Curious Casting



One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.

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102 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    They should cast Idris Elba.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      I almost made that joke in the OP… but feared people would think I was serious.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Recently, there was a Liberace biopic that came out starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and there were discussions about whether it would have been better to cast someone who was gay.

        For my part, I think it’s perfectly fair to point out that, hey, neither one of those guys is even close to having to look for work and then, from there, to ask the question why not give the part to someone who fits this role but might not fit other roles more easily fit by Michael Douglas/Matt Damon types?

        All that to say, if that argument made sense there, it seems to make sense here.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Exactly. If you can’t find a gay actor to play Liberace, you’re not trying hard enough. I understand there are other factors that go into it but 99 times out of 100 these decisions work against the actors with marked identities. Elba seems to be the lone exception which is why that jokes has legs.Report

      • @jaybird Don’t be silly. HBO wanted awards for their biopic, and gay actors playing gay characters aren’t nearly so likely win them. Not nearly so brave and admirable as when straight guys do it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        As the resident expert on awards shows, do you think they look differently upon a straight actor playing a gay character versus straight-playing-straight or gay-playing-gay? Consciously or not, do you think there are bonus points awarded for supposed ‘degree of difficulty’? Is it seen as more of a stretch?Report

      • I absolutely do think they look on the straights-as-gay-characters vs gays-as-same question differently for the two. Perhaps it’s a “degree of difficulty” thing, and are rewarding the actors for playing gay without resorting to affectation or stereotyped behaviors. (I like Matt Damon and Michael Douglas a lot, and haven’t seen the Liberace biopic, so the comment wasn’t necessarily meant to indicate that their accolades weren’t earned.) But I also think it was a tacit way of rewarding a straight actor for taking such a risk as to play a gay role, though I suspect that aspect of things is likely changing rapidly.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Beat me to it. Can Idris sing?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        FWIW, there was some criticism about Elba (and Freeman before him) being cast as Mandela. The response was largely, “You couldn’t find a South African/African actor to play the part?”

        I don’t think that is a perfectly analogous situation because there are far fewer South African and/or African actors working in the US than there are American-born actors of color and the costs (financial and otherwise) of conducting an international casting call are different, but I also don’t think either of those is so prohibitive as to make it impossible if the studio really cared.

        Which is what it boils down to: studios don’t really care about getting race/ethnicity right on screen. Which is sad.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        But Elba isn’t from West Baltimore either. Did the producers of the Wire not care about race and/or ethnicity right?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Aiden Gillan is Irish and Dominic West is English, as is Idris Elba. So they don’t care about jobs for American actors, either.Report

  2. I am grateful for this post, if only because it gave me an excuse to look at Satya Bhabha.Report

  3. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    I think there’s more to being the right part for a role than your ethnicity, but that said, I wonder how much thought they put into this casting decision.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      You are right that the criteria should not be limited to ethnicity. But the message sent — particularly to actors of color (and I usually get these articles from a friend’s girlfriend, who is a biracial actress who often struggles to find work because she isn’t “white” enough for “regular” roles but not “Asian” enough for token Asian roles) — when these roles go to white folks is that there are no actors of color who could fill the role. As the article pointed out, there certainly exist actors with both the acting chops AND the ethnicity.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        I think they should look seriously at ethnically accurate actors, but I reject any idea that they have a duty, or that there ought to be a requirement, to hire an ethnically correct actor, or that anyone has any legitimate claim on anything based on their ethnicity.

        I understand that because of the idiocy of people in the film industry this works to the benefit of whites at present, and it’s fine to mock their casting decisions (especially if a) they didn’t look beyond white actors, and b) the white actor doesn’t do a particularly good job*), but to say of anyone that they shouldn’t be cast in some role because of their ethnicity is to reify ethnicity as a fundamental characteristic.
        * It’s especially good to mock the film industry in light of George Clooney’s smugly self-indulgent Oscars speech a few years back.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Why is sex/gender a “fundamental characteristic” (at least, I presume we all agree that it is) but not ethnicity? I doubt people would accept a female actress playing Mercury.

        As I understand him, Mercury’s ethnicity was pretty fundamental to his identity. This isn’t Katniss, a fictional character who was described as possessing a certain look but for whom that look and whatever ethnicity it might have implied was not essential to the character. This is a historical figure whose ethnicity very much mattered to his identity and character.

