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Why It Matters That Almost All Lead Roles in Hollywood Go to White Actors

December 17, 2014 in Blogs

By Charlotte M. Canning, The Conversation

For films in theatrical release, 90 percent of lead actors are white.


Director Ridley Scott recently set off a firestorm when he dismissed those who criticized him for casting white actors as every major character in the recently released Exodus: Gods and Kings, while reserving roles like “Egyptian thief, “royal servant,” and “Egyptian lower class civilian” for actors of color.

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he told Variety. At the film’s premiere, he scoffed at the idea of a boycott and recommended that those threatening to stay away from the film should “get a life.”

It would be terrific if the problem were isolated to Scott or Hollywood. But it’s an issue in the entertainment industry as a whole.

A 2014 UCLA study about casting in Hollywood concluded that for films in theatrical release, lead actors were 89.5 percent white. For Broadway and not-for-profit theaters the results were almost as dismal: white actors made up 79 percent of the lead roles.

Just last week highly respected British/South African actress Dame Janet Suzman claimed that “white people go to the theatre, it’s in their DNA” and that theater is “a white invention, a European invention and white people go to it.”

Suzman’s remarks were greeted with much the same anger as Scott’s had been.

“Ludicrous,” said Dawn Walton, artistic director of Eclipse, Britain’s leading black-led national touring company.

Artists of African and Asian descent around the world pointed to the diverse, millennia-old theater traditions on those continents.

Suzman didn’t simply refuse to apologize – she doubled down, identifying the origins of theater with playwright William Shakespeare.

When I bring up the topic of casting with my students, I often ask: Can women play roles written for men? Can white performers play characters of color? Can people of color play characters of a “color” other than their own?

Unfortunately, it seems as though there are few positive real world precedents; examples of prejudice or willful ignorance are far easier to find.

Like Mary Zimmerman, director of The Jungle …read more

Source: ALTERNET

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