“Something is changing,” said Wesley Morris, film critic at large for the New York Times, during his State Of Cinema address at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). The topic was race in movies.
Something is definitely changing. But, like most change this profound and important, it’s delicate. Our current cultural climate is bringing forth a plethora of new opportunities for all types of people to represent and redefine all the wrongs that have been written in Hollywood and beyond. Racebending our beloved characters and stories is one such opportunity.
Racebending the Rules
Racebending can be a negative thing, such as when a white character does blackface, yellow face, red face or multi-ethnic face. However, as the current of change grows stronger, so does the reclamation of the term. Reversing the casting roles so that we can have a black Cinderella or a Chinese-American crime-fighting Charlie’s Angel.
Morris says, “POCs are trying to reclaim the space,” calling Sidney Poitier as “Patient Zero for this radicalization.” Poitier’s career is proof that the roles for a black male actor can change, but it will indeed take time and lots of effort — because in American cinema, “once the help, always the help.” If Hollywood has a problem with whitewashing, it’s up to the rest of us of to support the re-coloring of our media.
The Plea for “Accuracy”
If you’ve ever been a part of a mega-fandom like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games or any comic book adaptation ever and you’ve been on the Internet, chances are you understand the fandom’s demand for accurate adaptations. Maybe Hogwarts wasn’t as grand as the some fans thought it would be. It took three whole movies to get Deadpool right.
Then we start crossing into the racism territory, where people will freak the fuck out because Rue was black and now Hermione is, too. These fictional stories have creative liberties — and what better way to exercise them, AND cast more POC than to racebend and re-color a little? Just kidding — a lot.
There’s also the question of historical accuracy, as with Hamilton. As the Huffington Post puts it, Hamilton has created a space on Broadway for black and brown performers that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Opening up roles designed specifically to be played by performers of color means encroaching on that space. To deny an actor of color a role based solely on their portrayed race excludes great stories from being told by great actors. Furthermore, if history is told by the “winners,” how accurate is history any way? I’m looking at you, Columbus Day, Disney’s Pocahontas, etc.
Cheryl Dunye also gave a talk at SFIFF this year. She presented the 20th anniversary of her film The Watermelon Woman and talked about the importance of being Black and queer and making a film that was about black history in cinema. Dunye plays herself as a filmmaker trying to find the actresses behind several “Mammy”-type characters in classic films. The spectrum of characters in the film is amazing, diverse and unafraid to question the status quo.
During Dunye’s Q&A, she said that it was time for POC to “make room at the table” because no one was going to make it for them. The change Morris mentioned is being championed by filmmakers like Dunye, who dared to put themselves on screen, So make room at the table, because a new wave of writers, actors, filmmakers and content creators just grabbed a seat. It may be the kid’s table at first, but that’s okay –because we’re too busy coloring to care.