The Complex And Confining Relationship Between Character And Skin Colour

Published: Friday 12th August 2016 6:03AM

Updated: Tuesday 20th September 2016 8:17AM

Another instance where white is the default and only option…

I remember when the first Hunger Games was about to be released. I was so excited. I felt a deep connection to the book series, so I was extremely excited to see a story so close to my heart being brought to the bring screen.

The run up to the movie was huge. The supporting cast were charming during interviews and the film’s leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, was winning hearts with her authenticity. But with all the anticipation came controversy.

People started to murmur and moan once the studio had casted Amandla Sternberg, Lenny Kravitz and Dayo Okyeni to play three characters in the book whose ethnicity was ambiguous. The greatest outcry came from the casting of Amandla as Rue, a young 12-year-old girl that befriends Jennifer Lawrence’s character in the film – some argued that they had pictured Rue as a blonde white girl, and some even suggested that her death was not as impactful as it was in the book because she was black. This was a 12-year old-girl that in the movie had been put into a traumatic situation and had faced an unfortunate end, but because she was black, it was almost disregarded.

Amandla Stenberg in The Hunger Games

Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games

I am a huge fan of film. The magic of cinema is enchanting – you find yourself lost in stories and invested in characters that are fictional, but feel so real. Characters draw us into a film because we relate to and connect with them. But alas, casting and colour has always caused controversy, either when a character from a book is casted differently or an established character is changed.

We only have to remember the public outcry when Michael B Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four, or when Idris Elba was considered for James Bond and in the theatre with Noma Dumezweni being casted as Hermoine. What’s significant about the uproar these choices and the reactions to these castings is that it demonstrates how uncomfortable people feel when certain fictional characters are played by black actors.

Fictional characters can be changed in many ways, but once their race is up for debate people become tense and hostile. But why? Why can’t James Bond or Spiderman be black? Many argue that changing the skin colour of a character, causes the character to depart from it’s traditional framework, that the authenticity and merit of the fictional person in question is lost.

On the other hand, in film white characters have replaced characters of colour for years and nobody has really batted an eyelid. Some directors have even argued that the white actors and actresses that they have chosen to play characters of colour were the ‘best pick for that role’.

From Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, to Jake Gyllenhaal as Persian prince Dustan, Hollywood doesn’t hesitate to replace a character of colour with a white actor if they think it will improve the film. The original debate of a character’s identity being lost because his skin colour has been changed is dismissed, because these characters are apparently improved when they are replaced by white actors.

There have even been recent cases with films like Argo and 21, which are based on true events, which have replaced real life characters of colour with more ‘capable’ white actors.

Elizabeth Taylor as Egyptian Queen Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor as Egyptian Queen Cleopatra

This further proves that when a well known or beloved character is replaced with an actor of colour, they are no longer relatable. The connection is lost, white audiences at times refuse to acknowledge depth in a character that is not white.

White audiences are comfortable with stereotypes, a black man can play James Bond’s static friend or a bond villain, but cannot be James Bond because these fictional characters ‘need’ to stay relatable to a white audience.

Furthermore, when the rumours of Idris Elba possibly playing James Bond came out into the open, advocates of the character like writer Anthony Horowitz argued that Elba was not the right fit for Bond because he was “too street”. Nico Lang in his article The real reason James Bond will never be black states that Anthony’s words highlight a fascinating double standard in Hollywood. With Idris Elba being seen as too street, it is an “indication of a system that sets black actors up to fail.” But for actors like Daniel Craig “having a “street” vibe is an asset” and is arguably why he was chosen to replace Pierce Brosnan. Lang essentially argues that because Idris is black, the fact that he comes across as tough has pigeonholed him to a white audience, but for actors like Daniel Craig, it provides him with an edge, and something new to add to the role.

This results in actors of colour not being able to find a variety of roles in the film industry because the fictional characters offered to them are not malleable. Once people stop seeing people of colour as static beings, and start seeing them as intense, real dynamic characters with depth, then the idea of casting Idris Elba as James Bond or Donald Glover as Spiderman would not seem so outrageous. It all starts with day to day life, with real life interactions, and understanding that there’s more to us than what people choose to see.

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