Nobody wants to be called a racist. But I'm calling some of us out in Hollywood.
I'm not talking about white-cloaked Klansmen burning a cross or Donald Trump screaming about Mexican murderers and rapists crossing our borders, but a level of racism insidiously injected into our storytelling, often without us understanding our own ignorance.
Consider the following three scenarios (names and projects changed to protect the... um, well, racists).
SCENARIO 1 "Because they're not."
You've adapted a book for screen. You suggest two support characters be cast as non-white. The producer looks at you like you're nuts, saying, "They're white in the book."
You point out the book does not specify race for these two characters. There is zero mention of hair, eye or skin color on the pages. And since the story takes place in a cosmopolitan city known for its melting pot history, you find it reasonable that the characters could be played by different ethnicities.
The producer refuses, and when pressed as to why the characters can't be played by non-white actors, she can only answer, over and over, "because they're not."
These are fictional characters. They are not actual people who roamed this earth.
While flat-out calling her the R word might feel extreme (it's not like this producer was picketing a country club with a "no blacks allowed" sign), I'm standing by labeling this a form of racism because this producer was refusing to hire people of color based on something she couldn't articulate. A feeling. A presupposition. A view guided by something so deep rooted, it literally blinded her creative abilities.
While we're all allowed to read books and imagine the characters any colors we wish, turning a book into a movie is a major responsibility. The characters become indelibly sealed by a visual pact between screen and viewer. Casting can't be decided based on "because they're not", unless they really are not.
If I had known she was so averse to ethnic casting, I would have assigned ethnicities to the characters when writing the script. That way, all the producers would have read it and a discussion could have taken place before one of them unilaterally made the decision based on her own white-world view.
But assigning race to characters on the page can be dangerous...
SCENARIO 2 "That One Ethnic Guy"
A friend asks you to read his screenplay. You comply and quite enjoy it, but note that only one minor character has race included in his description. It's the smart, nerdy scientist of Indian descent, Danush!
When you ask your friend how come only Danush has an ethnic character description, your friend replies, "That's his character."
You point out that by excluding race in all other character descriptions, is one to assume all the others are all non-Indian? And if so, what are they? "Well," your friend explains, "I guess they're white. Or whatever. It doesn't matter." Then why, you ask, does it matter for the smart nerdy scientist? There is nothing in his language or action that is specifically of Indian heritage. He could be anybody spouting off logistics and facts.
Your friend cannot answer, but becomes more defensive and the discussion escalates, with you avoiding the R word because, again, your friend isn't outside a country club with a sign.
Based on his argument, you ask questions:
How would the writer feel about that choice if he himself was East Indian?
What are we doing as writers to create original characters?
How often are smart, nerdy scientists cast as East Indians?
If ethnicity doesn't matter, why not make the lead character Detective Danush?
Your friend continues to defend the choice, giving no other reason than "that's his character" adding that it's no big deal. He refuses to consider taking it out or labeling the other fifteen characters in the script by race.
That's the common thread in these scenarios: the inability to explain the choice. And I get it, because who wants to admit to being racist? Even if it wasn't meant to be racist, it is. It's a racism based on ignorance, a lack of self-knowledge, or the subconscious feeling that non-whites are others, not us, not like us, and therefore different. Non-whites are used when convenient (Scenario 2) and ignored when convenient (Scenario 1).
We make writing choices based on deep-seated, subjective beliefs. We often don't know where these beliefs came from and part of the deeper process of writing is understanding those choices when they can't be explained. The source of these choices can be so subconsciously buried or convoluted or ugly or stupid, it could be painful - painful to remember or painful to admit that our hearts have been skewed by an experience that keeps us thinking one way, even as the world around us tells us that it's not true. It's far easier to keep arguing he's Indian because he's a scientist (or was a scientist because he's Indian?) than to look deep inside.
As writers, if we don't do the deeper work and hold ourselves accountable, who will? We must ask, when a character is described by race, if the choice serves to continue stereotyping, or represent underrepresented people in a way that has universal connectivity.
As a side note, it's just plain lazy when a writer relies on race to define character, since every member of every race has every personality known to the universe. Which brings us to our third slur...
SCENARIO 3 "It IS About Race"
You are hired to direct a one act play! Yay!
