Race and Casting in American Movies

Try this exercise:

Start with a large selection of American feature films. They could be your all-time favorites, the ones you own, or AFI’s most recent 100 Best American Films list. Or simply the unsubtitled movies currently in theaters.

Now, remove all of the films where the protagonist–the central character or hero–is portrayed by a white actor (or actress).

That gives you a considerably smaller list. But let’s make it smaller:

Out of that tiny list, remove any titles where the lead role really couldn’t be played by a white person. Perhaps it’s based on a true story–you can’t very well star Brad Pitt in Hotel Rwanda. Or where the story is specifically about race, so that making the character white would have been an entirely different story. In the Heat of the Night would have just been a mystery if it had starred Marlon Brando. Also, remove anything that was made for a predominantly non-white audience, such as Tyler Perry’s work

Got anything left? Okay, remove all films where this non-white protagonist is a cop, criminal, or member of the military.

You may have one movie left–perhaps Night of the Living Dead. But there’s a good chance you won’t have any.

I’m sure you already see what I’m driving at. Hollywood studios and independent distributors have always been shy about casting non-whites in lead roles. They need a reason–and it has to be a good one. In fact, even when the story is about race, studio heads prefer a white protagonist (see The Help; or better yet, don’t see it).

It all comes down to the invisibility of whiteness. Americans see a white doctor, a white scientist, or a white high school student, and we think “doctor,” “scientist,” and “student.” But when we see a black doctor, scientist, or a high school student, we notice skin color. In a movie, an actor’s race inevitably becomes part of their character–unless they happen to be white.

But why is it okay if the protagonist of color is a cop, criminal, or member of the military? I suspect that studio executives believe that Americans can accept non-whites in those particular careers. How often have Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or or Will Smith gotten to play characters who didn’t fit one of these categories? Occasionally, but not often. In I Am Legend (a movie I liked very much), there’s absolutely no reason why Smith’s character, a brilliant scientist and doctor, is also a Lieutenant Colonel. It was just a way to make him more palatable to the perceived audience.

The good news: The trend changed a bit in the last 15 years, especially in children’s films. Family-friendly comedies such as Dr. Dolittle, Spy Kids, and The Game Plan all had non-white leads in stories where race simply wasn’t an issue. None of these are great films (although I liked the first Spy Kids very much), but they broke the racial barriers more than any serious drama I can think of. Perhaps the studios could figure out that the kids who grew up on these movies are now old enough for adult fare, and adjust their casting practices accordingly.

But I doubt it.