I didn’t set out to make the news media’s tolerating unethical race arguments the theme today, I really didn’t. While I was researching ESPN’s decision not to hire whites on its new website, to which the Wall Street Journal shrugged and said, by not saying, “Wait….WHAT?” in effect, “Sure, go ahead, discriminate!”, I came upon this piece of journalistic offal called “100 Times A White Actor Played Someone Who Wasn’t White” on the Washington Post website. It was authored by Meredith Simons, a law student and freelance writer. Well, Meredith, free-lance writers get away with these miserably researched and unfairly gathered articles a lot, but if you try to sneak this kind of crap past a judge or a senior partner, you’re going to have a rude awakening.
The fact that her article is incompetent and unfair in myriad ways doesn’t mean that Hollywood has been an equal opportunity employer throughout decades past. It hasn’t, but it has reflected the society and tastes in which it operates, and often has been a leader in race attitudes, as in the film “Imitation of Life.” There is work to be done, but careless articles like Simons’ just causes ignorance and confusion.
The immediate impetus for her hit piece on Hollywood casting was apparently the controversy over the casting of white actor Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in a planned biopic. Simons calls him “African American icon Michael Jackson,” which is the lawyer’s trick of framing an issue to rig the debate—good one, Meredith—but skin-bleaching, child-molesting, whitebread pop star Jackson is hardly an “African American” icon: he’s a national pop icon who went out of his way to reject race and racial labels. That is what the song “Black and White” was about, right? Sure, the casting was a gimmick, but it’s a clever and legitimate gimmick that I would guess Jackson would have approved of enthusiastically. When they make “The Rachel Dolezal Story,” will Simons complain if a black actress gets the part?
So based on a phony race controversy—two, in fact, with the Oscar nomination spat included—Simons comes up with an even more phony list. “Despite decades of protests over racially inappropriate casting and the recent protests over the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees, filmmakers continue to cast white actors as minority characters on a depressingly regular basis,” she writes.
(A tip for Social Justice Warriors: don’t write about the performing arts and casting if you don’t know a damn thing about either. The purpose of the performing arts is 1) to make a good product and 2) to make money. Anything that in any way interferes with either is irrelevant. There is no such thing as “racially inappropriate casting” if it furthers either of these objectives, or ideally both. It is not Hollywood’s job to eradicate racial inequality in the U.S. If it helps, that’s responsible and ethical of the movie-makers. This is, however, neither its art nor its business.)
Simons’ list is the epitome of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy done badly. The fallacy consists of cherry-picking facts that support a predetermined argument and “drawing a circle around them” as if they are the sole relevant facts, while intentionally or mistakenly omitting equally relevant facts that would tend to disprove it. Bad lawyer that she is, she draws a metaphorical circle around “facts” that don’t even support her argument. I’m not going to go through the entire hundred (say “thank-you, Jack!”) but I’ll point out some of her most egregious botches.
To begin with, either she didn’t see the movies on the list, or intentionally misrepresents them. My favorite, and typical of her terrible research:
“The Jazz Singer,” 1927: A white actor, Al Jolson, played the lead role in blackface. Black audiences weren’t necessarily opposed to the portrayal, which they saw as potentially paving the way for (actual) black performers to take leading roles in future movies. The Amsterdam News, the oldest black newspaper in the country, called “The Jazz Singer” “one of the greatest pictures ever produced” and wrote that “[e]very colored performer is proud of” Jolson.
“The Jazz Singer” is a movie based on a Broadway play about a talented Orthodox Jewish kid who defies his rabbi father and becomes a stage performer. Al Jolson, a white, Jewish actor, plays the white, Jewish singer. Yes, he sings some songs in blackface, but there was and is nothing wrong with a movie portraying a white man singing in blackface in that period, because white singers sometimes sang in blackface. Would Simons also argue that Larry Parks, the white actor who played the white Jolson playing the white Jewish singer in “The Jolson Story” also “Played Someone Who Wasn’t White”? It would make as much sense, as in “None whatsoever.”
Didn’t the Post editor realize how factually wrong this was? Why was this allowed to be published?
Her bogus list contains such supposed “offenses”—she actually calls them offenses—as white actors playing Middle Eastern Jews, Egyptians and Arabs, who, though dark skinned, are not and have never been considered “black.” She even includes Jews playing Arabs on the list! This is not a race bias argument, but a “no fair using make-up” argument, and the movies listed—there are a lot of them—really belong on the “Times Hollywood Cast Actors Who Weren’t the Same Ethnic Mix or Exact Skin Shade Of The Characters They Were Playing” list, and I’d guess Meredith is capable of creating that stupid list too. Since when is differing skin shades anything to make a list about? It has nothing to do with racism. See, Meredith, actors get to do that, because they are actors.
You probably should have checked that out before making a fool of yourself.
She also cheats. In order to count Yul Brenner twice—and would anyone, black or white, wish that his memorable performances as Ramses in “The Ten Commandments” and the King in “The King and I” had been sacrificed to some ridiculous, “No, we have to find the best Thai musical comedy performer we can, and that’s that” casting insanity? —she calls Brenner Russian-born and “white.” First of all, Brenner was no more white than Ramses was, and second, the actor went to great lengths to attribute his unusual multi-racial appearance to having all sorts of ethnic DNA, including gypsy and Mongol. To this day, nobody’s really sure what Yul was, and properly, nobody cared, because he made one hell of a King of Siam and foil for Moses.
