Our obsession with identity won't make Hollywood more inclusive
At the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, the film Blonde received a fourteen minute standing ovation. Understandably, the Cuban-American actress Ana de Armas, who played Marilyn Monroe, couldn’t hold back her tears. It was a beautiful scene, but something about it bothered me: only three weeks earlier, American actor James Franco had faced backlash after it was announced that he would play the role of Fidel Castro in an upcoming film—and the reason given was that he was not Latino.
Many might wonder why we should care that an American actor is criticized for “stealing” a role from a Latino. We should care because this charge is absurd, and the ideology behind it—which has become distressingly common today—fosters a culture in which blatant racism and essentialism is encouraged as a form of “social justice.”
Studios and casting directors can hire whomever they want for the roles they’re looking to fill, and actors are free to audition and vie for those roles to the best of their ability. So, what happens if the role to be performed is that of a racial minority, and a member of the racial majority is chosen to play it? It’s certainly possible that this decision was influenced by racial bias, but it isn’t reasonable to assume that this is the case—at least, not without actual evidence. There is no evidence that James Franco was selected to play Castro for a reason other than his success and talent as an actor, and his physical likeness to the character.
To claim that, by casting James Franco, an unknown Hispanic actor was deprived of an opportunity is to say nearly nothing at all. Obviously, whenever someone is hired for any position, someone else—in fact, countless others—must not be hired. But this does not mean that Franco is “stealing” the job; he is simply doing his job. Beyond that, the backlash against Franco implies not only that white actors shouldn’t play Latino roles, but also that Latinos should not play non-Latino roles. This thinking is limiting in a way that is far more difficult to overcome than the difficulties of securing an audition in Hollywood. In the same way that a Cuban should be free to play an American—as Ana de Armas has done to great fanfare—an American should be free to play a Cuban.
Thankfully, de Armas was not criticized for playing an American in Blonde—but that fact points to a double standard, where it is apparently fine to “deprive individuals of opportunities” as long as they are part of a majority or “dominant” group. Even though this is intended to make the film industry more open and inclusive, the logic behind it is potentially destructive.
I’m Cuban, and as I picture myself watching a movie about Fidel Castro starring James Franco, I can’t imagine caring that Franco isn’t Cuban. I would only care about how much he looks like the historical figure he’s interpreting, and how good that interpretation is. I would care about whether the movie was attempting to show the world the truth about Castro’s manipulative and sociopathic character, or if it was just another piece of propaganda justifying all of his crimes to please young activists who revere him. I couldn’t care less about where Franco is from, what his financial status is, or—God forbid—his sexual orientation. Why should I? Isn’t he an actor? Isn’t his job to make me forget about who he is and “become” another person for a few hours?
Some people clearly don’t think so.
Knowing the history of the United States and the struggles of minority groups to achieve equal status, one would think that this reasoning—that a person’s national origin, skin color, and sexual orientation are the most relevant aspects of their being—would not be popular today. After all, it was Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” His goal was not to exclude white people, but to include black people.
The implication, which much of our extreme politics makes, that a human being can only properly understand and interpret another when their physical characteristics correspond is to judge them by the color of their skin, and to disregard the content of their character—in this case, their ability to perform a role. This goes against King’s philosophy, and takes us further away from his goal of achieving moral and social equality and reconciliation.
It is of course important to give people an opportunity regardless of their race, and to encourage the diversification of voices on the big screen, but mandated and superficial diversity is counterproductive and divisive. This kind of thinking is unfair to actors who want to step out of their comfort zone, explore other perspectives, and expand their ranges—which, incidentally, cultivates empathy for those who aren’t part of our in-groups. It is aesthetically harmful and discriminatory because it promotes hiring people on the basis of their immutable traits while overlooking their talent, skills, and merit. And it is not progressive, but regressive, because it forces everyone to fit into the rigid categories and structures imposed on them by society.
No one is helping Hispanics by forcing Hollywood to reserve some special spots for us in their movies. Even if they mean well, they’re only implying that we aren’t good enough to earn those roles on our own.
Thinking that every individual has the obligation and the moral duty to play a rigidly-determined role—not only in movies, but also in life—based on their skin color, national origin, or sexual orientation is one of the most illiberal ideas in our culture today. It corrupts the artistic will to explore our common humanity, and punishes our drive to genuinely understand those who are different from us.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
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