Racist Casting and the Politics of “Practicality”

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This post has been sitting in my draft folder for a long time now, but I haven’t been able to get to it until now! We put together a teaser poster for the feature film I’ve been working on and will be uploading it on a website soon, insha’Allah. We are nearly finished and have been making great progress! There is a lot to discuss about the film, including the production process, working on a low-budget, and collaborating with wonderful people, so I plan on writing more about it in future posts.

During lunch breaks and/or rehearsals, a topic that continues to be raised is how racist and sexist the casting decisions are in Hollywood. I’ve heard many stories from black and brown actors I’ve been working with about the struggle to find complex, non-stereotypical, and leading roles. When there are films that should feature a people of color-majority cast, we see Hollywood and even independent filmmakers resorting to whitewashing the cast. By now, we’ve all heard about the atrocious casting decisions for Ridley Scott’s Exodus. Actor Jesse Williams recently spoke on the interconnectedness of white supremacy and Hollywood in this powerful video:

… [A]nd why we think that it’s ok to have a movie like fucking Exodus where white people look ridiculous dressed like Africans. They look ridiculous. Because we know it’s make-believe… It ain’t just a movie, that’s the shit that gets Mike Brown killed and all you people think it’s ok because he’s a fucking ‘animal.’ All of this stuff is connected. That’s what you learn especially when you’re out there in Hollywood… You know how many fucking jobs I have to turn down and how many people I have to fire because of the racist shit that I get offered? And I’m as white as you can get being a black person. I have a fucking struggle. Imagine him trying to get those jobs. You got to decide whether wear a do-rag, rob some white person on a TV show or pay your mortgage and raise your family. And that’s no fucking joke, those are 5 of my closest friends, who have to decide every 3 days whether they want to chip away at their own soul, and chip away a piece of themselves to dance and shuck and jive for white America.

In addition to racist casting, the stories of black and brown people are marginalized, vilified, and/or silenced by mainstream media. When we see science fiction films that take place in dystopian futures, we either see the erasure of people of color, or we see a “post-racial” and “post-gender” world where racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia don’t exist. Also, if people of color are present in these stories, we see a common and disturbing trope where they are killed off to serve as martyrs to spark the revolution and inspire the white protagonist(s). Additionally, as Imran Siddique wrote in an excellent article, “The Topics Dystopian Films Won’t Touch,” we not only see racism and sexism “magically disappear” in these films, but also see the “old sci-fi tradition of imagining the subjugation of white people, essentially saying ‘Things could get so bad that people who look like Liam Hemsworth are now at the bottom, too!'” I wrote about this previously in my post on X-Men and how it centers on a white-majority cast and appropriates the struggles of marginalized groups.

What I wanted to discuss in this post is how anti-oppression advocacy and calls for better opportunities for people of color actors, especially women of color, are dismissed by Hollywood, but also by some on the Left. In Hollywood, the excuses for the racist casting of Exodus were absurd, to say the least. So absurd that people making the excuses didn’t realize they were contradicting themselves or make paradoxical statements. For instance, Ridley Scott made an offensive comment about how he couldn’t cast “Mohammad so-and-so” to play the lead role because he wouldn’t get funding to produce the movie. People who rushed to Scott’s defense made the argument of “practicality,” i.e. they argued, “People don’t get it! Scott wouldn’t get funding if he cast a black man to play Moses. He was being practical! People need to shut up about racism and get over themselves!” What’s ridiculous about this argument is that it acknowledges that racism exists (the subtext being, “Studios won’t fund a movie with a people of color-majority cast because producers are racist”), but then, paradoxically, argues that people should shut up about racism.

Later, Christian Bale defended Scott in an interview with a rather pathetic statement. Instead of protesting, Bale said, people should support “Middle Eastern and North African actors and filmmakers.” I call this response “pathetic” because Bale doesn’t seem to realize that one of the major reasons why people were protesting Exodus is because they do support black and brown actors. They are protesting because they wanted to see Middle Eastern and North African actors in those roles. Bale continues and says that there will be a film about Moses (peace be upon him) with a people of color-majority cast “in a few decades” and that it will mark a day of “celebration” for both film and humankind. Again, what Bale doesn’t seem to recognize is that his statement admits that the film’s casting is wrong and racist (otherwise why say that an accurately cast Moses film would mark a day of celebration?). Of course, Bale refused to see his complicity because he benefits from racist casting. Once again, people of color are told to “wait” and just deal with the fact that only white actors can play roles that should have gone to people of color. They are told they are not being “practical.” Instead of pointing fingers at protestors, Bale should tell Hollywood (and himself) to support actors of color. If he did, then he would have turned down the role and told Ridley Scott to look for actors of color instead. I’m not singling Bale out either – all of the white actors should have said something (including Joel Edgerton who had to darken his skin and also had the sphinx molded after his European features!).

