When is it OK for an Actor to Play Someone of Another Race?
Crossing a line? On the one hand, without Depp's interest in playing Tonto, the movie wouldn't have been made; on the other hand, the movie wouldn't have been made.
In a recent New York Times piece called “On Acting, Race and Hollywood” actor-comedian Aziz Ansari (“Parks and Recreation”) recounts his first experience seeing an Indian actor on a movie screen; it had a profound effect on him. Years later, it had a more profound effect on him when he discovered the actor wasn't Indian. The movie was “Short Circuit 2,” and the actor was Fisher Stevens. So Ansari’s first movie encounter with his own kind was a fraud. It was a white guy in make-up using a funny accent.
That’s his initial complaint about acting, race and Hollywood, and it’s two-fold:
- How come we don't see more Indian characters on screen?
- When we do, how come they’re not played by Indian actors?
Then things gets trickier.
At one point, Ansari wonders why Max Minghella, “a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor,” was chosen to play Indian-American Divya Narendra in “The Social Network.” If I were a struggling Indian actor I’d wonder that, too, but it raises a whole host of questions—the usual questions, to be honest—about acting and border crossings and what constitutes racial theft.
Essentially: When is it OK for an actor to stretch and when is he/she engaging in a modern minstrel show?
Here are a few follow-ups to try to narrow things down:
- Is it OK for Chinese to play Japanese, and vice-versa?
- Can Italians play Spaniards, and Spaniards Mexicans, and Mexicans Iranians?
- Was it cool for Robert De Niro, an Italian-American, to play a Jewish gangster in ”Ca$ino,“ or Javier Bardem, a straight Spaniard, to play a gay Cuban poet in ”Before Night Falls,” or Al Pacino, an Italian-American, to play a Cuban gangster in “Scarface”?
- What about all the white actors and opera singers who have played Othello over the years?
- How South do you have to be to play someone from the South? How Boston do you have to be to play someone from Southie?
I’d be curious where Ansari puts up his own artistic border guards. It’s a trickier topic than people admit.