I recently watched the Disney “Peter Pan,” long my favorite of the classic animated films, which I had not seen from beginning to end in decades. I was genuinely shocked at the portrayal of the Indians, which would make the average movie Western seem politically correct and the Washington Redskins seem like a compliment. I know the story is a fantasy; I know that these are not supposed to represent real Native Americans, but a Victorian child’s visualization of the villains of their games. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the effect of such a film on a Native American child as being anything but devastating. The Neverland Indians, and their heroine, Tiger Lily, have been a human relations problem since at least the civil rights era, and the provocation is legitimate: did you recall (I had forgotten) that Tiger Lily belonged to the “Piccaninny tribe”? That James Barrie was a funny guy.
In the musical “Peter Pan,” the musical number involving the Indians has been deemed uncomfortably racist and is usually cut or replaced: I can’t wait to see how TV will handle it next year when the small screen gives us a horrifying live version of that musical to follow on its defecation on “The Sound of Music.” Then there is the casting of the role of the Indian Princess, which raises the continuing ethical issue of casting white actors as non-white characters. Black dancer/actress Paula Kelly played the role in the last (terrible) TV version of the story, and somehow managed to avoid criticism from the Native American actors lobby (yes, there is such a thing), not that casting an African-American as a Native American is any different in theory from casting a white actress in the role. The wrong race is the wrong race. But now that the producers of the latest movie adaptation of the story have announced that Rooney Mara will be their Tiger Lily (she’s white), the Tiger Lily controversy is back with a vengeance.
Hollywood is not motivated by ethics, but the bottom line. The casting of Mara represents the typical dollars and cents assessment that audiences want to see stars, not unknowns, and there simply are not any Native American actresses who qualify as household names. Then again, how many moviegoers choose to see “Peter Pan” based on the casting of Tiger Lily, a tangential part at best? And how big a draw is Rooney Mara?
The word for this as an ethics issue is incoherent:
- Native Americans made little noise about the stunt casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto (with a dead bird on his head), one of the rare Native American characters created by a Native American actor. It was an “honor.” Johnny’s liberal creds were impeccable, and the movie was careful scripted to show Tonto as the smart and competent member of the “Lone Ranger” team, with Lone being played as a clueless boob.
- Showing white characters as idiots, however, isn’t racist. Those are the rules.
- The theory that it was an outrage to cast Mara is based on the same logic that beset poor Jonathan Pryce when he was cast as The Engineer, in yellow make-up, in “Miss Saigon.” Minority performers seldom have a shot at traditionally white roles, and it is unfair to give the few good parts that would seem to require their physical qualities to whites. The argument, however, is hypocritical, for those same minority actors argue that white characters should be open to performers of other races.
- They should be, too, unless the part and the story containing it would be undermined by a race-blind choice. Olivia Hussey, who is Eurasian, made a fine Juliet. I wouldn’t want to see her play Harriet Taubman, particularly.
[CORRECTION: Hussey is not Eurasian, though somewhere, decades ago, I absorbed the false information that she was. I apologize for the mistake; I assume the point is clear anyway.]
- The “this is unfair to actors with special qualities that rule them out for most parts” complaint just doesn’t survive the Kant Rule of Universality. Does an unknown 6’4″ actor have a legitimate beef that 6’2″ Daniel Day-Lewis got to play Abraham Lincoln? I don’t think so. Day-Lewis can wear two-inch lifts, or just “act taller.” Lifts are just another form of make-up.
- Is this controversy over affirmative action? Then it is invalid. In art, only the art matters. (Well, except when money matters more….like in movies.)
I can’t blame Native Americans from protesting; I can’t blame the producers for choosing Mara. None of the options lead to perfectly ethical results. Normally I would say that the safest course is staying true to the original work, but when the classic involved names its Indian tribe after a black racial slur, that one is out the window. Consigning “Peter Pan” to political correctness Hell is no solution: for all of its quirks, the story is magical, perceptive, and a deserving classic. A rule requiring roles to only be cast with actors of the correct race would hamper creative invention and performer opportunity; such a rule applying to only non-white characters would seem, and would be, biased and unfair. In teh case of Tiger Lily, there is no most ethical course, just a lot of troubling choices.
I still think it’s really funny when the crocodile chases Captain Hook in the Disney movie, though.