Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's Not Black and White. Or Maybe It Is...

I happened to come across a very interesting article about white actors playing black people. It can be found here. Overall the author of this post seems to believe that there is a difference between portraying a specific person, and generalizing a whole race.

He is right.

Granted, this is referring to the movies. Movie acting is only a cousin to stage acting, which of course is my thing. Yet the points being made here are relevant to actors in any visual medium.

I have thought about this concept many times. Could a white person that suits a role well be cast in the role of a black character, if being black is integral to that character's place in the play? Does availability of black actors figure in? Is it so much the role, or the make up that makes so many people feel offended by this?

Let me tackle the subject of availability first.

Community theatres, wherein I perform, have limited talent pools, and around here, there are almost no actors of color. Could the companies I have been involved with get away with it? I can tell you that the companies themselves have already offered a resounding "no" as an answer to that question. As a result, some fine plays would be essentially impossible to stage around here at the community level. Such companies have handicapped themselves by refusing to mount productions of many excellent plays, some of huge cultural importance to our society. ( "A Raisin in the Sun" is one excellent example.)

For me personally, I would not have a problem with it. It would open up a whole new world of plays to be explored in my community. And if I myself were cast in one of them, I would not be "playing black" anymore than I "play white" when I take on any other role. I would be playing the specific individual. I'd be trying to get to the nuance and depth and reality of the character and bringing them to life. Depending on the play, that character's minority status would certainly contribute largely to how I went about my work, but frankly it is a challenge I would be very intrigued to undertake.

That may be well and good when the talent pool is tiny and white. But what about when there are plenty of black AND white actors available to any given company? This moves into the next aspect of this conundrum; the appropriateness of the actor cast.

I have zero knowledge of French cinema, but it's clear that they would have a larger talent pool than the community theatres in which I appear often. Black actors would therefore, presumably, be more available to the producers of the Dumas film. But should that truly mean that one of them needs to be cast in the role? Or in any minority role, for that matter?

Why isn't it possible that Depardieu was simply the best actor for the role? Not merely for marketing purposes, (which in their own right may be legitimate), but because he suited the vision of the director? Wouldn't depriving him of the role specifically because he was "too white" be just as prejudiced as anything else of which the film is now being accused? I say yes, it would be. So while some may only find it acceptable when there is nobody out there available that is the "right color", I also find it to not be racist even when their are black actors available. Sharing a race or nationality with a character doesn't entitle you to first picks to portray said character. If that were the case, I'd only be able to play Americans, and that is not satisfactory to me.

Finally, the issue of making a white person "look black", Make up and such. When this is done it is automatically listed as black-face, and I think that is unduly prejudicial. Black-face refers to an obvious use of racial stereotypes to ridicule and mischaracterize an entire people. Nobody, even black people, look in real life the way people in black-face are made to look. And that is the point. It's designed to be little and to turn an entire race into a cartoon. Applying make-up is not in and of itself, intended to do this. Especially when an actor who has been chosen for a role is made-up to appear to be something he is not. That is acting, ladies and gentleman, and sometimes it requires make-up.

The author of the article said it well.

In conclusion, let the actor with the best fit and strongest heart for the work play whatever part comes, on stage or screen. I understand why society is not quite ready for arts that are that open minded yet. The reasons are legitimate. But one big way to step towards this ideal is to stop the knee-jerk accusations of racism without at least considering what went into the decision.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Oscars 2010

I am a theatre actor by and large, and not Unionized or anything like that. But the Oscars nonetheless have some connection to acting, and I often make some sort of comment about them here at the blog.

I won't be watching.

It's not simply because I have only seen one of the movies nominated for anything. (Not just Best Picture, I mean only one of the movies nominated in ANY category, no matter how obscure to the public.) (Inglorious Basterds.) It's because I agree with George C. Scott's assessment of them. That they are a "meat parade". And that was 30 some odd years ago, when the Oscars might have actually had a degree of artistic relevance. Imagine what Scott would say today.

