The opposite of blackface is not illogical casting
A new film adaptation of David Copperfield has the central character played by Dev Patel. So here David is brown but his mother is white while his late father’s sister is a very, very pale white. The character of Agnes is played by a black actor while her father is played by a Chinese actor, Steerforth is played by a white actor while his haughty and snobbish mother is played by a black one. Should all of this matter in this age of political correctness? The answer is that to a film viewer it does matter. It really does.
Armando Iannucci’s screen version of the Dickens classic challenges all the preconceptions that criticism of the closed nature of the industry have highlighted: its tendency to tell white people’s stories, written by white people, directed by white people and featuring white actors. But the reason it doesn’t work is, essentially, that there is no attempt to be visually convincing.
Let’s be clear here: when you are casting a classic story you attempt to be true to both the story and to the character. Hence Laurence Olivier playing Othello blacked up his face attempting to look like a Moor as did Al Jolson attempting to look like a black American musician — yet in the Iannucci film nobody bothers to look like anything but themselves. This might work in an independent theatre production but in an ambitious feature film it just doesn’t do the trick: film is a visual medium which is fairly reliant on the intimacy afforded by the camera close-up so it’s not enough to insist on the idea that ‘any actor can play any role.’
In any case, it’s a false premise that any actor can play any role – every casting director will tell you that. When you are casting you look for acting ability plus a degree of physical resemblance and if the latter is absent, then you try to create resemblance through various means such as make-up etc. For example, you wouldn’t have a fat, heavily built actor playing the part of a slight and undernourished character any more than you’d have an eighty-year-old actor playing a teenager… Does this make the casting either ‘fatist’ or ageist and hence reprehensible? No, it’s all just a bit of common sense.
For the past few years every time the Oscars and BAFTA award season comes around, we are reminded anew of the issue that mainstream films tend to ignore and sideline non-white talent and that the Hollywood film industry has a bias that favours white professionals. This is a completely valid concern but the superficial way in which some people are choosing to redress the balance is fairly ridiculous. The David Copperfield film is a perfect example of this – just because men used to play female roles in 17th-century productions of Shakespeare or white actors used to play Chinese or non-white roles in early cinema, does not mean that the inverse is okay – indeed such casting defies the very basis that such criticism is based upon i.e. that casting could be more authentic and more convincing if the opportunity was opened up to more people fitting the physical description better.
At this point, you may disagree and ask “Well, what about Hamilton?”. Hamilton is, of course, the runaway hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda that casts non-white actors as America’s founding fathers and other historical figures. But Hamilton works because it is theatre rather than film and the story-telling methods are non-traditional. What works on stage doesn’t necessarily work on the large screen – and certainly not where kinship is suggested, after all, we tend to look for some sort of resemblance even between non-white actors if they are cast as blood relatives, it’s just something that’s part of our cinematic expectation.
It’s right and timely that we recognise and deal with the issue of prejudice and marginalisation in mainstream cinema and we attempt to correct conscious and unconscious biases within the industry, but the way to do this is not through random and unconvincing casting. The multicultural nature of the casting of the new Charles Dickens adaptation proves this convincingly. I’m not sure why filmmakers keep remaking perfectly good films but in the case of Copperfield, it marks no improvement on its predecessors. (Unfortunately, it’s difficult to discuss this widely enough because so few people nowadays seem to have read David Copperfield!)
At any rate, when you see #OscarsSoWhite trending again this year, do think about the whole issue again. Hopefully, you’ll agree that merely ticking boxes and casting without logic does not redress any sort of historical imbalance it just makes for weak cinema.