Unethical Quote of the Week: Ampersand on “Alas! A Blog”

Into the Woods

There is no reason in the world, other than Hollywood’s endless racism and lack of imagination, for this movie (or the original play, alas) to have an all-white cast. Why do movies feel like they’d rather die than show us a diverse cast? (And please don’t say “they cast the best people for the roles.” I thought the whole cast was good, but Streep was the only one who turned in a performance so unique that you couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the role.)

—–Ampersand, a.k.a. Barry Deutsch, opining on the assets and deficits of Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of “Into the Woods” on his blog

I hate to pick on Barry—OK, that’s not true, I enjoy it immensely—but this statement could stand as the distillation of knee-jerk liberal thinking on race, and it is wrong in so many ways that I hesitate to start counting. The sentiment, however, poses a nice counterpoint to the discussion here about the black James Bond controversy, so I can’t resist taking aim at it.

1. So casting a mega-million dollar film—-in a dicey genre (Have you heard? Big budget Hollywood musicals died in the Sixties…) and a limited audience—with actors who comport with that audience’s expectations of the musical the film is based on is racist, eh? More unfair words and inexcusable race-baiting were seldom uttered in word or written in ink. If a director had a vision that supported casting African American actors in traditional Grimms’ fairy tale roles and could make it work, I would salute him, but Rob Marshall had other priorities. He knew that every cut would be scrutinized and attacked by the Sondheim fanatics (which, by the way, are as white as a dove convention in a blizzard); he knew that the show itself was seriously flawed; he knew that every single adaptation of a Sondheim musical (“West Side Story” doesn’t count) has been a critical and box office bomb. He had every reason to keep his casting choices as close to the traditional images of the characters and the way they were portrayed on Broadway, and none of those reasons were racism.

2. It’s impressive how casually a race-obsessed progressive will accuse a professional of racism as a first response. Irresponsible, unfair, disrespectful, and in this case, ignorant of both commerce and art.

3. It is racist to cast a black performer instead of a white one for no other reason than race. If the black performer is superior, fine. If the role calls for a black performer, good. If the role is enriched, broadened or enhanced by casting against type, wonderful. If the project as whole benefits artistically from diversity, terrific. If such casting will draw a significant audience segment that otherwise would not be interested, completely valid. But to simply tell a white performer that he or she would have been cast in a role traditionally played by white performers simply because that performer is white and for no other valid reason (fealty to political correctness and liberal diversity cant is not a valid reason), then this is discrimination on the basis of race.

4. “Lack of imagination”? Rob Marshall? The man pulled off a screen adaptation of “Chicago” with that well known, happy-go-lucky song and dance man Richard Gere as the male lead? And who did he cast as the powerful, corrupt matron, a part originated by Mary McCarty, who you see here on the right (that’s Jerry Orbach with her):

McCarty

And who did Marshall cast in McCarty’s role in his film?

161012__chicago_l

Queen Latifah, who, correct me if I err, is an African American.

5. “Why do movies feel like they’d rather die than show us a diverse cast?” As I once told a black actor who accused me of being a racist because I rejected his audition in favor of  a white actor who could act and sing him through a brick wall–that is, after “Screw you!”—a director’s task and goal is to direct an artistic, critical, popular, financial success, and any director is ethically obligated to do that and only that, not to skew or compromise those objectives to achieve political, social or interest group objectives. If I could best accomplish that goal with an all-white cast, in my expert estimation—and I have been hired based on trust in exactly that—them I would have an all-white cast. If I could best meet that goal with an all-black cast, an all-Asian cast, an all-midget cast, an all bodybuilding uni-dexter cleft-palate Mongolian throat-singing cast, or a rainbow, diverse cast that would warm the Left-ventricles of Barry’s big, progressive heart, then I would cast the show accordingly. Presumably Rob Marshall, being a successful and competent professional director believes this as well, because all good and competent directors do.

6. Finally, in the height of hypocrisy and arrogance (Barry is a cartoonist, and I’m sure he does not appreciate non-cartoonists assaulting his art with the equivalent of this statement), he says:

“And please don’t say “they cast the best people for the roles.” I thought the whole cast was good, but Streep was the only one who turned in a performance so unique that you couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the role.”

Sorry, Barry: Yes, they cast the best people for the roles, balancing all of the many competing legitimate factors—talent, needs of the show, ability to work with the director, box office appeal, suitability for the role, expectations of the core audience, likely critical response—which do not include meeting racial and ethnic quotas to satisfy group-identification politics and affirmative action agendas.

