I’m sure you heard about James Garner’s recent death, but were you aware of James Shigata’s passing? Shigata, who died July 28 at the age of 85, was a contemporary of Garner’s, a superb actor, and like Garner, a leading man with leading man looks. James Shigata, however, was of Asian descent, though American through and through, and never escaped the perceived limitations of the shape of his eyes. Though he had a starring role in the hit film adaption of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Flower Drum Song” and routinely received critical acclaim for all of his film work, but though he got roles on television through the ’80s, he never was able to break through the typecasting straightjacket that deemed him only suitable for “Asian” roles. If you remember him as all, it is probably as the brave Japanese executive shot by Allan Rickman in “Die Hard.”
I thought about Shigata when I read a piece in Salon, noting that director Woody Allen didn’t cast African-Americans in his movies, and that his explanation why didn’t justify the neglect. Prachi Gupta writes,
According to one source, Allen felt uncomfortable casting black people, a rumor to which a rep responded, “It has always been Woody Allen’s priority to cast the exact appropriate person for a role regardless of race, which has never been a consideration.”
No one is asking Woody Allen to overlook talent on the basis of race. We are asking why talented black actors, of whom there are many, never appear in his films. We are asking him to acknowledge that his casting decisions have the power to make trends in Hollywood. We are asking him to acknowledge that, while talent is color-blind, casting never is. We are asking him to acknowledge that when race is “never” a consideration, what he’s saying is that he only takes race into consideration when a person isn’t white.
Here’s the thing: Directors should go out of their way to include people of color. Because otherwise people of color will only be cast in “minority” roles, which tokenizes them. To say you’re only going to cast a black person for a “black part”– I mean, what does that even mean? If you are casting an upper middle class family, can’t that family be black? Can’t a movie include an interracial relationship without that being “a thing”? Allen’s logic is the sort of logic that keeps people of color seen as “others” rather than as Americans who, just like white people, can be rich, poor, doctors, alcoholics, sons, daughters, neurotic, psychopathic, etc.
As a director, I deal with these considerations often. (As an ethicist too: you can read some of my posts on the topic here, here, and here.) My position has been that unless race is central to an author’s intent, a critical part of the character, or an element that has the potential of confusing or distracting the audience, color-blind casting should prevail. Gupta states the reasons correctly. This is not affirmative action; race should never trump talent. No, I won’t cast a black actor as Biff Loman, unless Willie is African-American too. No, there can’t be any minorities in “Twelve Angry Men,” because the play is explicitly about white men trying to overcome their biases. There are many, many roles, however—major roles, classic roles, rich roles, juicy roles—in which the race of the actor is completely irrelevant. Allen’s explanation is a cop-out, whether he realizes it or not.
That is not to say that he shouldn’t be the final arbiter regarding casting, and that the quality of the final artistic product in his estimation and by his standards must always trump all other considerations. Maybe Allen doesn’t feel that he can write African-American characters (though, you know, a black character doesn’t have to talk or act “black,” whatever that means.) The director’s control over casting must be absolute. Nevertheless, Woody’s narrow vision suggests bias, or at very least a lack of imagination. It also suggests a lack of compassion, and a refusal to do his part to address an innate injustice that marginalizes all minority actors but the most successful few.
After all, it wasn’t just James Shigata who was harmed by the short-sighted, de facto bigotry of casting directors and scriptwriters. All of us were harmed. The culture was harmed; Hollywood was harmed. Shigata had the talent and ability to be, perhaps, another James Garner. Thanks to generations of artists (yes, and audiences too) who thought like Woody Allen, we will never know.
Graphic: Asian Pacific Forum