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.