Tag Archives: historical film

Casting & Race Part 2: Defacing Color

by Guest Contributor J Chang, originally published at INIT_Moving Pictures

I think I overestimated my capacity for brevity and so what was supposed to be a three part series will probably end up spreading out further as I try to unpack and look into the long relationship between race and cinema.

Last time, I established the tension that existed between the actual craft of the actor and the need for verisimilitude in mainstream entertainment cinema. Obviously, this interacts with race in that, while as actors, by craft, should be able to portray characters not their own race, the demands of needing what is seen to match consistently with the reality unfolding on the screen, the actor portraying the role should actually appear to be same race as the character.

While this might seem rather common sense, we find that, in the history of cinema, the actual representation of race in film doesn’t necessarily hold to the demands of cinematic verisimilitude. Ultimately, in film (and later, television history), there is actually a long history of casting of characters of color with white actors and ignoring, eliminating or marginalizing characters of color. The former is a rather extensive topic and so I’ll be focusing on that first.

One of the main mechanics by which (usually) white actors would perform characters of color is using makeup and prosthetics to approximate stereotypical racial characteristics, the most famous applications of which is called blackface. However, as the racial spectrum was rather wide and the ideas of whiteness morphed and changed over time, not only were black characters subject to this process, but characters of any ethnicity not considered white at the time were. Hence, due to the rather broad range of colors used to describe this technique, I’ll be calling it colorface here.

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