One can argue about the distinctions between the two terms, but acting is – at its most basic level – pretending. A good actor can play virtually anyone or anything, and in doing so impart some truth to an audience. It’s art, to be sure, but it’s artistic pretending. You would think that pretending would have no bounds, that its only limits would be the human imagination, but that isn’t the case, not because of the people’s limitations but because of mankind’s ignoble history that’s led to certain types of pretending to become taboo. The most obvious example is white people painting their faces black, but there are others, and the guidelines aren’t as clear-cut as you would think. Read this article from the USA Today in full and tell me that you now have a clear understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. To quote the movie Fletch:
Fletch: “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.”
Frank Walker: “How gray?”
When I was growing up, Saturday Night Live allowed for many comedic skits that might not fly today. I say “might not” because it’s not entirely obvious what’s allowed and what might stir controversy. (If you disagree, keep reading). In December of 1984, SNL aired a mock-documentary of Eddie Murphy playing a white man, to hilarious effect. (If you’ve never seen it, do a quick Google search). That same year, Billy Crystal wore dark makeup to portray one of his idols, Sammy Davis, Jr. This was all deemed well and good in 1984 (at least through the lens of the American mainstream), but when Crystal reprised his impersonation at the 2012 Oscars, he got a lot of flak, with one critic making the blanket statement, “Blackface is not okay. Ever.”
Setting aside for now that there is in fact a distinction between “blackface” as historically understood and Billy Crystal putting on makeup to impersonate Sammy Davis, Jr., it’s important to note that Davis’s daughter Tracey defended Crystal, saying, “I am 100 percent certain that my father is smiling. Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing.” She also took issue with categorizing Crystals portrayal as “blackface.”
Now, you might say that Crystal’s Oscar performance is an exception to the rule due to it being a reprisal of a skit from years ago, but that going forward we should have no more of this. No white person should ever wear black makeup to portray another person.
What about the reverse? Can someone wear white makeup to portray a character?
Let’s go back to Eddie Murphy who once again showed his acting and imitation prowess in 1988’s Coming to America, when he wore white makeup and depicted a stereotypical Jewish man telling a joke at a barbershop. I just watched a clip of it and laughed out loud. I don’t know if the Jewish community raised a ruckus back in 1988 for this skit – I do know my Jewish wife found the scene hilarious at the time – but given that Jewish actors once made a living performing actual blackface back in the day, staying silent on the matter was probably best.
But there is of course a distinction to be made here. Whites have historically been privileged in this country and blacks have historically been oppressed. Furthermore, blackface has such a sordid history that we could agree that wearing dark makeup, even as an attempt to depict a person whom you respect, should be relegated to a thing of the past. (Which means that Tropic Thunder couldn’t be made today, which is regrettable.)
As Kara Weisenstein summarized in this Vice article: “Darkening your skin is never okay (because of aforementioned old-timey racists), but dressing up as a character of another race is usually fine, as long as the character’s race isn’t part of the costume.”
Fair enough, as long as it goes both ways. I mean, I love Eddie Murphy’s portrayal in Coming to America, but Jews haven’t exactly been exempted from oppression (and they’re also a minority, making up less than 2% of the U.S. population), so let’s just agree – going forward, no person of one race should wear makeup to portray a person of another race. Is this something that we can agree on in 2019? Can we?
But then we get to a more recent controversy involving Scarlett Johansson, who was lambasted for agreeing to play a transgender person in the proposed film, Rub & Tug, before finally bowing out of the project. As summarized in this article from The Guardian, Johansson’s initial response to the hubbub was correct on its face but not taken well by the trans community: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” All three of these actors played trans roles that were largely lauded, but the argument goes that the time has come for a change, that since trans actors typically can’t play roles that aren’t trans, it makes sense that at the very least trans roles should go to trans actors. Yes, there was a time when it was okay (apparently, that time was in 2014, when the show Transparent debuted), but no longer. Going forward, trans roles should only be played by trans actors.
