I call myself a movie buff and patron of the theater, but I’ve always found the entertainment industry to be incorrigibly absurd, always asking audiences to suspend disbelief in poorly conceived plot twists and editing choices. And I hold the powers that be in a permanent state of suspicion when it comes to finding fair and believable ways to include Black actors in creative output.
That’s why I’m ambivalent about this whole “race bending” practice spreading through the entertainment industry right now.
Sometimes I bring a theatrical view of things to the table, where you can see how iconic characters would be played by someone outside of the original race for the stage. Photos emerged this week of the Granger-Weasley family in the new stage production of “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child,” and Hermoine has grown up to be a Black woman. They have a daughter with a mane of thick, naturally coily hair, dark skin and a mischievous Weasley glint in her eyes.
Quite a few people who consider themselves to be enlightened anticipated “the haters” and quickly clapped back at people who pointed out that the casting was not in line with Hermoine as portrayed in the original series of books. Twitter lit up with avid readers highlighting passages describing Hermoine’s “white skin,” and other allusions to her being a white English rose. In most cases, I would side with the ones cheering on whatever is supposed to be going on here. I’m just not sure what that is: Progress? Pure, talent-based, colorblind casting? A … bait and switch in the making?
I have nothing against the actresses playing Hermoine Granger-Weasley and Hermoine’s daughter Rose. They are attractive and the young girl’s charm radiates through the promotional photo. You just know she’s going to put down a remarkable performance as a witch with her mother’s brains, an unbridled heart like her father’s, and the astonishing talents of both parents.
To be clear, race bending is not what happens when a Black actor is cast in a role from an original screenplay where the race or ethnicity of a character has not been explicitly or reasonably established. Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard” is a great example. When a Black actor’s management gets wind of an opportunity to play a dynamic and appealing character, one whose race and ethnicity isn’t established in the script, there is nothing better than that rep really pushing for his or her talent to take on that role. May the best talent win, and if it goes to a Black actor, all is fair.
Race bending happens when, for instance, James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad led a Black production of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” (I missed the brilliant and sublime Anika Noni Rose as Maggie the Cat!) Or Candice Patton signed on as Iris West, the soulmate and destined wife of DC superhero Barry Allan, AKA The Flash. It was one thing when Black actors took roles in which the character was always depicted, described or drawn, as white, or it was plainly and reasonably understood that those characters were white. Opportunities for Black actors were scarce and narrowly written, because stories about Black life — all aspects of it — were scarce and narrowly written. Also, the mainstream stories themselves were so appealing. What actress wouldn’t relish the chance to bring her interpretation to one of Tennessee Williams’ women fraying at the edges? And I have to admit that Candice Patton is doing a terrific job in her portrayal as Iris West.
But I think the jaded entertainment industry needs to snap out of its culture malaise and produce stories around themes that are definitely about Black people, portrayed by people who are recognizably Black. We no longer live in an age where trauma-laden slave narratives and one dimensional melodramas of homespun wisdom are the only opportunities available for Black actors who want to work. Black actors, and the culturally diverse casts that they are part of, have more than proven that they are bankable, whether the story is a sensitive and heartfelt offering in the fall, or a pyrotechnic summer blockbuster. The way forward, at least in my opinion as a discerning viewer, is to produce stories where Blacks are everything: alluring and demure; noble and ignoble; complex and rich with troubled pasts; or single-mindedly devoted to whatever twisted agenda drives a thriller. You know … stories!
I don’t want to overthink Harry Potter because it’s only Harry Potter. High-minded issues like fair representation in works of film are probably best left to serious dramas and feature films. What troubles me here is that young Black people are already enthusiastically celebrating the reimagined casting in “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child,” as if this decision is some indication that predominantly white culture has finally learned to look past our skin color, etc., to see only talent and content of character when they need someone to fill a role. It hasn’t. It has copped out of recognizing enchanting stories and characters from non-white cultures in favor of slotting Black actors into white culture. As charming as the world of Harry Potter is, it is still a very white, English world. Everyone else just slots into it, regardless of what flavorful delectables were packed in the Ziploc containers for the train ride, or the native language that was being spoken in their homes while their mothers hurried them to pack their bags to head for Platform 9 and 3/4. As much as I respect Ms. Rowling and give her all the props for spinning a world we can all get lost in, total assimilation without so much as a glance into a Black person’s heritage (or other person of color’s) is not flattering.
If viewers continue to support Hollywood’s culture copout, then pretty soon you’ll see Hollywood casting directors develop the audacity to do a remake of “The Color Purple,” with a cast of illiterate, toothless white Appalachians. Our beloved “The Wiz” will be white one day, with people dancing on the ones and threes. Get ready for a reimagining of Octavia Butler’s hallowed “Kindred” with Scots-Irish indentured servants, not Black slaves. By failing to create storylines and roles around what makes us special, they ignore our identity — and I hate it when white people shrug and say narrow-minded things like, “I don’t see color,” as if ignoring what’s right in from of them somehow makes them enlightened. It doesn’t.
If you believe I’m “overthinking it,” you are in the dark on this issue. White decision makers are already whitewashing Asian characters out of stories that are distinctly Asian, choking Asian actors off work that is rightfully theirs. Just look into what Asian actors think of what Hollywood is doing to stories that represent them and their culture, starting with the Twitter campaign #whitewashedOUT.