        I agree that there isn’t an obligation per say. However, we should hold these people accountable for their decisions especially when their justification is that they need to seek big name actors and that this practice is exactly the reason why there are so few big name actors of color. They can’t excuse themselves from the cause side of the cause-and-effect.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        I don’t think sex/gender have to be cast right, either, if the project can be done well by “violating” them. And if we’re unwilling to fudge with those boundaries, is there any place for transgender people in film?

        But to the extent sex/gender matter, there is a much greater biological basis for sex differences than for ethnic differences, which are largely socially defined.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Linda Hunt in Year of Living Dangerously. Nailed the part.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        A fair point. At its very best, hiring a white actor to play a non-white character sends the message that a non-white actor suitable for the part could not be found. I can’t imagine that to be true in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases. Which I think is why such decisions can be so frustrating and confounding.Report

  4. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Johanna suggests Sasha Baron Cohen (seriously).Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      That would be interesting considering Freddie Mercury’s anti-Semitism.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        It appears that Cohen was originally attached to the project but no longer.


        Can you expand on Mercury’s anti-semitism? A brief Google search turned up nothing.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        I can’t find anything either but it was something I remember from a long time ago. Pre-Internet.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        A google autocomplete does reveal that Freddie Mercury anti-Semitic is the fourth search done but that is hardly evidence.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Above, Kazzy suggests that ethnicity was important to Mercury. This possble Nti-semitism puts another light on the issue of who should play him. Kazzy’s argument suggests we should respect Mercury’s concern for his ethnicity, but let’s assume we’re making a film about some famous white person who was anti-semitic–would we argue that we ought to respect the person’s concern for ethnicity by not casting a white but Jewish actor to play him?

        Can we effectively draw a line between good respect for ethnic importance and bad respect for ethnic importance?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        As you rightly note above, sex/gender does not analogize to ethnicity and I would argue that, similarly, ideology does not analogize to ethnicity.

        And to be clear, I don’t think it is as important how that aspect of identity mattered to the individual in question but as to how it relates to the character and the story being told.

        “Django Unchained” makes no sense if you cast a white guy as Django. The story needed Django to be black or it makes absolutely no sense. Katniss (as I understand it) didn’t need to be darker complexioned for the story to make sense. She was described as such but that seems largely an aesthetic decision.

        I’m not an expert on Mercury, but as I understand his life, you can’t tell his story without exploring his race and ethnicity. As such, it is important to make creative decisions that don’t sacrifice that part of the story. Else you end up with a shitty story.

        If his alleged anti-semitism is an important part of his story, you’d want an actor who could deliver that appropriately. If you had an actor who for whatever reason couldn’t deliver a line that contained a Jewish slur in it (e.g., a Jewish actor who couldn’t bring himself to say it, even in character), I think you’d rightly consider that.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        as I understand his life, you can’t tell his story without exploring his race and ethnicity.

        That sounds like an issue of writing and editing, not casting.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        And is it okay to just cast a half-Indian, as the article suggests? And is it OK to just cast some Indian, or do we have to have the right Indian ethnicity (and the right caste?). Just because white folks like us don’t know the difference doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I think it is both. The character should look like Mercury. That includes factoring in race and ethnicity. If he isn’t believable as a Zanzibar-born Parsi navigating the streets of India, then that detracts from the film.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Sure, if they fail in that the movie’s a laughable bust. But are you assuming no white actor can be believable in that role?

        I think a little makeup and a lot of talent can make any character believable. (Not that I know if this particular white guy actually has any talent.)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Those are good questions. As I note above, there was some criticism of Elba and Freeman being cast as Mandela because neither is of South African descent or directly connected with an African ethnic group. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know exactly where the line should be between acceptable and not. But I do think a “Can an Indian play an Iranian” conversation is a sign of at least some progress whereas the “Why is another white guy playing a person of color” conversation is just more of the same.

        I’m too young to know how it went… but how important was it that Al Pacino and Bobby DeNiro were of Italian descent when casting the Godfather movies? Did it matter that Caan was of Jewish German ancestry? It is worth noting that the “whiteness” of Italians and Jews at the time was (and still is) sometimes a question.

        So… yea… it is complicated. But I think it fair to present a question as the author of that piece did… “Here are four actors with the acting chops, racial/ethnic background, and physical appearance necessary to play Mercury… were they considered? If not, why not?”Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Oh, Iranian, not Indian. I was off.

