The actress Michelle Rodriguez, (Avatar and The Fast and the Furious series), recently discovered how voicing your opinons on a controversial subject can come back to haunt you, especially through social media. In response to rumours that she could be in line to play a female version of the DC Comics character Green Lantern, she stated her opposition to white characters being altered into non-white minorities, during an interview with TMZ.
Unsurprisingly, her view generated a lot of internet chatter, much of it disagreeing with her comments. Many suggested that because strong, well written roles for non-white actors are in such short supply, changing white characters is a necessary step in order to give these actors good roles. For her part Michelle Rodriguez has since clarified her comments, posting a video on Facebook, where she apologised for “a tendency to speak without a filter”, although not, it seems, for the comments themselves.
As controversial as they were (and no doubt remain) I find myself agreeing with her. However, before I explain why, I want to make it clear that I believe the lack of well written roles for non-white actors in major studio films is a disgrace, especially when it comes to leading roles. The situation on the small screen is improving, with shows like How To Get Away With Murder, with Viola Davis, and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington in the lead role, although this is not before time.
All that being said, while I agree that there is an issue, I don’t believe that changing and re-writing white characters so that a non-white actor can be cast is the answer. At best, I think it’s a step towards adopting (even informally) a quota system, and at worst, it can ever be a case of re-writing history.
For example, a TV show is in development called Broad Squad, which centres on the first female graduates from Boston’s police academy during the 70’s. Despite the fact that this is a true story, and that all of the women were white, one of the four lead roles has been given to the black actress Rutina Wesley.
Even if you have a tenuous grasp of America’s history of race relations, you’ll know how much opposition a black recruit to any police force could possibly have faced at that time, even more so if that recruit happened to be female. However, by altering the past, it runs the risk of implying, even to a small extent, that things weren’t as bad as they actually were. It can make periods of history look more tolerant than they actually were, as if we’re looking at the past through the lens of our present day desire for racial harmony and tolerance.
While desire for tolerance is absolutely right, it should be built on an acceptance of the wrongs of the past, and not by pretending that things were far rosier than they actually were. In other words, we don’t address historical or present issues by lessening their severity, and by avoiding the scale of the issues we face.
What makes it worse is when challenging parts for black and minority ethnic characters are themselves changed. For example, the Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul is a rare example of a non-white character in comic books who is complex and multi-layered. However, in both of his recent live action depictions, he’s been played by white actors Liam Neeson (in Batman Begins) and Matt Nable (in Arrow.)
While both portrayals have been enjoyable to watch, it’s rather sad to see an important part of the character’s history changed. It was even more disappointing in Arrow, when producers cast Homeland actor Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir), as a high ranking member of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins, when he would have been a perfect fit for Ra’s himself.
To be clear again: I recognise that there is a sad shortage of good roles for non-white actors, especially lead roles, and even more so in mainstream studio projects. However, I think it’s sad that rather than concentrating on adapating those non-white characters that already exist (such as DC’s Cassandra Cain) or writing and developing original parts for non-white actors, studios are seemongly settling for just changing white characters. At best, it seems lazy, at worst, it’s an insult to the actors themselves. Crucially, it does nothing to solve what, sadly, remains a major issue.