Gods of Egypt, a fantasy-action epic, came under fire recently for casting white actors including Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to play ancient Egyptians. While the director Alex Proyas and the production company Lionsgate have apologized, their words fall somewhat flat coming just two years after Ridley Scott’s Exodus faced similar criticism. In an interview with GQ, one of the film’s actors, Chadwick Boseman, tried to respectfully defend Gods of Egypt, but ended up noting a depressing truth about Hollywood: “People don’t make $140 million movies starring black and brown people.”
On the surface, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has a budget far exceeding $140 million, seems to contradict Boseman’s point. Its director, J.J. Abrams, has received considerable praise for casting a mix of diverse and relatively new faces including Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. Boyega, who is black, joins the more experienced Oscar Isaac, an actor of Cuban and Guatemalan ancestry who plays the fighter pilot Poe Dameron. Having earned considerable acclaim in recent years for his character work, Isaac can be seen as a colorblind-casting success story: His biggest roles have had nothing to do with his race, and have vaulted him to a level of stardom that few Latino actors have achieved.
But Isaac’s career also brings up uncomfortable questions about the merits of colorblind casting, which has been highlighted as a way to make Hollywood more diverse. Film (and pop culture in general) has held up a mirror to white men for so long that the mere presence of people of color—especially in a blockbuster film like Star Wars—is regarded as progressive. Colorblind casting might land a few promising actors prestigious roles, but it isn’t a sustainable strategy: It neither addresses the systemic problems that exists behind the camera nor does it compel Hollywood to tell more racially aware stories.
It would be nice to believe that someone as talented as Isaac could have done as well without colorblind casting or an ability to be seen as “ethnically flexible.” Isaac has steadily increased his profile in recent years by bringing intensity and intelligence to vastly different roles. His breakthrough performance as a folk singer in the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis earned him a Golden Globe nomination. This year, Isaac played an obsessive bro-genius who creates artificial intelligence in Ex Machina and a belabored mayor dealing with housing desegregation in HBO’s Show Me a Hero. In each of these roles, Isaac’s ethnicity is a non-issue, perhaps freeing him from the stereotypical expectations many Latino actors face.
But his success hasn’t come without compromises. Isaac is open about the choices he’s made in his career including dropping his last name, Hernández. “Starting out as an actor, you immediately worry about being pigeonholed or typecast,” he said to the magazine In. “I don’t want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever. I don’t want to be defined by someone else’s idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing.” His tendency to play characters of different backgrounds extends to his new Star Wars character, whom Isaac has described as “non-ethnic.” Notably, he didn’t say “white” or “racially ambiguous,” instead referring to his character’s absence of ethnicity.
Which fits in neatly with the idea that colorblind casting is the easiest and most visible way to address the need for diversity within Hollywood. Indeed, the practice has led to great, high-profile performances including Morgan Freeman’s Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the majority of Will Smith’s career from the mid-1990s onward, Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the kitschy 1960s Batman television series, and most recently, Laverne Cox taking on the role of Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On a more political level, colorblind casting exists as a hopeful emblem for how many wish the world to be: post-racial. The powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who’s been extensively praised for her use of colorblind casting, has said that she doesn’t write with race in mind. In the early days of Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes explained her reasoning by saying, “My friends and I don't sit around and discuss race ... We’re post-civil rights, post-feminist babies, and we take it for granted we live in a diverse world.” And yet, with minorities making up a small fraction of directors and other key behind-the-scenes roles, it’s hard to know how seriously the industry cares about improving representation in general.
In the face of Hollywood’s deeply entrenched racism, colorblind casting seems like a solution with broad appeal and an actual history of producing great performances. But its downsides go beyond the fact that white actors can end up taking roles for non-white characters, as in Aloha and Pan, or that productions can slot minority actors into secondary roles and get praised for “diversity.” It’s simply counterintuitive to argue that problems related to race can be fixed by ignoring race altogether. In practice, colorblind casting isn’t a form of acceptance or progress: It can just as easily be erasure wrapped up as benevolence.
At the heart of colorblind casting is the belief that race doesn’t affect character. If Hollywood’s history is any indication, race only really matters in mainstream stories when it comes to historical dramas, biopics, and films explicitly about that theme. Given its demographic makeup, the film industry struggles to imagine the experiences of people of color beyond strife and bigotry, with a few notable exceptions. When looking at the fact that acclaimed films like Her only have people of color talking for 46 seconds despite taking place in a futuristic Los Angeles, it’s tempting to look at the casting of actors of color like Isaac as immense progress. But if the cost of this is perpetuating disinterest in stories about people of color then we need start to question if this is progress at all.
On another note, Isaac’s career shows how casting non-white actors in roles that sidestep race can lead to a disturbing tension between the story onscreen and reality. Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, follows Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), an unassuming programmer at a Google-like company tasked with helping the hard-drinking playboy CEO, Nathan (Isaac), figure out if his beautiful android has artificial intelligence. There’s a pivotal moment later in the film when Caleb discovers footage of Nathan’s other attempts to create AI (all housed in the bodies of women). When I first saw Ex Machina my stomach lurched when the only black android, who is naked and lifeless, is revealed to have no face. Another Asian android wants so desperately to escape that she beats against the wall of her prison until her arms shatter. Even more troubling is that Kyoto, Nathan’s Japanese android assistant, embodies a slew of stereotypes about Asian women being voiceless and servile. The fact that the film is so self-aware about its most brutalized characters being robotic women of color becomes even more unnerving considering the audience is expected to forget Isaac is himself Latino.
Creating interesting roles for actors of color is a multi-layered challenge that can’t be solved by colorblind casting alone. But it’s not an impossible one. For screenwriters, ignoring the way race, culture, and ethnicity affect character is a failure of imagination. Film might look to television for cues on how to acknowledge the experiences of people of color without making them the central theme. This year, standouts include CBS’s Supergirl, Cinemax’s The Knick, The CW’s Jane the Virgin, and ABC’s Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. Additionally, the Golden Globes nominations make it clear that actors of color receive more recognition on TV than they do in film.
There needs to be a broader middle ground for actors of color—between the 12 Years a Slave and the Rocky Horror remake, between stories where race is everything and stories where it’s not even an afterthought. Until producers, directors, and writers take race into account with both story and casting, the systemic racism of the industry will remain, and the rarity of seeing compelling actors like Isaac in powerful leading roles will remain just that—a rarity.
This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
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