        Anyway, I think the important issue is how often “ethnic” actors aren’t cast, but wgite actors are, when the role has no specific ethnic content. That’s where we’ll identify the real degree of racism in Holywood casting.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Good point, @jm3z-aitch

        There are white characters which demand white actors (e.g., Abraham Lincoln).
        There are characters of color which demand actors of color (e.g., Django).
        Then there are characters whose race/ethnicity is really immaterial and who could presumably be played by an actor of any race/ethnicity. The vast majority of the time, these roles go to white actors. I think we are starting to see that change, but very, very slowly.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        There are white characters which demand white actors (e.g., Abraham Lincoln).

        That particular choice of historical character is a perfect setup for me to push further. How do we define white? In Lincoln’s day, and likely in his mind, it required not a bit of no -European blood. But of course there where people who “passed,” who were only about 7/8 white. Is that white enough to be white enough to play Lincoln? 3/4 white? As long as the actor’s white enough that the white audience isn’t made uncomfortable?

        Part of what I dislike in this discussion is the continued reification of whiteness, as though it were a thing with a certain definition, and by implication the same being true of blackness, or some other “ness.”

        My kids are 1/8 Indonesian and 7/8 various European ancestries (but possibly some small portion of Jewish ancestry as well). Mostly they can “pass,” but they do get asked sometimes if they’re Mexican (the most common non-white ethnicity in our town). Fortunately they live in an age when it’s not much of an issue (although they have fellow students who think it’s wrong for people of different races to date or marry), but I did work one summerwith a young white guy who was kind of bothered by the fact that my wife was only 3/4 white, and her dad was once invited to join some fraternal organization on condition of divorcing his only 1/2 white wife.

        So to say Lincoln must be played by a white guy automatically kicks in my “how white” response. (I’m white, but I look nothing like Lincoln–would I be better than a lighter skinned Arab, Jew or Persian who was tall and had a more craggy look?)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        A fantastic question, @jm3z-aitch, and not one I will pretend to have a clear or definitive answer to. But just because you or I or even society collectively can’t answer it perfectly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to do better when it comes to casting actors. I recognize that this is almost entirely out of the control of folks like you or I, which is why the occasional mocking blog post seems appropriate.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Who was it a week or so ago asked why someone else and I wanted to mock everyone? This is why. Good mockery brings issues into focus.

        Merry Christmas, Kaz.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Was that me…?

        Merry Christmas, JH.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:


      I wasn’t being sarcastic. I think it would be an interesting statement to have a Jewish actor play an anti-Semitic person. Or to have a Black actor play a racist KKK member. It heightens the absurdity of the bigotry.

      These sorts of experiments happen in theatre fairly often and with success. Though it might be too meta for a mainstream film. Maybe this kind of stuff works in theatre more.

      Perhaps I should do an essay on casting.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I would love to see you do a piece on casting. As I said, most of these articles I share come from a friend of mine who does stage work but struggles because she is bi-racial and not “enough” of either race to land spots: she isn’t white enough for white roles but not Asian enough for Asian roles. She’ll often post actual casting calls such as the one I shared here a while back that said, “Prospective actors for Mulan need not be Asian.” It is really mind blowing sometimes. You obviously have far more insight into that world than I, so I’d love to read what you write.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        I agree with you.

        And Johanna wasn’t being sarcastic, either, although she wasn’t thinking of Baron-Cohen as a statement. She doesn’t like him, but thinks he has the right look, and apparently he’s a good singer.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        “Throw the Jews down the well.”Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Musical talent apparently runs in the Cohen family; his brother is a composer/musician.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Hey, you’re the local fashionista around here.
        Have you seen Persona 4?
        (They’ve got a guy with a Freddie Mercury moustache — naturally played by someone Japanese… AND a woman in a KKK hood).
        I’m kinda curious about what you think about their sense of … fashion.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    James Floyd looks like the best pic. He seems pretty enough enough to do androgynous young Freddie Mercury and handsome enough to do the more maculine, older Freddier Mercury.

    The problem with biopics is that Hollywood wants somebody that at least kind of looks like the historical person in question, or at least can be so with the power of makeup, but at the same time can attract a general audience. If the historical person is white or black than all is well and good. When you get into the Asian ethnicities, especially anybody who isn’t Chinese, Japanese, or Korean than the number of known, bankable stars decreases.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      That is often the argument put forth and I guess seems plausible if you’re hiring Jennifer Lawrence.

