Play Anything—The Case for Colorblind Casting
Sidney Poitier, Buck And the Preacher (1972) / Alamy

Play Anything—The Case for Colorblind Casting

Graham Daseler
Graham Daseler
18 min read

A few years ago, I wrote an article about authenticity in acting. The inspiration for the piece came from actor Jeffrey Tambor, who was then playing the lead in the show Transparent. As he collected an Emmy for Outstanding Lead in a Comedy series, Tambor told the audience at LA’s Microsoft Theater, “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.” While I could see that Tambor’s heart was in the right place, I didn’t much care for his logic, which appeared to have both preposterous and ugly implications:

The natural corollary of Tambor’s Emmy-night thought experiment, in which all future transgender parts are played by transgender performers, would be a world in which actors cease acting and, instead, are chosen based on a single genetically acquired characteristic. Would we really insist that all homosexual parts be played by homosexual performers, all heterosexuals by heterosexuals, all Jews by Jews, all blondes by blondes, all left-handed people by left-handed people, and on down the list of attributes given us at birth?

I blathered on a bit about the great performances that would be lost to us in such a world—Ian McKellen’s Richard III, Hillary Swank’s Brandon Teena, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote—but I more or less felt that I’d made my point in that last sentence. The idea that actors should be defined by their race, gender, or sexual orientation rather than by their abilities seemed so blatantly bigoted that I didn’t feel it needed further explanation.

Apparently not. Earlier this year, writer-producer Russell T. Davies, the creator of the series It’s a Sin, declared that only gay actors should be cast in gay parts, citing his own show as an example. “I’m going to war,” Davies told the New York Times. “I want the likes of Colin Firth to be ashamed of their actions.” (He was referring to Firth’s performances in A Single Man [2009] and Supernova [2020], in which Firth played gay men.) Even the reporter for the Times seemed dubious about Davies’s proposal, pointing out that it would violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, as well as the 2010 Equality Act in Davies’s native Britain.

Then came the fracas at Juilliard. For many years now, the school, which prepares students for careers in the performing arts, has gone out of its way to support students of color. Over 50 percent of the student body in Juilliard’s drama division is BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—and the majority of those students are black, even though blacks only account for about 12 percent of the US population. As Heather Mac Donald recently pointed out, this ratio is unlikely to have emerged spontaneously, since there’s no evidence that African Americans are more inclined to study drama than other ethnic groups. After the death of George Floyd, the school sponsored a blacks-only “healing” space, and students and faculty were required to attend workshops on diversity, and encouraged to read books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Robin DiAngelo. Juilliard’s provost, Ara Guzelimian, used his official email account to circulate a student-written “Call to Action,” demanding an end to the school’s “almost completely Eurocentric” performances, curriculum, and faculty, and a “complete in-person season featuring the works of BIPOC artists.”

That was all before professor Michael McElroy tried to teach a three-day “Roots to Rep” workshop about African American history. McElroy, who is black, used clips from the 1977 miniseries Roots, along with various other bits of music and dialogue, to show the kidnapping of blacks in Africa and their enslavement by white merchants. McElroy provided the students with a trigger warning before the workshop began, letting them know that the clips they’d be hearing contained racial slurs, and he told them that they’d be allowed to leave the session, which was conducted over Zoom, anytime they pleased. Despite these precautions, many students were offended by the course. “Some students are silenced, broken, and limited by racism within the Drama Division,” they declared in a letter. “[They] have to endure harm and violence [and] sacrifice their physical and mental health every day in this institution.” Among other things, the letter demanded that the school end its use of “‘color-blind’ casting” and replace it with “color-conscious casting.”

Colorblind casting is precisely what it sounds like—the practice of filling roles in a play or film regardless of skin color. Dev Patel’s performance in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) is one of many examples. Though Patel is of Gujarati heritage, he was cast as the titular hero of the film, an Englishman born in 19th-century Suffolk. Colorblind casting—or non-traditional casting, as it’s sometimes called—has been around for more than a century. In the early 20th century, the Lincoln Theater in Harlem put on numerous colorblind productions, including stage adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

But the practice didn’t become commonplace until the 1970s, when actors of color began gaining greater visibility on the stage and the screen. Colorblind casting was seen as a way for nonwhite actors to essay the great theatrical parts—Hamlet, Nora Helmer, Uncle Vanya, Lady Bracknell, Willy Loman, Blanche DuBois, and others—that had been denied them in the past. Eventually, it bled into cinema, as well. In 1993, Denzel Washington played Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon in Kenneth Branagh’s luminous screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. More recently, Adrian Lester (who is black) and Gemma Chan (who is of Chinese descent) were given parts in Mary Queen of Scots (2018), despite the fact that the historical figures they played—Thomas Randolph and Bess of Hardwick, respectively—were both white. And then, of course, there’s Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical, in which America’s Founding Fathers were played by actors of color.

