Unfortunately, last year’s “The Last Airbender” race-debacle seems to have taught Hollywood casting agents nothing. The Japanese cult-classic “Akira” is now being remade by an American studio, and most fans of the classic have already denounced the American remake. The film is in the middle of a firestorm of controversy over the nearly-confirmed casting of “Tron: Legacy” actor Garrett Hedlund as protagonist Shôtarô Kaneda. Even “Star Trek” veteran George Takei has taken to Twitter in outrage over the film’s casting.
It seems that every year there is a new controversy of casting and race. The contention surrounding “The Last Airbender” focused largely on the casting of white actors to portray originally Asian protagonists and casting non-white actors to portray the antagonists. Jake Gyllenhaal’s casting as the titular “Prince of Persia” resulted in an extensive letter writing campaign. One of the largest of such controversies was over “21,” a film based on a real MIT blackjack team which was largely made up of Asian students, but was cast with white actors.
A website formed over the “Last Airbender” controversy, Racebending.com, continues to fight for more opportunities for non-white actors. According to racebending.com, they are concerned largely about “situations where a movie studio/publisher, etc. has changed the ethnicity of a character, with a resultant discriminatory impact on an underrepresented cultural community and actors from that community.”
While this certainly sounds fair, film studios must cast the best actor for the role, and cast an actor that will draw an audience. Films are art, but they are also big business. Few, if any, of the most ardent supporters of movements like Racebending believe that these casting decisions are made out of prejudice or malice. Most believe studios are simply underestimating audiences. They feel that they need a big-name actor to sell tickets, many of whom in America are Caucasian.
But is it really true that audiences won’t flock to theatres for a non-white lead? After all, the “Harold and Kumar” films, while not terribly artistic, have done quite well commercially and launched the careers of two fine young actors, Kal Penn and John Cho. Furthermore, Will Smith is currently the highest grossing actor in Hollywood, and the star of many films originally written with a Caucasian lead, such as “I Robot.”
Nonetheless, the vast majority of lead roles do go to young white men, and cultural anthropologists like Michael Baran agree that this could be harmful.
“It is critical that children see all sorts of people playing both the good and the bad roles in media. Otherwise, they may take those absences as meaningful and it may affect how they understand social categories. And it is certainly important for kids to be able to identify with heroes that they feel represent who they are as people,” Baran said on Racebending.com.
But as usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. There are more roles for non-white actors than ever before, but still not enough to be representative of the population. American culture has made incredible progress in civil rights since the ’60s. And while we haven’t achieved a post-racial America yet, we’re getting there. Art imitates life, and Hollywood has come a long way from Mickey Rourke’s stomach-turning “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” performance, but we still have progress to make.
Racebending.com rightly rejects the concept of casting quotas. Cultural change is quite difficult to force, and casting quotas would do more harm than good. Hollywood and the arts evolve with the culture, and will continue to do so. Race is an extremely delicate topic, for many reasons.
The very idea of racial inequality is a shameful part of world history — so shameful that it can be difficult to even discuss the issue reasonably. The simple fact that we are having this conversation as a society will push our cultural evolution forward.Emily Brooks is an economics senior and may be reached at email@example.com.