      But who is Ben Wishaw? I mean, maybe he is somebody and I’m just dense (as always) but given the target audience for a Freddie Mercury biopic (i.e., not tweenage girls), it would seem that he should be at least a familiar name to someone like myself.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        I don’t think Lawrence was a name when they cast the hunger games movie. She became one after the one two shot of that movie and Silver linings playbook.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        She had been nominated for “Winter’s Bone” by that point, but you might be right that this didn’t necessarily cross over to star appeal at the time.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I really don’t get the scandal over casting Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. The bruhaha over casting the live action Avatar movie, I get but that about the Hunger Games. Katniss has a blonde mother and a blonde sister. While Katniss is described as dark-haired and olive skinned in the books, I always associated that with a more Southern European type appearance than a person of color type appearance. Dying Lawrence’s hair brown is good enough.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I think the Katniss “scandal” was relatively minor. The absurdity of the casting was far less than what took place with Avatar (which started the whole “Racebending” meme). I think it got the attention it did because it was such a huge movie. Most of what I read was less outrage and more, “That would have been a great role for an up-and-coming actress who didn’t fit the traditional Hollywood mold and instead they took a blonde and died her hair.” It was more frustration than outrage. Avatar sparked some real outrage, but it was less widespread because most people heard Avatar and thought, “You mean the blue people?”Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        I think you mean Avatar: The Last Airbender which was a very popular cartoon with as far as I can tell Asian characters but the live action movie made them whitey Mcwhitersons.

        Another controversy was Warner Brothers casting all white people in the live action version of Akira before shutting down the production or shelving it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I did mean “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. But I don’t think that was a widely known show/film, so the more legitimate outrage it sparked was muted by the permeation of the film. Most people were still thinking of Avatar as the movie with the blue space aliens.

        With A:TLA, it is my understanding that they did cast people of color… as the bad guys. So, it’s cool to be brown if you’re the bad guy. Heroes must be white… and blonde… and blue eyed.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        ND, Kazzy and I were both referring to Avatar: The Last Airbender.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Kazzy, who did people have in mind when it came to Katniss Everdeen? There lots of traditionally attractive dark-haired beauties for Hollywood to cast to.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        To my view, anyone who saw Winter’s Bone will have no trouble understanding why Lawrence got cast. She proved herself exactly perfect for that role.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Lawrence was amazing in Winter’s Bone. So was John Hawkes. Great flick.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW says:

        I think Lawrence was perfect for Katniss – when I watched Winter’s Bone (which is excellent, and – like The Hunger Games – focuses on a girl in a poor Appalachian family with a missing father and an emotionally troubled mother, who thus acts as a parent to her younger sibling) my automatic thought was, “If they ever make a film of The Hunger Games, this actress should play Katniss.” That was before I even knew a movie was in development.

        To the extent that there was a casting issue, in my view, it’s not that they chose Lawrence, but that the casting call was specifically for white actors only. Katniss’ ethnicity isn’t important to her character (except to the degree of it being believable that she’d have a blonde sister – and that’s possible in a lot of mixed-race families), so they could and should have left it open to a wider range of actresses. Jen Lawrence would still have beat all of ’em, in my opinion, but they should have had a chance.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        But doesn’t that assume that there isn’t a brown or tan skinned Jennifer Lawrence out there? It’s possible that she is a once-in-a-generation talent but how will we ever know if we never look beyond the usual suspects?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        As many great performances as Lawrence has given by age 23, she might well be her generation’s Meryl Streep.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Who’s Meryl Streep? Maybe @russell-saunders knows.Report

      • Avatar rexknobus says:

        There are several mentions in this conversation of (I generalize a quote): “There are plenty of deserving actors who should get a chance to play…” I think this misses the reality of movie casting.

        Rather than say a bunch of stuff you’ve heard before about box office draw, etc., here’s an personal anecdote that, when delved into a bit, can show you some of the pressures on both sides of the question:

        I wrote a (very damn good) screenplay about one of the hunter/guides of the Lewis & Clark expedition — a fellow named John Colter, who has some small notoriety of his own. Good script, got some attention, made me a little option money. One day I got a call from a producer who was interested in pursuing this story (which is about a 30-year old white guy who stayed out West after L & C returned home, and had many adventures). The producer asked me if I was open to re-writing because he had an option on a certain performer. I said sure, who? He very abashedly said, “Meryl Streep.” And got a huge laugh from me. Needless to say, the conversation went no further.

