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Color Coding?

Racial casting in the movies

Apr. 16, 2008
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In the bad old days, black people in America were forced to endure demeaning minstrel shows and watch sheepishly as singing star Al Jolson performed in blackface. He wasn’t the only one. Other big-name white stars working in burnt cork included Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

In more recent years, even the likes of Gene Wilder, Billy Crystal and Robert Downey Jr. have corked-up to the consternation of millions of black folks who love movies. And some readers may recall Burt Reynolds playing an Indian in TV’s “Gunsmoke” in the 1960s. Hard to believe? Maybe not.

Today, with the presidential campaign peaking, NBC’s popular “Saturday Night Live” has insulted millions of black people by employing a skin-darkened white actor—Fred Armisen—to portray Barack Obama. This same man also played rock star Prince. Couldn’t SNL find look-alikes who are genuine blacks to mimic these famous people?

Hollywood has long been known for casting white actors and extras with darkened skin as American Indians, African Americans, Middle Easterners, South Sea Islanders, black Africans, Latinos, Spaniards and Asians. Many hit films from the 1930s through the ’80s featured whites in non-white roles. Among them, Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din, Paul Muni as Benito Juarez; Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles as “Othello”; Tyrone Power as the Spaniard in Captain From Castile; Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata; Charles Bronson as a Sioux chief in Run of the Arrow; Victor Mature as Crazy Horse; Susan Kohner in as the black girl passing for white in Imitation of Life; and Ben Kingsley as Gandhi.

Then there were lesser lights such as Sidney Toler and Warner Oland as Chinese detective Charlie Chan; Peter Lorre as Japanese detective Mr. Moto, and Oland, Boris Karloff, Henry Brandon and Glen Gordon as Asian master criminal, Dr. Fu Manchu.

A couple of years ago, eyebrows were raised when Angelina Jolie was cast as the tragically widowed Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart on the big screen. Pearl’s Jewish journalist husband, Daniel, was beheaded in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002. Jolie, of course, is white, and Pearl is a mixed-race, brown-skinned woman.

Black Scarcity?

Despite skin-darkening and Jheri curls, Jolie was a disrespectful stretch. And the bogus old excuse about lack of actors of color didn’t hold water with many black female stars available. Troubling were Pearl’s comments in Time magazine:

“I have heard some criticism about her casting, but it is not about the color of your skin. It is about who you are. I asked her to play the role—even though she is way more beautiful than I am—because I felt a real kinship to her. She put her whole heart into it, and I think she understood why we should do this movie…”In truth, the mixed-race HalleBerry, whose light-brown skin closely approximates Pearl, would have been a more sensible and sensitive choice. Berry, like Jolie, is an Academy Award-winner, so there is little to differentiate them, talent-wise.

Realistic racial casting is especially vital regarding black historical figures. Good examples include Yaphet Koto as Idi Amin Dada in Raid on Entebbe (1977); Moses Gunn as Booker T. Washington in Ragtime (1981); Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker in Bird (1988); Raymond St. Jacques as Frederick Douglass in Glory (1989); Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad in Malcolm X (1992), with Denzel Washington in the title role; Harry Lennix as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Keep the Faith, Baby (2002), and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004).

On the other hand, the 6-foot-2-inch brown-skinned Washington was badly miscast as boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in The Hurricane (1999). Despite his dazzling work, Washington does not resemble the 5-foot-8-inch, dark-skinned Carter. The same thing happened when the great James Earl Jones played controversial heavyweight champion Jack Jefferson in 1970’s The Great White Hope. Jefferson was ebony-hued while the gray-eyed Jones is brown-skinned.

Then there was bulked-up but still smaller Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in his faux, politically correct Oscar-nominated part in Ali (2001). I was privileged to interview Ali in 1964 and was utterly unconvinced by Smith’s portrayal.

TV has also fallen victim to miscasting black people in historical roles. A troubling example was King, a mid-1980s vehicle on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Dark-skinned and reed-thin Cicely Tyson (burdened by obvious skin-lightener makeup) played the heavy-set, brown-skinned Coretta Scott King. Black viewers reacted negatively.

In the same film, talented Paul Winfield and Howard E. Rollins Jr. also were miscast. The 6-foot-3-inch Winfield played the 5-foot-9-inch Dr. King, which was especially hard to take. And dark-skinned Rollins was totally unconvincing as brown-skinned Andrew Young.

The great Sidney Poitier was also an embarrassment in a 1991 ABC mini-series “Separate but Equal” when portraying heroic Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The clean-shaven Poitier is jet-black while the mustachioed Marshall was beige-colored.

Sadly, everything old is new again.


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