Not only does this give minorities more roles to play, but it also gives producers more talent to draw upon. Furthermore, it implicitly favors people of color, since few casting directors would dare hire a white actor for a black, Latino, or Asian part. The Juilliard drama students, however, didn’t appear to see the upside of the practice. No student of color, they said, should “be forced to leave behind their racial/ethnic identity when playing a role.” If, on rare occasions, a nonwhite actor were to play a white character, the choice would have to be emphasized within the narrative, focusing attention on the actor’s race, rather than on his performance.

Needless to say, this was not the attitude of black actors a couple generations ago. “Why don’t you ask me human questions?” Sidney Poitier chided a reporter in 1964. “Why is it everything you ask refers to the Negro-ness of my life and not to my acting?” Poitier—who, in 1967, became the first black man to win an Academy Award—made it plain that he didn’t want to be known as a black actor but simply as an actor who was treated as an equal to his white peers. He chafed at being Hollywood’s token black man, only offered roles that highlighted his race, like his part in A Patch of Blue (1965). “I’d hate for my gift—or whatever—to be circumscribed by color,” he told the New York Times in 1965. “I’d like to explore King Lear, for instance.”

Sidney Poitier, Children of the Dust, 1995 / Alamy

Unlike Marion Grey, Poitier faced physical danger for speaking out about civil rights. Just days after three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he and Harry Belafonte traveled to nearby Greenville to meet with Stokely Carmichael and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They were followed by the Klan the entire time they were there. Though his 1967 film In the Heat of the Night takes place in Mississippi, the picture was actually shot in Sparta, Illinois, because it was hazardous for Poitier to travel south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Yet criticisms of colorblind casting have proliferated in recent years. “Colour-blind casting is dangerous in the same way the phrase: ‘I don’t see race’ is dangerous,” arts journalist Diep Tran (described as “specialising in diversity and the ethics of representation”) told the Guardian last year. “It negates the very real structural hindrances that block actors of colour from the same opportunities as white actors—like low pay in the theater industry, a lack of roles that are ethnically specific that actors of colour can play, and unconscious bias on the part of white theatres and casting directors.” And here’s New York Times columnist Maya Phillips around the same time: “Though egalitarian in theory, colorblind casting in practice is more often used to exclude performers of color. It’s a high-minded-sounding concept that producers and creators use to free themselves of any social responsibility they may feel toward representing a diverse set of performers.” Phillips cites several instances of problematic colorblind casting, including Mickey Rooney’s Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Alec Guinness’s Arab prince in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Laurence Olivier’s blackface Othello (1965). Then she throws her Sunday punch:

It seems needless to say, and yet, here it is: Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs, and so every choice made in that performance will inevitably be an approximation. It is an act of minstrelsy.

If you talk about race and casting long enough, you’ll inevitably encounter the term “minstrelsy.” The word is a kind of rhetorical A-bomb, designed to end all subsequent discussion. It’s generally assumed that nothing good ever came from minstrelsy, and that any association with it is therefore discreditable.

However, 19th-century minstrelsy was not a uniquely white phenomenon. It was also popular among African Americans, many of whom formed their own minstrel troupes—McCabe & Young’s Minstrels, Haverly’s Genuine Colored Minstrels, and Richards & Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels, among them. Actors love to dress up, and blackface was simply considered another disguise. They put on wigs, beards, false noses, anything that will help them shed their own personas and slip into others. That’s why Robert De Niro and Christian Bale go to so much trouble to gain weight, lose weight, or put on muscle for their film roles. It helps them disappear into the characters they’re playing.