        In his defense I will say that at least he was terribly embarrassed to ask, and not surprised by my response.

        But give this a little bit of thought beyond the ridiculous nature of the notion of re-writing Colter to fit Streep. Here’s a person who liked a script and had a star ready to work. How does he not take the shot? And, what if he had offered me six figures up front to do said crazed re-write? I probably would have taken the money. And when the news got out, he would be an idiot and I a prostitute. But that’s sort of how it works. If you’re lucky.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Again… who is this Meryl Streep person?Report

      • Avatar rexknobus says:

        Weathered veteran actress of high-impact action movies, noted for her proficiency with black powder weapons and tomahawks. Pretty much sticks to the “Western wilderness hunter/trapper” genre…Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        And you’re STILL ahead of the guy who sent in a twisted joke of an idea for a series.
        Because that bloody well aired.
        And people bloody love it.

        Life’s a joke, but sometimes it’s laughing at you.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW says:

        Thanks for the insight on casting, rex.Report

  6. Avatar Nicholas Costo says:

    Since Whishaw is part of the LGBT community, does that cancel out him being the wrong ethnicity?Report

  7. Avatar North says:

    Because we know with high confidence that Freddie Mercury existed?Report

  8. Avatar NewDealer says:

    An interesting bit of reverse casting is that Inside Llewyln Davis, a hispanic actor (Oscar Isaac) plays a Welsh-American from Queens.Report

  9. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Why not Paul Shafer? He has experience playing Mercury.Report

  10. Avatar Will H. says:

    I agree fully that Kevin Costner has no business playing a character who fought in the Civil War without having fought in that war himself.
    And the use of fake blood in historical portrayals of real violence is reprehensible.Report

  11. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    Authenticity in art is a fraught topic, because it’s just one of the elements needed to make a work successful, and it’s debatable how important it needs to be in a given work. Sincerity goes a long way in compensating for not checking all the boxes in portraying life with absolute authenticity.

    I haven’t kept up with “The Simpsons” in a long time, but I often think about how that show’s handling of the broad stereotypes of its characters would go so drastically wrong in lesser hands. Of course, satire and comedy get a lot of leeway, but characters like Apu would come across as racist stereotypes if the writers and actors did not do such a brilliant job of letting the character show us something real about the society he lives in. Mark Twain’s handling of Jim in Huckleberry Finn is hardly balanced or fair, but it does provide a punishing indictment of American society in that novel. The trouble with artists who try to portray characters from outside their experience really only starts when the art fails as art. Then lapses in authenticity start looking like a lack of respect, both for the outgroup in question and for the audience overall.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      This is a fantastic comment. My only quibble is that also of consideration is fairness to the actors. It is excedingly hard for actors of color to find work and frustrating to them when roles they think they have an edge for go to yet another white person. But that is a separate convo from the art one offered here.Report

      • Avatar krogerfoot says:

        Thanks, and agreed. Art is fantastically difficult and risky to produce when it involves multiple people. I saw the same pigeonholing screw-jobs happen a lot in music, too. The rock world can be incredibly conservative towards musicians that don’t fit their predefined roles.Report

  12. Avatar veronica dire says:

    I see two separate issues:

    1. The real-life actors who cannot find work because they aren’t white-cis-het(-whatever) enough for the leads in most Hollywood fare, but then have to stand aside when a person-like-them role comes along, for another white-cis-het(-whatever) actor with star appeal.

    2. The degree that Hollywood whitewashes real ethnic issues.

    These should be kept separate.

    My thoughts:

    On #1, talented people deserve work, even if they are marginalized people. For my issue, trans stuff, there are good trans actors, but most will find it hard to find roles playing cis folks — for reasons. So when that rare trans role comes along, if you cast some cis person to play it, well then you suck and I hate you. I won’t watch your movie.

    (’Cept Hedwig. But that’s a long conversation.)

    I’m sure it is the same for other marginalized people. So in solidarity I try to follow the same rule, when I am made aware of the situation.

    On #2, this is just normal watered-down crap for boring mainstream people who want to see a fake world staring them. It is lame, stupid, and it’s your own fault if you play along.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Great comment.

      Re #1: One of the more irksome trends in this regard is that it always seems to go one way. Whites can play any role but actors of color are relegated to roles of color, some of which go to whites.

      Given this, I struggle to see how we can keep the two issues, as you define them, separate. Can you elaborate?

