Let’s see now… Writing as an Anglo White Person here… Off top of my head: Alec Guinness, in brownface, plays Sheik Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia.” White audiences do not gasp and grab their pearls. They applaud. Peter O’Toole, in embarrassingly unconvincing ancient-Asian-face, plays the Lama in “Kim”. Nobody faints. If you ignore the visuals, it’s actually not such a bad interpretation (though we could get into a major discussion of “Kim” as an epic tale of British imperialism and hence inherently racialist propaganda… but that’s a whole other ball of wax). BTW, another funny sidelight there: hapa-Indian Ravi Sheth plays “Kim,” who in the story is actually an English whiteboy passing for an Indian lad! This gets a bit Shakespearean after a while: young men playing women who are cleverly disguised as young men… Then there was Ben Kingsley as Gandhi — well, Sir Ben is hapa-Gujarati iirc so that wasn’t so very far off. But c’mon. What outraged the Far White crowd about that movie was its unforgivable advocacy for non-violence! You get the point, surely.
This whole double standard is so well known and amply documented. Here’s a really funny run-down (with photos!) on some times that White actors have not only got the part, but have got the part that requires pretending to be of a different ethnicity:
And this pretending, I might add — these embarrassing-shading-into-offensive antics in often clumsy, stereotypical blackface, brownface, yellowface or whatever — is very different from recasting a traditional story in a new context or with/for a different demographic. Was anyone really outraged when J Sturges based “The Magnificent Seven” completely and obviously on “The Seven Samurai”? He took a traditional Japanese story of heroism and adventure, and hauled it kicking and screaming into the US Western movie genre. Well, I personally preferred the original Kurosawa flick, but did I hear any whitefolks yelling and screaming that violence had been done to a classic, and it was incredibly disrespectful for those white American actors to play what should be — must be — Japanese Tokugawa-era ronin? Because otherwise the whole integrity of the story would be lost?
What about the multiracial “Cinderella” TV movie from 1997? I thought it was kinda sweet. Okay, maybe a little sickly-sweet, but it had a good heart and was pretty. “Revisionist,” sure, but… hate to break it to y’all, but revisionism is just another word for a learning process, for history and culture marching — well, ambling — on. What about the revisionist Cinderella from 1998 (“Ever After”), with Jodie Foster, Anjelica Huston, and some amusing feminist twists on the dear old story? Well, maybe some of these “culture must never evolve” whiners were outraged about that too.
We don’t play Shakespeare today the way he was played in his own time, or even in the 18th or 19th or early 20th centuries. Watch the wonderful John Barton doco “Playing Shakespeare” if you don’t believe me. For one thing, women are allowed to play the female roles nowadays! Is that a horrible violation of a great cultural tradition? nah, it’s just culture and history…ambling on… which they are going to do, no matter what. If culture and history never ambled on, we (my folks anyway) would all still be speaking Indo-European and growing hard wheat somewhere in the Caucasus — er, no, we’d be in East Africa, working on Northward migration and stone tools — or maybe back at the Toba Bottleneck, or … how far back do we want to wind that clock? When was this legendary era of “authenticity” — and who gets to define its borders?
It’s fine and natural, I think, to be nostalgic for the specific cultural context of our youth, for the storybooks of our childhood — even if they “had their moments” of racial insensitivity, sexism, ethnic exclusion etc. As long as we understand that those elements are not what’s precious about them. What’s precious about them was that they were the books (and movies, and songs) of our youth, a very special time in our lives. We can acknowledge that they were imperfect or even offensive to a modern viewer/reader, without having to deny what we loved about them back then. We can love our Grandpa, even if he — dear old fossil — still thinks that washing dishes is women’s work. The world has moved on since his time, and that’s a good thing. The world has moved on since Tom Swift and Nancy Drew, too. And that’s a good thing, even if you loved them way back when. [Actually there’s some pretty heavy racism in Lord of the Rings, just between you and me and the nearest gatepost; but I forgive Grandpa for being a dear old fossil, and I still love reading it every few years.]
