By Martha Luetge
This is not an essay about how whitewashing doesn’t exist. It does. It is alive and well.
There are people in all industries that are consciously racist or sexist. Or even subconsciously and therefore believe that people of color can’t play certain roles. So before I get messages about how I am in denial about the truth or even racist myself, I want to say this right away.
This is about the truth behind whitewashing and heterosexual casting that stands for all the filmmakers that aim to cast diverse but find that it’s easier said than done.
I held a casting just a couple months ago. We were ready to cast main actors that are black, indian, trans, etc., provided they are good actors and that their acting style fit the character.
We send out a casting call that called for actors in certain age groups from all genders and races.
We did cast a black man, four actors from Asian backgrounds and two openly gay men in the circle of the 12 most important characters (And no not both gay men play gay characters). But not one of them landed one of the three main roles. Why?
There was no „selection“.
Let’s use the female lead as the example: Only four of the women coming in for the female lead were non-white. That is four out of about 30. We had an application from a trans woman that we were very excited about, but she never showed up.
We were happy that there was diversity in the applicant group. Being a production that has, say, a black, trans woman as a main character, would not only make us a revolutionary production. It would have also supported the aim of the story of the film to make non-hetero people a natural part of society.
To explain this a bit: The film has two openly gay characters in the circle of the 6 most important characters. But it is not something that is specifically talked about or made a big drama about. The goal is to show that gay men and women can have a normal story arc and be treated just like hetero people. The same goes for the characters that have an immigration background of any kind.
Now, purely statistically it is more likely to find a fitting actress, who is capable, has a fitting acting style, seems adjustable and fits the manner/mood of the general crew and cast in the race group that has more people coming in, than the other, smaller group.
It doesn’t matter which color or gender the smaller group has. If it has been 4 white actresses among 30 black women, it would have been more likely to find a fitting actress in the group of women of color.
And it is very important to me as a filmmaker to change my casting strategy and cast in a way that I can send a message with my film.
But I also have to make sure to gather the right cast to make the quality and dynamic of my film work.
This is my responsibility towards my audience and sponsors.
I have thought a lot about why we only had so little amount of people coming in that belong to the non-hetero, non-white group.
Let’s leave the fact out that logically people from minority groups will most likely be in the minority.
I decided on two main reasons that my white, hetero brain could come up with:
EDUCATION AND WEALTH
Not only education for the decision makers to have less prejudice, but making education available to everyone alike. That is the big reason for almost everything, isn’t it?
I studied at Vancouver Film School, a fairly renovated school. It is expensive but most programs offer training that gives you a foundation for your career and help you learn to work on a high stress level.
In my class were 32 students and about 5 of them were non-white. And I do not believe this is not because VFS selected like this. I am an immigrant myself, there were lots of international people in that class. But the application rate from minority groups was really small.
Is this because the school is expensive? Is it because young people are scared to start in a risky industry because they expect to face complications because of their race?
I don’t know. I won’t pretend to even understand.
I had it easy, applying as a white, pretty girl with blonde hair and a good school education.
WE DIDN’T SPECIFICALLY for black, or Asian or trans people.
Now understandably, most of the, say, black women seeing our casting call assumed that they had a smaller chance of landing a role against all the white women that would come in.
Not to say that I blame our casting choices on them. It is understandable that an actress would assume this automatically, based on the casting choices previous filmmakers have made. How many times do you see a black woman in the lead in a standard Hollywood production that is not aimed at a black audience? I can’t remember seeing it ever.
Yes, society has evolved to the point that important characters can be black. The best example I can come up with is Zoe Saldana. She has landed major roles in Star Trek, Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, so on. Although I notice that the more important her role is, the more color paint she seems to have on her face.
But we aren’t far enough to have a person of color naturally as a main character.
We aren’t far enough to make a movie with a trans actor as the lead, without the film becoming a film “about trans people” less than just a film that coincidentally has a trans actor in the lead.
And as long as the big boys do not change this view on casting, it will not change generally. Yes, smaller films can make a point. They can be stepping stones to progress.
But as long as big Hollywood productions do not make productions that give an Indian woman the strength to apply to a role that is not specified as Idian, a tiny 35.000$ production like ours can’t change the system.
I guess what I am trying to say is: Do not always judge certain Producers or Casting Directors.
Don’t wag your finger and say “Only 2 diverse actors? Black people only in side roles? You aren’t even trying. You are just using this as an excuse. It’s not enough.”
Let’s rather work together and try to smooth the way for actors to be encouraged to go to castings that are not race specific.
Let’s not scold filmmakers for casting an Indian only as the best friend (which I am guilty of too, by the way).
Let’s rather support and praise each other for trying to make a difference. Let’s use diverse films as examples for bringing change and let’s show (our common) white people that hiring people of race and different genders is something that their customer wants.
Let’s show that it is better to make a movie that might anger racists and consciously decide to lose that kind of audience. To rather lose that 5% of income because of that group of people and, instead, using it to make a difference.
This is how you bring forth development.