Movie directors are doing a good job at racial diversification but sometimes they go a step too far.
I understand the need for racial diversification in the cast of movies and TV series. Indeed I am all in favour of it. Our big and small screens have for too long been stuck in stereotypes, or worse, they have been miscasting roles, with white actors playing the parts of historically-black persons. That is wrong: it twists facts and inculcates the abhorrent idea of white supremacy. Recent movies have gone through pains to ensure that their main cast is as racially-diversified as possible. The line-up of Star Wars Episode 8 is a perfect example.
This is a good attitude which goes in lockstep with the ubiquity and geographical reach of movies in our societies and the effect that Hollywood has on the global psyche. Exactly because of this responsibility, however, in some instances the reaction is going a tad too far.
A white Zeus?
The new Netflix series, ‘Troy: The Fall of a City‘ seemed like a good production. I enjoyed watching the first episode. But I’m sorry, the casting of a black Zeus simply jars too much. And it is not at all because of the stereotyping of Greek gods, but because it flies in the face of historical facts.
Hakeem Kae-Kazim is a great actor but casting him as Zeus takes racial diversification a step too far. It twists historical facts to fit modern social paradigms and ultimately repeats the previous Hollywood mistakes, only this time in the opposite direction. Hakeem stated that “in ancient times people travelled freely… and the Greeks themselves would have been a myriad of shades from light to very dark”. That may very well be the case. Which is why I don’t take offence at Achilles being also played by a black actor (David Gyasi). Several dynasties of Egyptian Pharaohs, for example, were most certainly dark-skinned Nubians. But on Zeus I don’t agree with Mr. Kae-Kazim. Zeus might not have existed but there are cart-loads of examples of ancient iconography to draw from. And to my knowledge we haven’t found a single depiction of the god of thunder with features resembling those of a black person.
A black Valkyrie?
Thor: Ragnarok is another movie that broke with tradition: the bounty hunter Valkyrie is played by black actress Tessa Thompson. I’m fine with that. More than fine, actually. And not only because she plays the part extremely well but because her casting goes a step towards redressing previous racial imbalance.
You might wonder why I can’t take a black Zeus but I have no qualms with a black Valkyrie. My distinction stems from the fact that Thor: Ragnarok is based on a comic and not directly inspired by Nordic mythology. Other such examples include the movies 300, also based on a comic, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which had nothing to do with historical accounts and legends. The latter even featured a black knight of the round table. But given the completely fantastical nature of the movie it could be excused as artistic license. Netflix’s Troy, however, is too close to the real Homeric story to claim the same license.
This might be a fine distinction but an important one nonetheless. Many of the famous Marvel and DC comic characters were created in the 50s and the 60s (Black Panther being a notable exception). When these publications appeared, racial disparities in America were great and this was reflected not only in comics but also on the big screens. At around the same time that the Comic hero Captain America first appeared, the first black Academy Award recipient Hattie McDaniel was not permitted to attend the premiere of Gone with the Wind because of her skin colour.
It is therefore good have a black Valkyrie. It is a small step towards redressing that imbalance.
The Black Panther lesson
The recent Black Panther movie, which was, deservedly, a box office hit, addresses the issue of racial-diversification in movies in the correct manner. It takes a story which features black characters and brings it to the big screen.
We should have plenty more of these kind of movies. If we want racial diversification and equality on our silver screens it should start from the choice of stories and topics dealt with. For far too long, movie directors have catered for the traditional western caucasian crowd: with the majority of stories told from the perspective of white Americans or Europeans and set in backgrounds created and belonging to them.
Choosing more ethnically- and racially-diversified stories is the fairest way to ensure racial equality. It goes beyond casting and familiarises audiences with the heritage of other groups.
If producers and directors follow this logic I believe we would not have to go through the great lengths of casting Greek gods as black to achieve what should be a simple truth: we are equal but interesting in our differences.
The colour of the argument
For me the racist argument, wherever and however it rears its head, is based on fear. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss our differences. But if one needs to distinguish on the basis of skin colour he or she are deeply insecure.
Racist arguments, however, are not only those that outright denigrate a race or skin colour. When it comes to movies, that extra mile to go beyond what is logical is becoming another way of maintaining this racist argument going. Would you cast Benedict Cumberbatch to play Shaka (Zulu), or the late Omar Sharif to portray Atahualpa? And if you do what kind of message would that be conveying?
I have recently also become aware of how the issue of race is subtly stoked even by seemingly innocuous reportage. Earlier this year, for example, the BBC reported that Shani Davis, the American Speed Skater, ‘became the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games’. I find this approach wrong on a very fundamental level. Shani Davis competed as an American athlete and he won as an Amercian athlete. Making reference to the colour of his skin and his race -even if it is supposedly to ‘correct’ historical unfairness – achieves the same thing it is meant to correct. It keeps race as the identifying factor.
We would have found it extremely ridiculous had the BBC ever referred to André Agassi as the first bald person to win the Australian Open. It should be exactly the same with regards to all other physical and racial attributes
Disclaimer: The views and opinions on this blog belong solely to the author. They do not, in any way, reflect the opinions of employers, associates and dependants, whether past or present.