Does the bludgeoning sexism of film noir spoil my enjoyment of a great Bogey/Bacall flick? Hell no. I’m aware of it, my brain is metacommenting on it as the film runs, but I still love that snappy dialogue and Bogey’s sad, weary hound dog eyes. That doesn’t mean I want 1942 back again, for oh so many reasons. Is Sam the piano player in Casablanca a typical “Black grin-and-shuffle sidekick”? Well, yeah… kind of embarrassing, actually. In future, those kinds of characters won’t be in the films we watch (I hope). We’ll recognise them as fossils, relics of a former age. Even in 1995, we were able to produce an action/suspense movie (“Seven”) where the whiteboy (Pitt) was the sidekick, to senior (and way smarter) detective Somerset played by Morgan Freeman. Today, we can produce a big-budget Marvel Comics extravaganza with a nearly all-Black cast (“Black Panther”). And — more power to us — we can produce a remake of the Hans Christian Andersen story of Ariel the mermaid, with a Black Ariel. Why the heck not?
That movie will not be in any way the same experience as reading the Andersen story (which in English will not be the same experience as it would be in the original Danish, of course — wanna learn Danish, so you can have the truly authentic experience?). Personally I’ll always prefer to read the story — preferably in an early, contemporaneous English translation — over any Disney-fied remakes. But that doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t enjoy those remakes, any more than the BBC shouldn’t have used Richard III as the inspiration and basis for “House of Cards.” Culture wants to cross-pollinate and evolve, to combine and re-combine and blossom in weird fractal ways. It is always doing that… and we just can’t take a freeze-frame of one particular moment [of our youth? of Mama reading to us from the beautiful illustrated fairytale book? of the “real” Disney movie?] and make the world stop there.
In fact, culture’s been cross-pollinating (what with migrations and imperial expansions and contractions and bizarre coincidences and connections) for millennia, so busily that many things traditionalists think are nationally “theirs” came from Away. The quintessential British cultural object is the cup of tea — tea that they never experienced until they traded with China and invaded India. Chocolate is so very, very Dutch — but only because it grew in their colonial possessions. What could be more Italian than spaghetti sauce? made from tomatoes that were never seen in Europe until they were imported from the New World. How about the good old Irish potato (imported also from the New World, and more or less forced on the Irish peasantry, as a substitute for the more valuable cash-crop of wheat, by their English overlords). What could be more Western-culture-centric than higher mathematics? its roots lie in the high scholarly culture of the Dar al-Islam, hence the word “algebra”. I could go on and on, but let’s stop there.
Our cultures are not and were never “pure” in any meaningful sense of the word, and it’s downright silly to take a snapshot at some random moment and claim that it is the true and only shape of that culture. And we should be delighted, not frightened, by all that borrowing and cross-pollinating and synthesis: that’s what makes a culture even more vibrant, exciting, creative, interesting than it might have been in isolation. It’s particularly, painfully ironic for White people in N America (pretty recent immigrants in the global story of humankind) to be asserting cultural purity. Eaten any turkey (native to the Americas) lately? Maybe squash? maize? peanuts? potatoes? Listened to any rock or blues (with its deep African roots)? Played a guitar? (descendant of the vihuela and lute, and surely y’all know that “lute” comes from the Arabic al’ ud or oudh, the mother of all such instruments).
We’re a mongrel, marsala, mestizo, multiculture. And that’s absolutely marvelous.
I postulate that the people who are clutching their pearls and freaking out over a Black Ariel… are actually freaking out about something far more meaningful — which I couldn’t care less about, or actually I welcome it — that the day is coming soon when white faces will not be the majority in North America. I don’t know why that terrifies them so much, unless perhaps it’s a frisson of bad conscience reminding them what we did to “minorities” when we were a clear majority. In which case, it would be far better to work out that bad conscience by truth, reconciliation, and reparation than by yet more fear and anger.
Sorry, dear reader, this got really long. I didn’t realise I was on a rant until it was too late!