Down with racial imposters, says DONALD CLARKE
HERE’S A STORY we didn’t think we’d ever have to cover again. Blacking up – and browning up and yellowing up – is back in the news again.
Asian-American groups have got themselves in an understandable tizzy about the Wachowski siblings’ decision to cast Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy and Hugo Weaving as Asian characters in their upcoming epic Cloud Atlas. Over in Germany, a theatre director has been lambasted for persuading white actors to play African-Americans in a production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park.
Then there’s the slippery notion of Ben Affleck casting himself as Tony Mendez, a prominent CIA agent, in the excellent Argo. This one creeps up on you a little. For much of the film, Affleck’s character goes by his cover name. Every now and then, you hear the name “Mendez” and puzzle for a moment. Is Mr Affleck – of Irish and Scottish descent – really playing a Latino character? Sure enough, an image of the real Mendez in the final credits confirms his ethnic origins.
There is some good news here. Until relatively recently the mainstream media would barely bother to question such decisions. It still comes as shock to watch David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and discover Alec Guinness browning up to play an Arab character. That somewhat overvalued film was, mind you, released half a century ago (almost to the day). It is more disturbing still to find Guinness playing an Indian character in the same director’s useless A Passage to India more than 20 years later. Alternative comedians were bellowing at Mrs Thatcher. Rock musicians were singing songs about Rosa Luxemburg. How could this be allowed?
Well, there were, in fact, a great many complaints at the time. Lean’s final picture marks the point at which such offensive racial transformations became properly unacceptable.
Screenwriter does not, as far as we are aware, register strongly with the apoplectic-retired- colonel constituency. But there will, no doubt, be some readers ranting about “political correctness gone mad”. Before long, we’ll be yelling at English actors for playing Scottish people. What about able-bodied actors essaying disability?
To be fair to our imaginary military man, these are not unreasonable questions. No hard and fast rules apply. But a simple change of accent should not – if carried off effectively – offer too much offense to the relevant community. Just as an Irish actor can become Scottish, a Scottish actor can become Irish. The quid pro quo should assure that neither group loses out on work.
To apply black make-up to a white face is, by way of contrast, to construct a gross pastiche of ethnic identity. Moreover, given the limited history of non-
Caucasian actors “whitening up”, actors of colour are, in such circumstances, clearly being deprived of work.
The makers of Cloud Atlas – who would, one imagines, never cast a white actor as a black character – seem to have been caught bang to rights. Affleck is in a more uncertain position. He doesn’t exactly dress up as a Latino character. He doesn’t adopt an offensive Speedy Gonzalez accent.
Still, it would have been more polite to cast somebody with the right class of grandparents. Be nice, Ben.