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.