ill LYTeracy - "True" Colors

It seems like only yesteryear that I was watching a fairly mediocre comedy set in England that was entitled DEATH AT A FUNERAL, a movie commonly referred to nowadays as “British,” though director Frank “Yoda” Oz is American (albeit one born in the UK). Billed as “the story of a family that puts the F.U. in funeral,” this 2007 release featured such “hilarity” as an old man accidentally shitting on a guy’s face, SERENITY’s Alan Tudyk running around naked after accidentally ingesting hallucinogens, and a central plot device revolving around the notion that gay midgets are inherently a punchline unto themselves.

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It’s only been three years, yet this week sees a big-screen remake of Oz’s movie with a mostly black cast, courtesy of the ever-racially sensitive Mormon director Neil LaBute. It’s interesting to note which roles were NOT racially recast...the naked guy on acid is still Caucasian, played here by James Marsden, and the gay little man is played by the same actor as before, Peter Dinklage, who’s usually known for going after roles that aren’t primarily sight gags.

When I found out about the cast of the new version, my first thought was that Tony Cox must be pissed. Cox, who played Billy Bob Thornton’s sidekick in BAD SANTA, is the most well-known black, little-person actor in Hollywood. Unlike Dinklage, he doesn’t hold out for high art, and has gotten steady work appearing in the unfunny Friedberg/Seltzer parody movies, where his mere appearance is usually the joke, such as when he appears as Indiana Jones in DISASTER MOVIE. So a high-profile remake featuring most of the roles recast with black actors, and prominently including a little person...it’s hard not to think that Cox might be hugely disappointed that they opted not to make the one role he’d be perfect for into a non-racial-switch.

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It turns out my guess was not far off. According to a New York Times interview with producer Clint Culpepper, Cox was initially asked to read for the role, until Culpepper decided that the only thing funnier than a pint-sized homosexual in a mostly black movie would be a WHITE pint-sized homosexual. Ironically, this is pretty much the same logic that saw Cox cast as Indiana Jones in DISASTER MOVIE, but in reverse.

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When a character’s primary raison d’etre is as a sight gag, it makes a kind of sense to racially recast if doing so adds to the gag factor. I haven’t noticed any significant protests demanding that LaBute recast the Dinklage role with an actor of color. The same cannot be said for M. Night Shyamalan’s THE LAST AIRBENDER, in which characters who appeared to be Asian in the original cartoon will be portrayed in some cases by Caucasian actors. In an interview with the L.A. Times’ Geoff Boucher, Shyamalan defends his decision by saying that the characters on the cartoon are a deliberate mix of many different racial features, designed so that all kids can identify with them (he also refers to the cartoon as “anime,” when in fact that word by definition refers to Japanese cartoons, and AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is American). Then he digs himself a little deeper by comparing racial concerns to the casting of Haley Joel Osment in THE SIXTH SENSE, in which the lead character was written as having black hair while Osment is blond.

 Aangtrailer2 And race-casting concerns go in every direction: when rumors were floated last year that Will Smith was being considered to play Captain America, talk-backers at all the geek sites worked themselves into a froth. Never mind that Nick Fury, usually depicted as a gray-templed white guy in the comics, was played by the bald Samuel L. Jackson in a manner that few complained about. Yes, I know that at least one comic incarnation of Fury was also black, but not the primary, iconic version. Still, once you’ve been burned by a terrible TV movie in which David Hasselhoff awkwardly tried to be the badass agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., who’s gonna complain? I guess the same people who never saw Matt Salinger as Cap in the justly buried direct-to-DVD disaster.

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I remember telling my mother that George Clooney had been cast as Batman, a decision I thought would turn out to be a terrible one (I was pretty much right about that). My mother responded that if it had to be an E.R. actor, Eriq La Salle would have been a better choice, as he seemed to have more of an obvious dark side (personality wise, not skin-tone wise, which is obvious). As a Batman purist, the idea of a black Batman led me to utter a reflexive “no”...but then I wondered why. Would a muscular black man with a brooding temperament really be a worse fit than, say, Michael Keaton, who had the acting chops but the absolute wrong physicality? If the only thing “incorrect” would be the skin tone, it would still have been an improvement.

Granted, there are egregious examples of racial miscasting in Hollywood history. Mickey Rooney as an Asian, John Wayne as Genghis Khan, numerous blackface actors in BIRTH OF A NATION. Many of them are easy to pinpoint as wrong because they play on offensive stereotypes; it seems doubtful that the cast of THE LAST AIRBENDER will do likewise, given that the director himself is South Asian.

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But when it comes to superheroes, look to the Nick Fury example or my mother’s hypothetical Batman. The characters have been reinvented so many times anyway – up to and including racial switcheroos in some cases – that if race is the only thing that changes significantly, I have no real issue with that. A Batman whose parents were murdered by the Joker, and who kills people in return (thank you Tim Burton, 1989), is a lot less accurate than an otherwise by-the-book Batman who happens to be half-Chinese or something. Chris Evans should make a fine Captain America, but I’m sure Will Smith could have been good too.

(Regardless, I probably shouldn’t be cast in the lead role of a SHAFT remake any time soon, or ever.)

In semi-related news, I had to laugh out loud when Disney sent out a casting memo stating that they would not cast actresses with breast implants for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4, seeing as how such things didn’t exist in ye olden pyrate days. The kicker? The director of this stickler-for-accuracy movie is Rob Marshall, who gave us MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA with Chinese actresses playing Japanese and speaking English.

 

Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

 

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