If Ampersand thinks Streep was the only actor whose role  he couldn’t imagine anyone else doing –I thought she was inexcusably hammy, musically challenged and misplayed the Witch to the detriment of the show’s integrity—then he should make his own film adaptation, and good luck with that. What matters is that the director chose who he believed were best for the roles, and that’s his privilege, his job and his area of expertise, which I would presume were executed in good faith, and which I and anyone else sane, objective and fair would trust over the gratuitous politically-biased impulses of a cartoonist-blogger who has never made or cast a film in his life.

 

28 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week: Ampersand on “Alas! A Blog”

  1. I agree with you, BUT…

    The Arts apparently is the last area in which we allow outright discrimination with the justification of financial success. (You mentioned box office appeal in one of your recent Sony posts as well — I think referencing Denzel Washington.)

    In the non-Arts white collar America, discrimination is illegal even if the employer can point to likely financial success if a white and/or male and/or more attractive person were hired for the role instead. And but for the laws outlawing discrimination, corporate America (without a doubt) would be even less diverse than it is today. And the same would be true for other professions.

    Case in point. I’m a senior level employee at my company and, including myself, there is only one other woman. For the last 10 years, I have served in a business development role, and I am very good at my job. But I absolutely have clients who would prefer a male in my role — and I also have, although they are fewer in number, some clients who definitely prefer a female. I’ve dealt with these situations by quietly assigning another person who I feel would be more appropriate because that is in the best interests of my company. But what if I extended those situations to hiring? I can’t NOT hire an otherwise qualified female candidate because I fear she might take maternity leave and cost the company money. I can’t NOT hire an unattractive, overweight man because I think he would turn off clients.
    (And I’m sure a plaintiff-side employment attorney would take issue with even reassigning accounts because of an apparent gender preference on the part of a client.)

    Although the world is changing, it is still dominated by white men. I don’t expect Disney to be casting an overweight middle-aged princess in its next musical, but I have to take issue with “financial success” being a defense against purely subjective hiring decisions.

    • Eventually, that prohibition has to end—it’s a necessary evil, maybe still, but it’s wrong. An airline that knows it can get a competitive advantage with young, attractive flight attendants for an overwhelming male clientele should be allowed to go that way, for example.

      Law is another field where the client is allowed to exercise bias, and a firm may accommodate him/her.

      • See, that’s where I disagree with you. That thinking takes us right back to women being hired for their looks and not their capabilities. I will still give an exception to the Arts, because we have to allow subjectivity or else we are suppressing artistic expression. But one doesn’t need to look like a supermodel to serve a drink and point to the exit row — even if a male clientele would prefer it.

        • There is no reason not to regard attractiveness as a legitimate marketable asset. It is. We don’t insist that fat, middle aged models be hired to sell fashion, and selling service is no different.

          • Clothing exhibitions involve artistic expression — working on an airline does not. I can see having weight/height restrictions do the narrowness of the aisle, but that’s it.

            • Where does art stop and product begin…?

              You see EVERY industry has some amount of Art to it. EVERY single one, regardless of how small that component may be. Many of them may be near imperceptible, certainly many are unnoticed by the actual client/consumer.

                • Wait but if that’s your standard then you shouldn’t have flippantly made your comment along the lines of “but clothing exhibitions involve artistic expression” as a pass for their discrimination.

                    • Erm… Unless you are using extremely vague commentary, your phraseology following Jack’s identification of discrimination in artistic settings implied that “its ok its art”…

                      Followed by your then general ban on all discrimination even in art.

                      That’s called inconsistency.

                    • I will admit that I often reply with brevity in my comments, but I still can’t figure out where you’re confused. I’ve consistently stated throughout this that we have to allow discrimination when it comes to artistic expression. I do feel it should be on the basis of that artistic expression itself, not because of financial motives. There’s no way to police this effectively (and even if we could, such policing would run smack into the First Amendment) so we have to give all discrimination in Arts a pass. Thus, I will allow Michael Kors and Disney to discriminate (even though they have financial motives as well obviously), but American Airlines can not since they are not in the business of artistic creation, they transport people from one city to another.

                      I never called for a ban on all discrimination in art. You get an F.

                    • I know you realize that the art for art’s sake motive and the “I’ve got to eat of I can’t be an artist” motive are inter-related and inextricable from each other, as well as impossible to distinguish with any certainty. Right?

                    • Precisely why I asked her, where does Art end and Product begin, leading to my expose that EVERY industry possesses some level of “Art”, even if only a tiny tiny amount.