      Semi-related… have you watched “Orange in the New Black”? I watched part of episode one and was so appalled by the racism and classism that I had to turn it off, but I understand that there is a trans character played by a trans actor and is receiving high regard for it. However, all of the acclaim that I have read has come from cis folks (though some of them are major allies of trans folk to whom I’d give strong credence to); I’m curious how the actor and her role is being received within the trans community.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        We need to separate the issues exactly because they are different things. Which should not let us ignore the fact they are both important. Nor should we ignore the fact they have the same root cause (privilege, bigotry, including passive bigotry, social control, etc.). Nor should we ignore that in many ways the fight is the same: demand more roles about minority/marginalized people, played by minority/marginalized people. But still, they are separate things with separate arguments. Slipping back and forth lets slippery people dodge.

        Yes, I have seen Orange is the New Black, and I guess there is a ton of problematic shit, starting with the entire premise, which demands a middle-class white woman to give lily-white viewers a lens (not to mention her dopey fiance, to give men a lens).

        There are gestures toward critique of her class, but they are facile.

        On the other hand, Laverne Cox is beautiful and amazing, and their handling of trans stuff is reasonably okay, on the whole, not perfect, but likely the best we’ll get from a by-and-for-cis-folks TV show.

        For now. Someday the trans Spike Lee will come along and we’ll get to see ourselves for real.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Hmmm… it seems to me that the two issues feed one another. But you are right that they are different enough that separate responses are probably in order.

        Re: OITNB, it is based on the real life experiences of the protagonist and the book she wrote about her jailing. Naturally, because she was white and pretty and middle class, her complaints about the criminal justice system were given an audience when the voices of so many others remain ignored. That really bothered me. Her critiques are no less legitimate, but the way the show seemed to frame them is that they are wrong because they are happening to a pretty white middle class woman. They aren’t wrong inherently; just wrong when they happen to a particular type of person. I heard the show got better but I couldn’t even stomach the first episode.

        I’m glad that they got Cox mostly right. I assume that is a hugely positive step.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        And let me add, your point about how things go one way is the core issue.

        Things go one way.

        Not always, but usually, a lot, overwhelmingly — and that one isolated example you inevitably hear is deliberately missing the point. In fact, it is deliberately hiding the point.

        If I am in the mood to be charitable, I will assume people do these things out of ignorance and not malice.

        Being so charitable is probably foolish.

        Anyway, yeah, these arguments, particularly with libertarian sorts, always seem to start by erasing the reality — aside from lip service quickly set aside — and then move to “Well, if everything were equal and color blind and everyone was culturally exactly, precisely, specifically like me, and there was no history of bigotry and no cultural scar tissue, and if everyone always acted this way — except the broad culture won’t act this way — and if privileged folks like me were not insufferable bores, then in that world things would just be equal and isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander — color blind! color blind! color blind! So yeah white actors can play black folks and let’s ignore how it actually works ’cause fair is fair, and fair means I win.”

        Ad nauseamReport

      • @kazzy and @veronica-dire

        Other than having heard the name, I’m unfamiliar with “Orange Is the New Black.” Do either of you know if in the book (though, apparently not in the series), does the author actually recognize and deal well with the racial issues in prison and in our criminal justice system? It’s one thing for a TV/internet show to get the issues wrong, but I’m just curious if the author herself does a better job.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @kazzy — I think your critique is exactly correct. Of course a imprisoned white woman should be able to speak on her experiences, and it is not her fault that her voice is heard but not others.

        On the other hand, those of us who see the underlying issue have to make choices. Clearly this woman has done a thing, wrote of her unjust treatment, but she has not done another thing, which is to genuinely amplify the voices of marginalized people.

        She still might do that. Time will tell.

        We each have only so much to give, so much time, attention, money, etc. We choose what we watch, what we read, who we hear. Black women are speaking. They are not hard to find. Likewise for queers like me; likewise for indigenous people, etc., etc.

        I watch the show to support Laverne Cox. If she were not there, I would not watch.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @pierre-corneille — I have not read the book.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I similarly have not read the book but the criticism I’ve seen has indicated the book is just as “bad” as the show, though it is possible they are simply conflating the one with the other.

