Imagine: a white man writes, directs and produces a film with a female lead perfect for a young African American actress – but a white woman is cast. Or imagine: a team of able-bodied men and (maybe) one woman create an entire film about a disabled man – but the actor is not disabled. In instances like these it is often the actors that are blamed for taking the roles that other actors should portray. We say that they have no right to take on a character of different gender, race, age, ability etc. We pigeonhole them, conforming them to the same character with a slightly different narrative, or else we condemn them. Yet are we not just criticising them for doing exactly what they are meant to do – portray a character?
In the same way that Nabokov is not condemned as a pedophile, the creators of fiction, which is at the core of acting, are exploring a form of escapism and separation from reality. While some may employ the tradition of writing what you know, this restriction invades and inhibits the genius of imagination and creativity, without which much of our artistic culture would not exist. Actors, by definition of their profession, should have the right to freely explore their art through the portrayal of all and any characters they choose. As the face of the industry, the actors are too often forced into the political limelight. The problem, however, lies much deeper beneath the surface and in fact, I believe, has little to do with the question of who is cast for what role.
For years, it has been primarily white men that have been dictating the way women, people of colour and all other minority groups are depicted in film. Beyond the directed artistic license of the actor, privileged men have been the creators of these storylines which have not only shaped social reputations and conventions, but also the minds of their viewers. Moreover, the casting of actors has historically been done so on the basis of both similarity and necessity. The casting of men for female roles was founded in sexism, the portrayal of blacks in racism, and so on. Now it seems, without erasing the burdens of these outdated social constructs, the reins have not in fact been handed over to these misrepresented communities. It is blindingly obvious that minority groups are both underrepresented and distortedly depicted, both a symptom of their systematic silencing. It is for these reasons that we want to see a black female lead, or a transgender or disabled or lesbian actor take centre stage. Not because we don’t want an alternative, but because we want them to have the opportunity. We fight it because we know that if these actors don’t get cast for the few roles that are designed for them, they will have no characters to portray at all.
In a greatly hypothetical industry in which every different community has equal representation through narrative, direction, production and acting, would we care if a black woman was played by a white woman? Or if a transgender woman from Israel played an African-American from Chicago? All done so without the need for offensive make-up or excessive costume, just the open mindedness and the suspension of disbelief of it’s audience. The examples are as redundant as the current restricted industry. The point is simply that allowing the unity of creative innovation from every viewpoint opens up the door to a whole new type of cinematic artistry in which fiction becomes less literal and more explorative.