                      At which point she says, then we have to err on the side of stopping discrimination, which creates an inconsistency because she’s cool with “Art” discriminating…

                    • I wouldn’t exert energies applying grades if I were you Beth. You still haven’t answered the question where does “Art” end and “Product” begin…

                      The answer of which has implications on whether or not you are consistent.

                    • The “I’ve got to eat” motive is present in every single industry on the planet. But we don’t allow widespread discrimination (employer size can be taken into account per statutes), but I take it from your statements that perhaps we should. I disagree. It would allow discrimination on the basis of age, gender, religion, race, etc. — this is not Mad Men.

                      Because it is impossible in performed art (movies, plays, dances, runway shows, exhibitions, etc.) to distinguish between financial and artistic motives, we should not engage in that inquiry at all. But that does not mean that a production studio should use as an ethical excuse (even if legal) that a movie will perform better in China as a legitimate reason for not casting a talented actor. The reason should be — this is what the director wants, this is the director’s artistic vision for the movie.

                      As for Tex’s inquiry, of course every business has some degree of art involved. I have a family member that designs cars for a living — but he doesn’t get to pick only male artists on his design team because that is what he might prefer. But, if the car is featured at an auto show, he could pick an attractive model to hold up her hands Vanna White style all day long. This really isn’t that hard of a test.

                      In any event, I’m sure there is tons of case law on this point. But the above analysis is how I feel the test should be employed.

    • Entertainment is a special case in law; in the United States, most forms would be protected by the First Amendment, and similar provisions worldwide. Outside of public airwaves, there is very little, if any, that could or should be done regulate free expression.

  2. How about historical plausibility as a reason? How likely would it be to find any blacks around Germany in the middle ages? Granted these are fairy tales, but artificially inserting diversity into tales from a specific region that had none doesn’t actually make sense. I find it difficult to imagine a small village in the region with a black family, and wouldn’t expect many in bigger cities and towns.

    As you said, if the best actor was black or there was a specific artistic reason to do so, fine, but diversity for the sake of diversity is a flawed concept.

    • I’d say that’s a weak rationale in this case, though not others. Wolves don’t talk, there are no witches, people don’t break into song and 50 ft giants are not real. What’s wrong with a black Little Red Riding Hood, in such a context?

      • I break into song all the time. If I were a rich eccentric, I would hire a keyboard player to walk behind me at all times to play appropriate accompaniments.

      • Even in a fantasy setting, unless you’re asking people to suspend disbelief for the sake of the actor in the role (like, true example, casting a black alto as Nettie in Carousel when Julie is played by a white actress because this particular alto can sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” like nobody’s business), it’s best to at least have at least some kind of explanation for how this unusual character came to be in this setting, be it a dark-skinned knight in a medieval Europe-type setting who had part-Moorish ancestry or an otherwise youthful-looking hero who is older than he appears because of traces of divine blood (Aragorn, for instance).

        • You mean like Kevin Costner’s Moorish buddy and fellow traveler in his version of ‘Robin Hood’? “Cut your heart out with a spoon”, indeed.

          • Azeem was at least sort of believable in a cinematic B-movie setting, though it’s unlikely he would have followed Robin to England for the sake of honor. Yes, Alan Rickman’s sheriff chewed the scenery rather badly. He’s at his best as an understated villain.

  3. Jesus Horace Christ! See, this is why I’m not outraged by what Limbaugh said about the black James Bond. I can’t help but wonder if the impetus behind what he said is this kind of liberal histrionic bellyaching, and not that he actually objected to a black man playing Bond. Liberals are going to create a backlash of actual racism among people who are getting very sick of being accused of it at every turn.

  4. Its rather sad that some people are only capable of interpreting something in the worst possible light. A movie with an all white (or all non-black at least) cast, and golly gee the Confederacy must be rising again! This film, set in MEDIEVAL EUROPE* does NOT have its requisite quota of blacks! SEE its 1870’s South Carolina all over again! Quick, somebody call Al Sharpton!

    Barry is not so much unethical as he is just a pathetic, sad sack, who can’t get over HIS prejudices.

    * Yes, the film is a fantasy. Should a folklore fantasy set in, say, 1000 AD Africa be 75% white?

  5. Noting the unique exception of West Side Story- Sondheim has been a abysmal failure on Broadway other than to the Japanese tourist.
    Sondheim has done to broadway musicals what the Beatles did to American Rock and Roll. Romance has been blackened by violence!

    • I don’t get the Beatles comparison, but SS’s work has certainly been an elitist dead end that pretty much killed the musical comedy, though it was dying of natural causes anyway. (He’s brilliant, and I have nothing but respect for him.)

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