by J.D. Rhoades
It’s sort of an unwritten rule here at Murderati that we don’t talk about politics, because such discussion too often descends into controversy and acrimony. We try to shy away from such alienating material. So you’ll be happy to know that today’s post is about something a lot less polarizing.
I’m going to talk about race.
Recently, a controversy arose when a casting agent working on Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of THE HOBBIT placed an ad in the New Zealand papers looking for extras. Only those with “light skin tones” were invited to apply. The same agent , according to an article on Entertainment Weekly’s website:
….was also reported to have told a prospective background extra, a woman of Pakistani heritage named Naz Humphreys, that she wasn’t suitable to play a Hobbit because of her skin color. According to The Waikato Times, video footage shows the casting agent telling people at an audition, “We are looking for light-skinned people. I’m not trying to be … whatever. It’s just the brief. You’ve got to look like a Hobbit.”
Jackson’s people, after downing an extra large dose of Mylanta to deal with the heartburn they knew was coming over this, insisted that they never specified any particular skin color for Tolkien’s hairy-footed creations, and the casting agent was promptly sacked. But once that cat was out of the bag, there was no containing the controversy. Ridiculous political correctness, some claimed. Of course Tolkien intended his characters, whose roots were in Northern European mythology, to be Caucasian. Well, that’s just the problem with Tolkien, innit? Some replied, noting the author’s predilection for casting “swarthy” and “squinty-eyed” persons as henchmen of the Dark Lord. Still others, in full geek mode, noted that one particular branch of hobbit-kind, the Harfoots, were described as “darker skinned,” and mention is made in the prologue to LORD OF THE RINGS of the hobbits’ “quick brown fingers,” so why couldn’t you have a black or Pakistani actor play a hobbit?
You’ll be relieved to know that I’m not going to re-hash that whole argument. You want to jump into that fray, you can find it at several places online. But it did get me thinking about the assumptions we make about some of the characters we read and write.
A few years ago, I was having one of those discussions about what actor we’d pick to play particular characters. when we got to Jack Keller, someone said “How about Denzel Washington?”
At first I laughed. Had to be a joke, right?
But then I thought, Hmmm, why not? He’s big enough. He’s a hell of an actor, one of my favorites in fact. Anyone who’s seen MAN ON FIRE knows he can do brooding intensity and lots of ultraviolence.
Keller’s described in the books as blonde, but that’s not so much a part of his character that it would be ruined by having an African American actor play the role.
On the other hand, casting a black or asian guy as Tony Wolf, the protagonist of BREAKING COVER, might be a bit problematic. Wolf’s on the run after an undercover assignment in which he infiltrated an outlaw motorcycle gang went sideways in a very ugly way. Now, there are probably some black motorcycle gangs, but they tend to be predominantly white. I think it would just stretch credulity too far to have, say, Jamie Foxx play the role.
Likewise, I can’t see casting a white guy to play Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins or George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange. Those characters’ stories are so entwined with the history of racial issues in this country that casting, say, Harrison Ford in either role would just be bizarre, like casting a blue eyed Gentile to play Jesus.
Wait, they did that. Anyway…
Jane Rizzoli’s Italian heritage is a big part of her character, so you need a dark haired white girl like the delectable Angie Harmon.
But could Gina Torres play Charlie Fox (assuming she could pull off the accent)?
She certainly kicked enough ass in FIREFLY.
You kind of need white actors to play Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Genarro, because their characters are so rooted in the culture of white, working class Dorchester, that you couldn’t have, for example, Russell Wong play Patrick.
It would be like having a mostly Caucasian cast in the live action version of the anime classic THE LAST AIRBENDER.
Wait, they did that too.
So, your questions for discussion, if you dare:
1. Favorite “race bending” casting.
2. Least favorite.
3. Take your favorite character and play with their race. Make a white character Hispanic, a black one Asian. How does it work? Does it matter?
And Denzel, if you’re reading this: call me.