Monday, October 26, 2015

Diversity in Casting: An Exception I’d Make

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ (2015)

As I’ve said several times before, limiting my remarks to the mainstream U.S. entertainment industry: Due to a historical lack of opportunities for minority thespians, characters of color ought to be portrayed by actors of color, ideally actors who are the same race (although not necessarily the same ethnicity) as the roles they play.  It’s unfortunate that some people refuse to see this issue in a historical perspective and insist that reserving non-white roles for non-white performers is unreasonable racial territorialism that goes against the make-believe at the heart of storytelling.  But they are wrong, and making certain that minority characters are played by minority thespians — at least for the time being — redresses past discrimination and past invisibility in the entertainment industry.  This is an issue that I feel very strongly about. 

At the same time, I wouldn’t set that standard in stone as a hard-and-fast “rule” that must never be contravened.  Aside from such a “rule” probably being an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, there may be things to be gained by casting a character of color (or one ostensibly so) with a Caucasian performer.  However, I believe that exceptions to this rule would be few and far between. 

For example, in 1997 and again in 2013, English actor Patrick Stewart essayed Othello in two U.S. touring productions of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.  However, where previous white interpreters of the Moor would use cosmetics to darken their features, Stewart played the part without such maquillage, and the rest of the cast, playing historically white characters, was all African American.  In other words, Stewart’s productions of Othello flipped the racial composition of the play from a black man among whites to a white man among blacks, allowing the audience to view the racial dynamics of the work from a different perspective.  That was a rare example of a Caucasian actor taking a lead “minority” role in a production while still giving uncommon opportunities to performers of color and making the issue of race a prominent one in the project’s execution.  There aren’t very many other exceptions to reserving non-white roles for non-white actors that I would find agreeable, but I can think of one more. 

If a character of color in an adapted work from the past is so racially stereotyped as to be offensive to modern-day audiences — and it would be logical in the work for this character to be white — then rewriting such a dramatis persona as Caucasian and casting the role with a Caucasian actor would be acceptable to me, at least in theory.  However, it might then be suitable to relocate a non-offensive racial diversity elsewhere in the work.  

This brings us to Joe Wright’s recently released film Pan (2015), a prequel and origin story to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, first performed as a play in 1904.  While I haven’t seen Pan, a controversy has been brewing for the past year because the film cast Euro-American actress Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, a character usually portrayed as Native American.  This understandably provoked criticism from Native Americans and their supporters that the character should be played by an actress of authentically aboriginal American ancestry.  I more than appreciate this stance: a rare high-profile opportunity for a Native American performer was once again taken away. 

But — as is often asked in such circumstances — is that high-profile role worth playing?  After all, the pidgin-speaking damsel in distress that is Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily is dismaying (at the very least) to modern sensibilities and would clearly be regarded as an archaic stereotype.  In the original source material, Tiger Lily and her “tribe” are never explicitly identified as Native American, although most productions have portrayed them as such.  As an article for Smithsonian magazine says:

In the play, Peter refers to the tribe as “piccaninny warriors,” and in Peter & Wendy (Barrie's book-long adaptation of the story, published in 1911), they are introduced as the “Piccaninny tribe” — a blanket stand-in for “others” of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States. Barrie's tribespeople communicate in pidgin; the braves have lines like “Ugh, ugh, wah!”  Tiger Lily is slightly more loquacious; she'll say things like “Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him.” They call Peter “the great white father” — the name that Barrie had originally chosen for the entire play. A tom-tom pounded in victory is a key plot point.

So, an adaptation of Peter Pan would certainly want to rewrite this character, who is integral to the story, to be less of a stereotype.  But if you’re going to rewrite a racist caricature, why make her and the tribe Native American in the first place?  While Peter Pan is not something that I have ever over-analyzed, I have sometimes wondered why Tiger Lily and her people are in the story’s fictional realm at all.  Here’s how one Native American website puts it:

While casting a white actress as an Indian character [in Pan] is a familiar kind of disappointing, some folks who are trying to read the tea leaves are seeing something else — a revamped Tiger Lily who isn’t Native American at all. This would be a departure from J.M. Barrie’s source material, but maybe not such a radical one. Peter Pan’s Indians, after all, do not live [in North America]; they live in “Neverland,” and there is no real reason why they are Indians. And in J.M. Barrie's original play (but not the movie), they are said to be of the “Pickaninny Tribe,” which adds an anti-African American slur to the anti-Native “redskin” caricature. It’s a blurring that suggests Barrie didn't really care whether he was writing about Indians, or Africans, or African Indians or Indian Africans — he simply wanted a handy caricature and exotic other that might show up in the dreams of white English kids circa 1904.

I hear that Pan director Wright has crafted a character who is not a damsel in distress but a butt-kicking feminist role model.  Furthermore, I understand that Wright has cast both Tiger Lily’s tribe and the Lost Boys with a multi-racial ensemble, so performers of color aren’t being entirely snubbed. 

Given how egregiously racist the portrayals of Tiger Lily and her tribe have been from the get-go, I can certainly understand Wright’s going in the other direction and creating a character who, in and of herself, could not be accused of being a racial stereotype and could not be accused of promoting racism (with the arguable exception of extradiegetically erasing a prominent character of color by doing so).  There’s no real logic to the Indians being in the fictional realm of Neverland in the first place.  If the story were actually set in North America, I’d probably feel differently, but the setting is largely one drawn entirely from Barrie’s imagination, so why not?  This seems to be the reason why Pan reportedly does not make Tiger Lily and her people Native American.  While it makes Tiger Lily ostensibly white, it makes her people multi-racial. 

The musical ‘The Nightingale,’
based on Hans Christian Andersen’s
China-set story, was staged at the
La Jolla Playhouse in 
2012 with a
self-proclaimed “color-blind” cast.
Many will disagree with me, and I understand their perspectives.  For instance, some view compromised minority representation as preferable to no minority representation at all, so to them, casting the role of Tiger Lily with a white actress especially stings.  But given how stereotyped the role has been in the past, I equally understand Wright’s apparent desire to make a 180º turn, race-wise.  (Some, no doubt, will say that even if Tiger Lily in Pan had been played by a Native American actress, critics would still have found fault with her portrayal.)  Others might see an inconsistency between my position here and my preference for seeing the China-set musical The Nightingale (2012) with an all-Asian cast; instead, as its publicity said, the musical was cast “color-blind” (in the words of one critic, “white men and women of color”) because its creators saw its Asian setting as more of a China as it existed in the 19th-century European imagination than the non-fictional China.  But at least China is an actual place inhabited by actual Chinese people, something that The Nightingale ought to have reflected.  Peter Pan’s Neverland, by contrast, is not a genuine geographical entity. 

If I were ever in charge of a production of Peter Pan (which I don’t plan to be anytime soon), I would have gone further in the other direction by making Tiger Lily and all her people a visibly European (Celtic?) tribe and made up for this erasure of diversity by casting the Lost Boys as multi-racial.  That way, there would be no accusations of racially stereotyping Tiger Lily and her people, while I would still maintain a racially pluralistic cast. 

Oh, well.  Those are my thoughts on the subject of the casting of Joe Wright’s Pan.  What are yours?  

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