At the center of Bale’s argument was that people needed to help create a “market” for Middle Eastern and North African actors. That is, by supporting those actors, studios will see there’s a market for producing films that feature them in leading roles. This is something I don’t buy at all. The excuse that films won’t sell unless they are centered on white male actors is one rooted in white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist-thinking. It’s a shame that film is not really seen as an art form (no matter how many times certain filmmakers or producers in Hollywood claim otherwise), so equating success with financial success is something that has long been normalized in the entertainment industry. Many people are convinced that in order for a film to perform well at the box office, they need to have mostly white male actors. First off, I don’t believe in the notion that a film with a people of color-majority cast would not make money. I believe the real issue is that producers and Hollywood studios simply do not care and do not want to cast people of color most of the time in leading roles. Second, I think we need to move beyond this paradigm of monetary gain to determine whether or not a film should be made.

Moses is a revered figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the story is essentially about speaking truth to power and freedom from oppression. Ironically, a film about fighting against oppression became one that perpetuates oppression. White supremacist patriarchal capitalism drains meaning out of everything in society, including society’s spiritual well-being. Scott treated a story that is held sacred by millions of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups, as a “fictional” story that could be adapted (as if it were Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). We saw Darren Aronofsky do this as well with his film, Noah.  White supremacist patriarchal capitalism doesn’t hold anything sacred. The message of the film is less concerned about emphasis on God, spirituality, and fighting oppression, but rather more interested in making money and telling an “entertaining” story where white people are, once again, heroes/saviors in stories that they weren’t apart of. And yet, it continues to amaze me when I hear/read comments from mostly white anti-racist “allies” who say that criticizing the casting of the film is “pointless” because, according to them, “the Bible is just fiction anyway.” David Dennis Jr. wrote an excellent response to these reactions, which I will quote here:

I know the initial reactions to articles about movies based on Bible stories is to do that cool Internet thing where you say how the Bible is fiction and it’s not important because fish weren’t even discovered when Jesus was alive or whatever cool nugget you read on Mental Floss. And why should people even care about a book that you think is as fictitious as Harry Potter, anyway? Just take into account that regardless of what any of you may think about religion, it’s a source of self-worth, inspiration and intense love for millions of people who dedicate their lives to whatever school of spiritual thought they choose. So while some may give a dismissive “lulz parting the sea” as an initial reaction, the idea of creating a race-based hierarchy with these figures isn’t an offense that should be taken lightly.

And he’s absolutely right, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. When children, especially children of color, only see religious leaders and prophets depicted as white men, there are serious concerns about internalizing white supremacy. Are white parents comfortable with their white children seeing the prophets they learn about in Church depicted as they really were: black and brown people?

But it’s not just about films like Exodus and Noah. It’s also about the industry in general and how people of color are marginalized, tokenized, vilified, and/or completely erased. I recently raised a critique of a white activist’s praise for the latest Hunger Games film and its apparent parallels with Palestine. I started my comment by writing that I totally support reading radical themes in science fiction films, but I also mentioned that one thing that continues to frustrate me is how these stories are almost always centered on white people. It’s difficult for me to read about a dystopian future where we see white people not only taking center stage, but also being the “most victimized” by state oppression. I mentioned the common racist and sexist tropes where we see people of color characters, particularly women of color characters, often being killed off to serve as martyrs who inspire resistance movements led by white people. One of several examples I brought up was a 4-part series on “The Clone Wars” animated show where I noticed strong parallels with occupied Palestine, well-developed people of color characters, but (SPOILERS) then watched Steela Gerrera, the lead woman of color character, killed off to inspire the revolution. “Her sacrifice gave Onderon its freedom,” eulogized the white male character. This trope fuels the notion that women of color in particular must die or sacrifice themselves so that white people can get their freedom. The trope also denies one of the greatest strengths of communities of color: their survival. I also mentioned movies like Avatar, which appropriate Indigenous People’s resistance against colonialism and genocide, and use non-human species to stand-in for people of color (a trope we see far too often in sci-fi/fantasy films, TV shows, novels, etc.).