In their 2012 book, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen quote historian Nathan Irvin Huggins as follows: “White men put on black masks and became another self, one which was loose of limb, innocent of obligation to anything outside itself, indifferent to success (for whom success was impossible by racial definition), and thus a creature totally devoid of tension and deep anxiety.” The same was true of black actors. Bert Williams, who became the most successful African American comedian of his generation, later explained how blackface helped him to find his voice as a young performer in the 1890s. He’d been struggling for some time when, one day, “just for a lark,” he smeared on some blackface in a Detroit theater. “Nobody was more surprised than I was when it went like a house on fire,” he said. “I began to find myself. It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed.”

One of the benefits that blackface offered both white and black men was that it allowed them to express their emotions in ways that, in any other context, would have been perceived as unmanly at the time. In Gilded Age America, toughness was prized and emotionality abhorred. Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the ideal—strong, stoical, obsessed with hunting and war. In blackface, however, a man could drop this façade. He could clown or cry or pour out his heart to his lover as he’d never dare without the disguise. The black songwriter W.C. Handy, who was, at one time, a minstrel trouper himself, explained how cathartic this could be for the audience, as well as the performers: “Everyone knew that there were those who came to a minstrel show to cry as well as laugh. Ladies of that mauve decade [the 1890s] were likely to follow the plot of a song with much the same sentimental interest that their daughters show in the development of a movie theme nowadays. The tenors were required to tell the stories that jerked the tears.”

To be sure, some minstrel acts—like the chicken-stealing sketch that Spike Lee reproduced in Bamboozled (2000)—were malignantly racist. Even the more benign acts tended to rely on condescending stereotypes, portraying blacks as ignorant “coons,” tragic “mulattos,” selfless “Toms,” or jolly, big-bellied “mammies.” They also glossed over the harsh realities that African Americans faced at the end of the 19th century. On the minstrel stage, the South became a prelapsarian paradise, untouched by the Industrial Revolution, free of either work or worry. Lynching, sharecropping, convict leasing, and the daily humiliation of racial apartheid were conveniently left out of the picture.

Many viewers undoubtedly bought into this nostalgic fantasy. Hollywood certainly did. Studio-era moviemakers loved to reprise old minstrel acts, especially in musicals. Thus Bing Crosby’s cringe-inducing blackface number in Holiday Inn (1942), in which he croons about Abraham Lincoln as if the 16th president were his patron saint.

If you want to see blackface at its most reprehensible, though, you will have to watch The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic. The black characters in the movie—many of whom were played by whites—are more like beasts than men. They are either depicted as overgrown children, too stupid to take care of themselves, or as pillaging savages and the rapists of white women.

I offer this potted history to illustrate how varied blackface could be. The blackface of The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson plays an aspiring Broadway entertainer, is very different from the blackface of Big Boy (1930), in which he spends the entire movie looking like a chimney sweep and churning out one crude ethnic joke after another. By using the word minstrelsy so loosely, Phillips ignores these distinctions. She also creates a false equivalence between minstrelsy and other types of acting: “Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own ... is an act of minstrelsy.”

Any casting? This implies that if casting directors want to avoid accusations that they are involved in a modern-day minstrel show, they must make sure that all the actors share precisely the same ethnicity as the dramatis personae. How much Irish blood, then, must an actor have to play James Tyrone, the father in Long Day’s Journey into Night? How much Puerto Rican blood does an actress need to play Maria in West Side Story? Can an actor from Kenya be given the part of a slave from West Africa, where most blacks were abducted during the triangle trade? Or would that, too, be an act of minstrelsy? What about nonspeaking roles? Though Spike Lee’s recent film Da 5 Bloods (2020) takes place in Vietnam, it was mostly filmed in Thailand, using Thai extras who passed as Vietnamese. Minstrelsy or not? These are rhetorical questions, but they’re precisely the kind of questions that arise in pursuit of pure ethnic authenticity. Like Russell Davies’s proposal that only gay actors play gay parts, it’s not just impractical—who does the checking?—but also a blueprint for the very kind of discrimination that critics like Phillips claim to abhor.

Of course, there are times when a movie or a play demands that we see the color of a character. In such cases, colorblindness is undesirable. Viewers would have been confused had a black man played the protagonist in Schindler’s List (1993) or a white man played the lead in Menace II Society (1993). Like any other human characteristic—height, weight, age, gender, physical strength, ability to play an instrument—skin color matters when it’s essential to the story being told. Sometimes, these conventions can be upended—in 1997, the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC staged a “photo negative” production of Othello in which the hero was played by white actor Patrick Stewart, while everyone else in the cast was black. But more often they can’t.

