Racial casting in the movies
In the bad old days, black
In more recent years, even the likes of Gene Wilder, Billy Crystal and Robert Downey Jr. have corked-up to the consternation of millions of black folks who love movies. And some readers may recall Burt Reynolds playing an Indian in TV’s “Gunsmoke” in the 1960s. Hard to believe? Maybe not.
Today, with the presidential campaign peaking, NBC’s popular “Saturday Night Live” has insulted millions of black people by employing a skin-darkened white actor—Fred Armisen—to portray Barack Obama. This same man also played rock star Prince. Couldn’t SNL find look-alikes who are genuine blacks to mimic these famous people?
Then there were lesser lights such as Sidney Toler and Warner Oland as Chinese detective Charlie Chan; Peter Lorre as Japanese detective Mr. Moto, and Oland, Boris Karloff, Henry Brandon and Glen Gordon as Asian master criminal, Dr. Fu Manchu.
A couple of years ago,
eyebrows were raised when Angelina Jolie was cast as the tragically widowed
Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart on
the big screen.
Despite skin-darkening and
Jheri curls, Jolie was a disrespectful stretch. And the bogus old excuse about
lack of actors of color didn’t hold water with many black female stars
available. Troubling were
“I have heard some
criticism about her casting, but it is not about the color of your skin. It is
about who you are. I asked her to play the role—even though she is way more
beautiful than I am—because I felt a real kinship to her. She put her whole
heart into it, and I think she understood why we should do this movie…”In truth,
Realistic racial casting is especially vital regarding black historical figures. Good examples include Yaphet Koto as Idi Amin Dada in Raid on Entebbe (1977); Moses Gunn as Booker T. Washington in Ragtime (1981); Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker in Bird (1988); Raymond St. Jacques as Frederick Douglass in Glory (1989); Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad in Malcolm X (1992), with Denzel Washington in the title role; Harry Lennix as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Keep the Faith, Baby (2002), and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004).
On the other hand, the
Then there was bulked-up but still smaller Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in his faux, politically correct Oscar-nominated part in Ali (2001). I was privileged to interview Ali in 1964 and was utterly unconvinced by Smith’s portrayal.
TV has also fallen victim to miscasting black people in historical roles. A troubling example was King, a mid-1980s vehicle on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Dark-skinned and reed-thin Cicely Tyson (burdened by obvious skin-lightener makeup) played the heavy-set, brown-skinned Coretta Scott King. Black viewers reacted negatively.
In the same film, talented Paul Winfield and Howard E. Rollins Jr. also were miscast. The 6-foot-3-inch Winfield played the 5-foot-9-inch Dr. King, which was especially hard to take. And dark-skinned Rollins was totally unconvincing as brown-skinned Andrew Young.
The great Sidney Poitier
was also an embarrassment in a 1991 ABC mini-series “Separate but Equal” when
portraying heroic Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The clean-shaven
Poitier is jet-black while the mustachioed