate role, get characters of color on the screen in the hurry. And watching old films from the 70′s, I think it was all done fairly earnestly. Granted, having actors of color in your cast can often be a choice towards realism: after all, there are a lot of people of color in the real world.

The benefits of the use of token minorities are immediate: it puts characters (and actors) of color on screen in a hurry, increasing representation and exposure to audiences of characters of color. However, these benefits don’t come without costs. The very fact that they are token might create resentment and backlash in audiences and producers (if the tokenism was pushed by meddling executives). Furthermore, it could feed the idea that people of color need to be tossed a bone, rather than included at the table. And perhaps that’s the biggest critique I have of token minority casting, it’s an easy cop-out for fixing the larger problem of accurate on-screen representation, done more for people of color than with people of color.

If Race-Lifting is a tool of systemic racism, using such a tool to turn previously white characters into token minorities won’t solve the larger problem. It doesn’t mean that more characters of color get written into scripts, which means that the mindset from the start hasn’t been changed. Granted, I’d prefer meaningful inclusion of characters of color, representatively, in any television show or film over the endless sea of white that seems to comprise the majority of film and television and so I’ll take token minorities over no characters of color, if just for the exposure and keeping actors of color in work, but a better, more holistic solution is needed. One that doesn’t require the repurposing of a tool of oppression.

As such, the harder systemic racism is pressed against by voices of color, the more subtle it becomes. Instead of the putrid practice of colorface, we instead just get leading characters of color turned white. And when the same practice is used to create more characters of color, it merely puts a bandage on a more serious wound. Sure, it helps ease the pain, but it doesn’t solve the problem of representation in casting.

Next time, I think I’ll be exploring how race factors into solving casting problems, which might touch on some Race Lift material, but will go more in depth into cross-cultural/ethnic/national/lingual casting. Afterwards, I’ll probably start going into possible practical solutions we, as an audience, can take for more just on-screen representation. And if anyone thinks of other dimensions of casting and race I should go into, please feel free to leave a comment.