One of the reasons that colorblind casting has been employed so much more frequently on the stage than the screen is that cinema puts a higher premium on verisimilitude than theater—viewers will accept a painted backdrop or a plastic sword in an off-Broadway show, but they’ll snicker if they see them in a Hollywood film. Which is why Adrian Lester’s casting in Mary Queen of Scots is a bit jarring at first. Is he an ambassador from an African nation, the viewer wonders? A slave given courtly attire? It takes a moment to realize that, even though his skin is black, his character is meant to be white. However brief this moment of confusion may be, it comes at a cost, breaking the spell of the story. If you have to stop and ponder, even for a minute or two, what a black man is doing in 16th-century Scotland, then you’ve stopped suspending your disbelief.

This is the best argument against colorblind casting. It’s also the best argument against the kind of Eurocentric casting that Phillips, in her article, describes as minstrelsy. There is, in fact, very little that’s minstrel-like about Alec Guinness’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia, other than the dark makeup on his face. He doesn’t dance or sing or comically shuck and jive, because the performance isn't an exercise in mockery. To the contrary, his Prince Faisal is intelligent, elegant, and dignified, like the person described by Lawrence in his war memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. If anything undermines Guinness’s performance, it's believability, not bigotry. He simply doesn't look Arabian and his accent wanders all over the place. Audiences in the early 1960s were willing to look past such niceties, but modern moviegoers are more alive to the artifice.

In point of fact, neither Guinness’s character in Lawrence of Arabia nor Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s nor even Laurence Olivier’s Othello are really examples of colorblind casting. To earn that distinction, at least some of the white parts in those films would have had to have been played by actors of color. True colorblindness ignores race entirely. It’s not a two-way street so much as a multi-directional interchange, in which any actor can play any part, regardless of skin color. But this was not the case in the 1960s, when those three pictures were made. At that time, the practice of hiring white actors to play characters of color was not only accepted but expected.

Director David Lean actually broke ground in Lawrence of Arabia by casting Egyptian actor Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, Lawrence’s closest friend. Three years later, Lean went a step further, choosing Sharif to play the title role in Doctor Zhivago (1965)—a genuine case of colorblind casting, since Zhivago is Russian, not Egyptian. But this was unusual for the period. Until the 1970s, it was standard practice for Euro-American actors to be given all major roles in Hollywood films. That’s why Laurence Olivier was cast as a Nubian warlord in Khartoum (1966), why Burt Reynolds was cast as a Yaqui Indian in 100 Rifles (1969), and why Telly Savalas was cast as Pancho Villa in the 1972 biopic about the general. Calling this colorblind is like calling Jim Crow laws color-conscious, in the Juilliard sense of the term. It’s not colorblind if all the best roles go to whites.

Phillips, Davies, and the Julliard students are simply confusing cause and effect. I.Y. Yunioshi, the Japanese man played by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a true horror show—a bucktoothed buffoon right out of a 19th-century Yellow Peril pamphlet. And yet, as I pointed out in my 2017 article on Jeffrey Tambor, a film can be just as bigoted if it employs an actor of color. Consider the case of Stepin Fetchit. Fetchit, who was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, became the first African American movie star, playing supporting roles in a series of hits in the 1930s, including Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) with Will Rogers. Because opportunities for African Americans in Hollywood were limited, Fetchit was invariably given roles as rubes and layabouts, which is how he got dubbed “The Laziest Man in the World.”

In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Between 1927 and 1939, Fetchit appeared in over 40 films—an extraordinary output for an actor of any color, let alone a black man working in a town that still frequently championed the Lost Cause. His tragedy is that he made his living mocking his own race. The characters he played would not be at all out of place in The Birth of a Nation. “He was the embodiment of the nitwit colored man,” Donald Bogle writes in his history of African Americans in cinema, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks. “Stepin Fetchit was always forgetful. Stepin Fetchit could never pronounce a word with more than one syllable. Stepin Fetchit seldom seemed to have his senses about him.” Eventually, black audiences turned on him, and he spent the rest of his life in obscurity, popping up now and then to defend his legacy. Fetchit’s case is illustrative, though, for it reveals precisely what Phillips and the Juilliard students fail to see—it’s not the ethnicity of the actor that makes a character racist, it’s the character himself.