        Here is a taste of why I find her kind of reprehensible (with the caveat that her work may — may — help bring changes to the criminal justice system)…

        From her blog FAQ:
        But I thought nice blonde ladies with loving families, Seven Sisters degrees and no priors always got off?
        That was often true before the mid-80s, at which time the Federal government enacted mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for all drug-related crimes. These guidelines essentially remove most judicial discretion from sentencing, placing much of the power to determine sentences in the hands of prosecutors. Without mandatory minimums, Piper would almost certainly have been sentenced to probation and community service.
        Federal mandatory minimums (and similar state policies like New York’s Rockefeller drug laws) have incarcerated thousands of non-violent drug offenders who might otherwise have been punished in different ways, and are the primary reason that there has been a 300% increase in the number of women incarcerated in the last decade (80% of whom are mothers).
        My analysis: Mandatory minimums were enacted in part to address racial and class disparities in sentencing. They have turned into yet another tool of abuse by the system, but not because pretty blonde ladies with fancy degrees don’t get preferential treatment, which seems to be her argument.

        From an interview with Marie Clare:
        MC: What makes the guards so intimidating?
        PK: They are super-brusque and treat you in an unhuman way. You don’t have any sense of what’s going to happen next. Let’s say, for example, you’re going into the hospital — you’d feel like you can ask questions. You might not always get satisfactory answers, but you’d at least feel like you could ask questions to know what’s going to happen next. But you can’t ask questions in prison.
        My analysis: I’m sure that being processed into prison is a horrifying experience. But when I think of ‘not being allowed to ask questions like if I were at a hospital’, I don’t think ‘inhuman’. She comes across incredibly tone deaf. Many of the women in prison — particularly the poor women and women of color — suffer greater indignities each and every day before they step foot in jail.

        This review sums up the criticisms I’ve seen of the book:

        And it should be noted that Kerman did 13 months in a minimum security prison for international drug trafficking. Compare that to the common fate for low-level users in the states.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        Those quotes by her are disgusting.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Re #1: One of the more irksome trends in this regard is that it always seems to go one way. Whites can play any role but actors of color are relegated to roles of color, some of which go to whites.

        I think this is about the size of the tentpole desired in the movie – and the source material. Notably, big blockbusters for the Asian market are almost always including an Asian or Asian-American actor and promoting the snot out of his or her role (even if minor) to draw box office mojo.

        Also, there’s been discussion on this thread about casting that’s explicitly race conscious, because it’s part of the story (e.g. The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Django, the Wire), but I’m increasingly seeing more color variation in ‘classic characters’ – e.g. non-othello Shakespeare. To me, the most famous Javert these days – at least the one that’s always on PBS for the pledge drive specials – is Norm Lewis.Report

      • @kazzy

        Thanks. I was holding up hope that perhaps the actual person (and not the Netflix show character) may have actually been a bit more introspective. But apparently not, at least from what you showed me.

        Not that even the time she served was necessarily easy…..I don’t know what it’s like to do minimum security time, or any time, so there’s always that.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        What I offered is admittedly a small sampling, so that should be considered. But ultimately they are her own words. From that bit of research, it seems she is engaged in a certain amount of branding, making her “advocacy” seem all the more self-serving.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        Regarding the race-bending Shakespeare stuff, in my experience a lot of artsy-trendy urban types think they’re magically immune to anything problematic, and if they are doing something “creative,” then they have free rein to be as offensive as they want — as long as they are sufficiently ironic — and if you do not play along then you are not properly cool and no one will hang with you at the coffee shop.

        On the other hand, hating on hipsters is no longer interesting.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Are you saying doing race-blending in Shakespeare is offensive?

        I’m not quite sure how else to parse your comment.

        I would say, though, that offense is often subjective, although frequently treated as purely objective.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Hate is such a boring word.Report

  13. Avatar Will H. says:

    I wonder if Baliwood has the same type of discussions regarding portrayals of white characters.Report

    • Avatar veronica dire says:

      @will-h — Probably not, but the situations are not equivalent.

      Unless I missed a long period of history where South Asians used their military supremacy to colonize the globe and dominate trade and culture, leaving behind a legacy of cultural suppression, where the capacity of vast numbers of whites to function in the world is limited according to the power of South Asian elites, who have no responsibility to hold sound views of whites.

      But I don’t think that is how it works.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        No, India just has a caste system, which is infinitely superior to white colonization.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        That is to say, maybe the issue in Bollywood isn’t about the role of whites, but the role of lower castes, and maybe overlooking that itself hints of western privilege.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        Well, yes. But that is shifting the goalposts a bit. I have no idea how Bolliwood handles the caste stuff.

        I know this, however: they do not need a white savior to help them figure it out.Report