Face it. The ceremony is always boring. Everything from the evening news to the Olympic Games has found it necessary to became "more hip" so as to snag the all important ratings demographic, and yet the Oscars remain just as pompous and pointless as they were 15 or 20 years ago. The one institution that could actually use an injection of hip and a liberal touch of content slicing, and they don't do it.

Now, every year they say they are going to make it quicker, and more entertaining. But I think that has to be something they say every year just to make themselves laugh, because it's never actually been done. In fact, each year there are more and more poorly produced, (but inexplicably praised) production numbers, skits, and acknowledgments; all of which take up a lot of time but have almost no entertainment value whatsoever for the people at home. Nor, for that matter, the people in attendance it sometimes seems.

Take the endless montages, for example. A salute to anything from kissing to car crashes throughout the history of movies. Have you ever truly been awed or even mildly entertained by these? If you go on Youtube you can honestly see mash-ups that are no less, (or more) impressive than these 15 minute snoozers. The only difference is for the Oscars it's legal. But it requires no specific artistic brilliance. A bit of an eye for editing, maybe. Perhaps not everybody can do it, but you certainly don't have to have gotten as far as Hollywood to be able to do so. There are just only so many ways you can cram clips of "The Great Train Robbery", "Rocky", Titanic" and "Paul Blart, Mall Cop" together in one semi-coherent piece.

Then of course there is the farce of recent years of bringing some of the awards to the recipients, instead of letting them walk up the walkway to get them, and enjoy the moment as anyone else does. (What isn't said but is clearly true, is that these are the awards that are not geeky enough to be consigned to the separate and not covered Scientific and Technical Awards Ceremony, but not flashy and sexy enough anymore to warrant people getting out of their seats and coming to address the entire crowd.)

Yet, if only the Oscars would fess up, and be totally committed to just flat out flash and glamor. Then maybe they really would only cover the categories people tune in to watch, (Picture, Director, Actor/Actress, Song, Score, Screenplay, MAYBE cinematography.) In between those awards they could have the stupid speeches, dance numbers and song performances, and still possibly get wrapped up in less than 4 hours. It would even still allow people to do what is probably the main thing that keeps the Oscars on TV these days...check out the dresses the women are wearing. (Or bursting out of, as the case may be in recent years.)

And somewhere in all of this, awards for "merit" are given out.

This used to be far more believable than it is now. Certainly good movies and talented performers do at times receive an Oscar. But any thinking movie goer has got to wonder about the effects of popularity and campaigning for the award in recent decades. (Yes, they campaign for them.) Does anyone of any stripe, no matter their personal preferences, truly believe in their hearts that "Shakespeare in Love" was in any demonstrable fashion on this planet a better film than "Saving Private Ryan"? The more I think about it over the years, the more I have come to believe that that was the moment where everyone's cynicism about the Academy Awards was confirmed and crystallized.

Not to be outdone, this year, they added 5 more slots for Best Picture. Supposedly to give blockbusters "more of a chance". Does anyone really think the small indie movies have had that large of a Best Picture advantage over blockbusters? I can name ten blockbusters that have won. I can't off the top of my head think of a small indie film that did so.

One group at the Oscars that is small are the hosts. They recycle the same 4 or so anymore. Billy Crystal is hauled back in every 3 years or so after having done it for 54 years. Steve Martin is back already this year, sharing duties with Alec Baldwin. (?) A year or two at best before John Stewart is back. (Though Ellen won't be. Ever.) This has become the biggest gig out there, when back in the day, the host was simply a director of traffic of sorts. A master of ceremonies. Without the herculean expectations of wit, charm and power that the position demands now. Yet back when the host was less important, the classiest people often ended up with the job.

People are always going to watch this farce, because it is now an institution in our celebrity obsessed culture. Which is why of course they never really have to change or streamline anything. But it sure would be nice if the potentially life changing and society altering medium of film, (which I still quite enjoy when done well), would have an acknowledgment ceremony wherein we really don't care what Pairs Hilton is wearing.