Racism and Marketability in Popular Entertainment

Popular fantasy has for long had a group of critics who complain about its 'race problem'. Simply put, in most novels, the heroes, wizards, queens and witches are almost always White. Only yesterday, I read a rather angry piece by David Dennis Jr on the new Ridley Scott movie Exodus. Apparently...

"Moses is White. The Pharaoh is White. Tuya is super White and Joshua is Jesse Pinkman. Not only are these characters who are supposed to be Africans White, they’re not even remotely tan. They’re pearly White. Christian Bale is Moses, a former slave in Egypt who was using SPF infinity sunscreen because he’s still Gotham City White. You can convince me that a guy can shake a staff and make it rain locusts but I refuse to believe someone who grew up in Egypt in the sun doesn’t have a tan at least. But this is all Hollywood stuff, right? White guys are always cast in these roles and we’re all here to throw praise on a cast full of White guys no matter where or when they live."

I am not sure a movie based on Biblical history can be classified as fantasy proper, but in my defence, Moses did part the sea and bring forth storms of locusts. That said, I think the writer is making a valid point about Hollywood's race problem. The consensus seems to be -- in the words of Ana-Christina Ramon -- that "the whiter you are, the better you are as a person".

From Mickey Rooney playing a bumbling Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany (1961), to Ben Affleck playing a person of Mexican decent in Argo(2012), the story of Hollywood keeping White actors employed at the cost of 'people of colour' is rather long and enlightening. Even the legendary Bruce Lee had to let go of the lead role in the TV series Kung Fu (1972) when the producers decided to go with David Carradine instead.

It may be argued however, that this is more than just a race issue. After all, It was this very same Hollywood who got Tom Cruise to play Jack Reacher in the 2012 movie of the same name. Reacher's character in the books is tall and blonde. Tom Cruise is neither tall nor blonde. Star power won over any urge to remain true to the books. And it is not as if Tom Cruise did a bad job of it either.

Popular anime character Naruto Uzumaki is blonde and has blue eyes. American magazine Shonen Jump suggests that the decision to show him this way may have been taken with a view to making the character more appealing to Western audiences.

Peter Brook made his version of the Hindu epic Mahabharata using actors from various ethnicities. Bheem was African, Krishna was White and so was Arjuna. When asked about his reasons, Brook said (and I am paraphrasing here) that he felt he would make a fool of himself trying tell the story of the Mahabharata the way an Indian might. So he decided to tell it like no Indian ever would -- with a global cast. Peter Brook's Mahabharata is a style epic in its own right and the way he chose tell the story only adds to the work's value.

So while Hollywood may indeed be acting in racist ways when making casting decisions, this is neither a White man's problem, nor is it a problem for White people to solve.
I agree wholeheartedly that the problem needs to be pointed out so that corrective measures may be taken (by Hollywood, if it chooses to, or is capable of). But this is only a "problem" in that it is unfair. There are bound to be a good number of White people who find this sort of thing perfectly normal. And there might be/are White people who find such alleged on-screen discrimination abhorrent. But by and large, this is not their problem. It is a problem for those who find themselves discriminated against.
I feel it is impractical to blame White storytellers for looking at the world through a White lens. They tell their stories to themselves, just like we do. And the issue is never exclusively about race either (as we have seen). Market forces play a considerable role in it too.
So by protesting against the way they choose to depict us, we are essentially putting them in charge of depicting us. That task is ours, and has always been ours. If we fail to put our stories forward the way we want them told, then it is we who are to blame, not them. Racism in storytelling must be pointed out, but it must not stop there. The cultural divides created by one kind of story can only be bridged by another kind of story.

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