Unfortunately, after presenting my critique, I got whitesplained.

He implied, condescendingly, that my “tactics” were not practical. He argued that the Left is too weak to be “overly purist,” so instead of “rejecting” movies “on the basis of racism, sexism, orientalism,” and so on, we should be encouraging people to engage these films with radicalized readings. There was a lot to unpack from his response. First, I never said in my initial comment to “reject” the movies altogether, but this is a common response I hear from white people, whether they are anti-racist activists or not. It’s common because whenever people of color critique or criticize something, we’re seen as the enemies of “free speech.” This is especially true when Muslims speak out against something. “Oh, you’re trying to ban free speech and/or freedom of expression!” “These Muslims need to learn how to respect freedom!” Whether or not this was his thought process when speaking to me, the impact of the words should have been taken into account.

Second, I very much agree that encouraging people to engage with films in radical ways is important, but what he didn’t seem to acknowledge was how advocating for the non-superficial presence and centering of people of color in these films is also part of those radicalized readings. Instead, it was dismissed, as if there is no space in the engagement/critique of these films to discuss people of color-centered stories and better opportunities for people of color actors.

Third, his response reinforced oppressive “practicality” politics. That is, we shouldn’t complain about people of color not being in these films because the Left is “too weak.” There are things we just need to let slide, especially when these issues are about racism, sexism, and appropriation. Yeah, those posts about how Katniss should have been a woman of color? Yeah, the Left is too weak, let’s not talk about that. Even beyond film and media, how many times have we heard people on the Left say that we should brush certain things aside “for the greater good”? Misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia in Leftist spaces? Yeah, we don’t want to risk being more divided, so let’s just ignore it. Imposing “practicality” politics on people of color reinforces an obvious racist attitude that people of color are not logical beings and therefore need the “guidance” of white people. It’s important that white people show their solidarity, but we don’t need paternalistic authority from them.

These are difficult conversations to have, no doubt, but we need to have them. Silencing these issues is not going to make things magically disappear. What kind of progress are we going to make if people are told they should suffer in silence? Something that I wish more Leftist activists, especially white male activists, would do is more privilege-checking and self-critique. All of us need to be conscious and aware of our privileges, myself included. Checking yourself isn’t just a one time thing and if you get published in a book, organize a protest, or lead a workshop, it doesn’t mean you get a free pass on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Being an ally is something you work to maintain everyday.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered too much arrogance from people on the Left. Most of the time, I see this “know-it-all,” authoritative, paternalistic arrogance come from white “allies” who think they know everything about racism (and your life and soul) just because they read Fanon, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, and other writers and activists. Hey, you read books, that’s cool. You should be reading those texts. However, asserting that men and women of color need to be more “practical” doesn’t do anything but maintain the status quo. What else does it do other than tell people to “shut up” about racism and sexism? How does this not reproduce white supremacy and patriarchy? I remember when I was telling a white colleague about my film, he told me that I should make it about bullying rather than highlight on specifics like racism and sexism. He said it would appeal to a “wider audience” if I made it more about bullying (because there’s no such thing as racist and sexist bullying, or a combination of both, apparently). I know that he meant “white audiences” when he said “wider audience.” Now, when I hear a white “anti-racist ally” say that we shouldn’t be demand for people of color to play leading roles in movies, I can’t help but ask, “Why do I hear the same racist stuff from people who are supposed to be allies?”

Why isn’t it “practical” to demand for people of color-centered stories? When black actors like Jesse Williams talk about all the racist jobs he gets offered and the struggle that actors of color go through, why isn’t it “practical” to demand for something better? As he passionately articulated in the video mentioned above, dehumanizing and racist imagery have very real and serious consequences in the real world because “it’s all connected.” White “allies” who resort to “practicality” politics should take the time to re-examine themselves before they condescend to people of color and behave like they know what it’s like to experience racism on a daily basis. There needs to be solidarity, but it can’t be accomplished when white people assert themselves in the movement as authority figures or behave like they know how to “practically” dismantle systems of oppression. We need more people to humble themselves, recognize their privilege(s), check themselves, and listen more. Do this work before you enter a space and cause more harm and reproduce the oppression you claim to be fighting against.

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