See, it’s called acting. Did I mention that already?
Typical of the list is that she Meredith faults Hollywood for casting the stage actor regarded at the time as the greatest Shakespearean performer alive as Othello, a dark skinned Moor. Lawrence Olivier had played two other Shakespeare leads in very successful and much honored films, and giving him the chance to play Othello was 1) what audiences wanted to see, 2) completely appropriate, as the part has been played by white actors in make-up (not “black face”—they couldn’t get those white gloves in Elizabethan England, just as they couldn’t find black actors), and 3) no more “inappropriate” than allowing a great black actor like James Earl Jones play the Celtic King Lear…which he has, and very well too.
Then there are the entries on the list in which the screenplay didn’t preserve the ethnic or racial background of a character. She includes, for example,
“Starship Troopers,” 1997: White actor Casper Van Dien played Johnny Rico, a non-white character who was of Filipino descent in the book on which the movie was based.
Ah, Meredith, Meredith. You do know that the character an actor plays in a movie is not the same as the corresponding one in the book, but the character in the screenplay? No? See, when Denzel Washington played “Gray Grantham” in the movie of “The Pelican Brief,” he wasn’t playing a white character named Gray Grantham, even though in the book, he is a white man. He was playing a black character, because that’s how the screenplay was written. Books and movies are different works of art, and characters in movies do not have to be the same as those in the books they are based on, have the same names, be the same color, do the same things, or even be in the movie at all.
Many of her arguments for placing movies on the list are just flat out stupid, like this one:
“Show Boat,” 1951: Ava Gardner played a mixed-race character who was passing as white, making her marriage to a white man both dangerous and illegal. Lena Horne, an actress who was actually mixed-race, was considered for the part but ultimately rejected due to discomfort over interracial love scenes.
No, that’s why Lena wasn’t considered in the previous “Show Boat.” She wasn’t considered for the role in this re-make because 1) she was too old at 41; 2) Everyone knew she was black by then. 3) She looked black. She was just light-skinned. 4) Lena was a great singer, but nobody ever mistook her for a great actress. 4) If you haven’t seen “Show Boat” and are going to be surprised at the revelation that Julie is a mulatto, the part has to be cast with someone who doesn’t give away that plot point by her very presence in the movie. 5) But most of all, Ava Gardner was a major star and box office draw, and that’s why they chose her. I would have too.
Then there are the entries on the list that I find offensive in their willful ignorance, like this one:
“Swing Time,” 1936: Fred Astaire appeared in blackface in a musical number that most people read as a tribute to, rather than a mockery of, black tap dancer Bill Robinson.
Despicable. The number was a homage by one great dancer to another. Nobody compos mentis saw it, as the ignorant, race-baiting writer does, as “mockery.” Moreover, Astaire was not in “blackface.” He was made up as Bill Robinson, who was black, and he danced using Robinson’s special style. You can’t portray a black dancer without using make-up, and a black dancer can’t have the greatest dancer of the era honor him in a film and have anyone understand what he’s doing unless the dancer doing the homage looks like the dancer he’s honoring.
And I have to mention this one, which is offensive and stupid:
“The Year of Living Dangerously,” 1982: Linda Hunt, a white actress, played a male Chinese-Australian dwarf. We don’t know either.
“We” don’t know what, anything? Who was the male Chinese-Australian dwarf actor those racist Hollywood types should have cast? Let me get this straight: a film engages in brilliant non-traditional, cross-gender casting of the sort actresses beg for, casting a woman to play a male role, and also casting an unusual performer who might never have received a shot at stardom otherwise. She performs brilliantly, wins an Academy Award, and as result of being boldly cast goes on to a distinguished career…and this ignorant woman ridicules the decision to cast her?
You can go through the rest of this atrocious list if you want. It is apples, oranges, broccoli and steamships, makes no valid or coherent point, misrepresents Hollywood history, shows a stunning ignorance of what casting is about, is disrespectful to actors who deserve better, and demonstrates a tendency toward deceit and laziness.
The Post should be ashamed of itself for allowing such garbage to reach its readership.
[ UPDATE: Wikipedia is also at fault, as it often is. I just encountered a page there on “whitewashing,” the term correctly used when a non-white character is transformed into a white one for a movie. Obviously Simons cribbed from it, and picked up many of the page’s false assertions, confusion and errors. The worst one is Wikipedia’s muddled and overly broad definition of “whitewashing.” The term is properly applied when a real person’s ethnicity is altered in a screenplay, which misleads the audience and is unfair and disrespectful to the individual involved. Casting Yul Brenner as the King of Siam is not “whitewashing.” Making a movie that represented the King as Russian rather than Siamese would be; whitewashing occurs in the script. I wrote about unethical whitewashing here.]
As for Meredith, I am giving her Professor Kingsfield’s metaphorical dime…