Can we agree on that? Okay. Again I say, fair enough. But then…
Why isn’t there backlash against Eric McCormack, a straight man, reprising his role as a gay character on NBC’s Will & Grace? Just as with Billy Crystal in 2012, the word “reprisal” once again seems to be a key word here. Even McCormack admits that he’s still allowed to play the role of Will Truman primarily because the show debuted in the 1990s. Were it to have debuted in 2018, the role would have gone to a gay actor. But then McCormick adds, “But does that mean that now when you walk into a casting room you have to state whether you are straight or gay? I don’t know.”
Now that’s an interesting point. I can picture a casting director having a questionnaire for actors as they enter the audition room in order to fend off potential controversies, which of course would set off a whole new controversy!
But if it’s all a matter of fairness, then let’s look no further than a hugely successful show on Amazon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Most of the characters in the show are Jewish, but much of the cast, including leads Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub, aren’t. Is this okay? If yes, why? Because the actors have the same color skin as the characters they’re playing? Is this the only factor to consider?
I don’t know, but ultimately I think the answer has to be that it’s okay for non-Jewish actors to play Jews, just as it should be okay for Catholic Italians to play English Protestants or American Jews to play Mormons. Acting is pretending, and as McCormack implied, where do we draw the line and how do we determine who’s on what side of the line? Will we have to have actors submit ancestry charts prior to auditioning for a role? “I’m sorry, would-be actor, but you’re trying out for the role of an Italian-American from Texas with a background in the oil industry, but you’re an Irish-American from Arkansas whose family has a background in agriculture. There’s no way you can play this part.”
Crazy, right? Personally, I love that Tony Shalhoub plays a Jew in Mrs. Maisel, that Emma Stone plays a Brit in The Favorite, and that Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett play damn-convincing Americans. It’s okay.
Fine. We seem to be getting somewhere, but just when I think I can wrap my arms around it all, there are examples that throw everything off kilter. When actress Juliette Binoche played a Chilean in The 33 no one seemed to raise an eyebrow. But why? Binoche is white, and there surely must be talented Chilean actresses. Binoche was allowed to play a Chilean, but she clearly wouldn’t be allowed to play a Chinese woman or a Nigerian woman. Is it only about race or skin color? Or is there more to it?
There is! Or at least to some folks, there is. And this brings us to a hugely successful film with an Asian cast. The lead actor in Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding, is only – these are not my words – “half-Asian,” so this led to a controversy about the film’s casting, with some saying that the film should have cast “full-Asians.” This sounds so wrong to me that it brings to mind Voldemort and his posse attacking Mudbloods. As writer Deanna Pal – who has an Italian parent and an Asian parent – beautifully states in her article defending the casting decisions of the film, “Since when does being more than one thing cancel the other out…to impose whitewashing narratives onto biracial people feels like erasure of half of who I am.”
To me, as long as an actor’s portrayal of another person is coming from a place of love and respect – and this can include poking fun of that person, as Eddie Murphy did in Coming to America or Billy Crystal did on SNL – then I personally don’t give a shit. Yes, I know, being a fifty year-old upper middle-class white man has given me the privilege of being able to say, “I don’t give a shit.” I get it. But I personally love the recent trend to throw historical accuracy out the window when casting a work of art, allowing anyone to play anybody. The recent movie Mary Queen of Scots has a multiracial cast despite it not being historically accurate, and the musical Hamilton did the same to great effect. But if this is allowed, so too should it be allowed for a straight man to play a gay man, a half-Malaysian woman to play a Chinese woman, or a gay, half-Italian, half-Arab man to play a straight, half-Jewish, half-Brazilian man.
As Kara Weisenstein concludes in her article, “I want to live in a world where little white boys can be President Obama, and Muslim girls can be Wonder Woman, and queer teens can be Elvis or Ariana Grande, and Heidi Klum can be a goddamn ogre if she wants to be.”
Honestly, let’s relax a little bit here.
I’ll end with a funny YouTube comment I read about the aforementioned SNL skit, whereby Billy Crystal plays Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joe Piscopo plays President Reagan:
“This is so offensive, I can't even believe it's real - how dare they let an Italian from Jersey play Ronald Reagan!”
Signing off, hoping I offended no one with this essay, but knowing full-well that I did.