And yet, race neutrality is out of favor today, not just in drama but throughout public life. In July of last year, Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for the New York Times, published an op-ed contending that orchestras should put an end to blind auditions, in which musicians tryout behind a screen so that the judges aren’t biased by their race or gender. During the 2020 presidential race, Bernie Sanders made the mistake of alluding to Martin Luther King’s famous colorblind dream. “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for,” he said. Everyone from Neera Tanden to Stephen Colbert derided him for his obtuseness. “At a time where folks feel under attack because of who they are,” Tanden chided the senator, “saying race or gender or sexual orientation or identity doesn’t matter is not off, it’s simply wrong.”

“Race-consciousness” is even creeping into the healthcare industry. Many hospitals now mandate diversity training for their employees, in which doctors and nurses are divided up by race, and, at some hospitals, access to care is being apportioned based on skin color. In March, the Boston Review published an editorial by two prominent physicians, Bram Wispelwey and Michelle Morse, the latter of whom was recently appointed Chief Medical Officer of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Wispelwey and Morse argue that hospitals should commit to “preferentially admitting patients historically denied access to certain forms of medical care,” and volunteer that, in their own practice, they’ve begun offering “a preferential admission option for Black and Latinx heart failure patients to our specialty cardiology service.”

While Martin Luther King and his cohort of civil rights leaders—Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, and A. Philip Randolph—continue to be widely admired, their ideas about equality are regularly ridiculed by modern-day activists, who argue that they merely perpetuate the existing white hegemony. Equity is now favored over equality, and color-consciousness over colorblindness. In his bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi attacks the assumption that colorblindness is even possible, let alone desirable. “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy,” he writes. “Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequality or equity between racial groups.” Kendi, unlike King, is a pure consequentialist. For him and the millions of people who subscribe to his ideas, outcomes are all that matter. If a policy produces racially unequal results, then it is racist, regardless of intentions. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination,” Kendi writes. “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

The irony is that, in the acting world, colorblind casting has disproportionately aided people of color. The biggest role that Omar Sharif ever landed in a Hollywood film was Doctor Zhivago. When critics bemoan colorblind casting, they invariably cite the many instances in which white actors have played nonwhite characters—Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil (1958), Al Pacino in Scarface (1983), Emma Stone in Aloha (2015)—arguing that, for this reason, it’s irredeemably racist. That’s when all the statements about minstrelsy come out, leading otherwise intelligent people to make claims about the importance of authenticity in acting that sound a lot more like racial essentialism than racial enlightenment.

Rather than taking such muddled, self-defeating positions, why not simply reverse the process, as Lin-Manuel Miranda did when he made Hamilton? Why not grant actors of color the same opportunities that their white predecessors enjoyed? If an Italian American like Al Pacino can play a Cuban, why can’t a Cuban play an Italian American (as Andy Garcia has done on multiple occasions)? Why limit David Oyelowo to playing Othello, when Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, and Patrick Stewart have been allowed to play every Shakespearean role they ever wanted?

Just think of how much more circumscribed Ben Kingsley’s career would have been if he’d only been allowed to play Indian characters. He’s one of the most versatile actors in movie history, at various times playing a Maltese spy, a Russian detective, an Iranian colonel, a British gangster, a Persian prince, a South American doctor (nationality unknown), a Polish Holocaust survivor, and a Nazi war criminal. Or think of Oscar Isaac (a Juilliard alum). Where would he be without colorblind casting? Born in Guatemala to a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father, Isaac has, since appearing in his first film at the age of 17, played everything from an American to an Iraqi to a Roman to a Mizrahi Jew to Prince John of England.

Part of the pleasure of watching fine actors like Kingsley and Isaac—and, for that matter, Christian Bale, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett, and John Turturro—is that they can be almost anyone. That’s their gift. Why delimit it? Telling them who they can and can’t play is like telling Goya what he can and can’t paint or telling Nabokov what he can and can’t write. It punishes them and us. At the beginning of his career, Isaac took steps to make sure this wouldn’t happen to him, dropping his original surname, Hernández, so that he wouldn’t only be offered Latino roles. “I don't want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever,” he told In magazine. “I don't want to be defined by someone else's idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing.”

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Graham Daseler

Graham Daseler is a film editor and writer living in LA. His articles have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the American Conservative, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.