In the past, you've directed a couple of one act plays under artistic director Elisa Bocanegra and her theater HERO, which is dedicated to racial equality for actors, so you're really happy that this new theater company has given you a script with two female characters - one African American, one Caucasian. You won't have to fight to get a juicy role for an actor of color - it's already been designated!
You begin to wonder what interesting things the playwright (who is also the artistic director) has to say about race in her play! As you read, you think of all the amazing women of color you might cast.
The play is about two women negotiating a bureaucratic system. The "white" woman needs some forms after her husband's death and the "black" woman, who works for the city, is rude, unhelpful, and intimidating. To wit, in the last four pages of the script, the "black" woman (and I write "black" because that's how the playwright wrote it) is on her cell phone, shouting in ebonics about how her no-good man ruined her credit.
When you finish reading, you're left wondering why they have been assigned this way.
There is nothing redeeming about this "black" woman. She is an antogonist through and through. You imagine the character being played by another race. It makes you feel better. You call the playwright/artistic director and ask to discuss putting out a casting call for both roles as Any Ethnicity and let the best actresses win. She says no. The character has to be black. You ask why?
She proceeds to tell you a story about being from an east coast city that's segregated and 20% "black" and how she was recently in a car accident and was freaking out and a "black" woman came to her and hugged her when she cried for 15 minutes.
You say, okay, so is there a hug in this play I'm missing? No, she says. I'm just saying "black" women have always been there for me in times of hardship. Okay, you say, so how is the "black" woman there for the "white" woman in the play?
She cannot point to the text and show you where there is a redemptive act on the part of the "black" woman. She can only tell you she's had positive experiences with strong "black" women and insists the character can only be "black."
"The play IS about race," she insists a few times. Without using the word stereotype, or worse, you keep bringing up the text of the play, asking what exactly is the race message when a difficult, rude, unhelpful, lowly city work character who is "black" berates a "white" woman who just lost her husband. She cannot answer directly. She is unwilling to consider open call casting for all ethnicities. You politely quit.
You write to your friend Elisa Bocanegra about it. She says "good move."
The first thing to consider is never work with a playwright who is also the artistic director of her company. But that's another thought for another time.
For now, I'm going to pull out my race card: I'm white, born and bred in California. My grandfather was arrested twice for marching with Martin Luther King and believed King was a modern-day prophet. This is not something said lightly when you're a rabbi, which my grandfather was. Being Jewish and Californian automatically means I had a liberal, leftist upbringing. That perspective has shaped the way I live, write and direct.
With so many people moving to LA from other places, I'm starting to realize my upbringing does not reflect theirs. The above scenarios came from Connecticut, Detroit and Philadelphia. I don't know what they experienced growing up, but I doubt it included boycotting grapes or attending interfaith anti-nuclear rallies with Ed Asner and Jackson Browne, or having parents and grandparents committing civil disobedience and going to jail to incite change. It also probably didn't include being bussed to San Fernando Junior High, a predominantly Latino school in which all of us white girls promptly developed huge crushes on all of the Latino boys and a few of us even got boyfriends out of the deal. While my upbringing was most definitely and weirdly Californian, I have no idea what it was like to grow up in major east coast cities like Philly or Detroit. But I do know these people have chosen to live in LA now, so it's time to adopt a Californian perspective.
As a teen, I asked my grandfather what defines a racist. He said a racist is someone who believes others shouldn't be allowed a basic liberty, be it jobs, marriage, education or rights. This translates on the page, in casting sessions, and on screen. Even the Oscars, where so many brilliant performances (my personal tour de force favorite performance of the year by Jason Mitchell in Straight Out Of Compton) were completely ignored by the predominantly white, male voting body, I say it's time to call out our fellow writers to work at a higher standard and leave their racism at the California border. If that means someone is embarrassed and has to look deep inside to reconsider his or her perspective, I'm not afraid to say it. I hope others would say it to me.
Some may think I'm splitting hairs with the above scenarios. Others will accuse me of being completely out of line by referring to those people as racists. But racism starts somewhere, quietly brewing, until it explodes. The above examples are the quietly brewing kind. None of these people are going on a shooting rampage or voting for Trump (I hope), but they are responsible for material that could have a wide-reaching audience. We owe it to ourselves to be more conscious so we can tell better stories.