Hollywood has been making certain strides toward diversifying its casts as of late. It’s an attempt, however successful, at responding to criticisms of the industry’s inability to break out of its straight white mold, especially when it comes to leading characters. Just this past year has seen starring turns for more women and people of color, including recent rom-com installments Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and internet thriller Searching, as well as films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Annihilation, and the upcoming Captain Marvel from the genre side.
But while the push to tell more stories about underserved communities moves forward, Hollywood now finds itself in a very different debate: one about racial stereotypes, colorism, and the nuances of ethnicity and authenticity.
Hollywood has long had a tradition of casting actors of color who either had a lighter skin tone or who possessed a specific look in line with what producers thought of when they considered people of a certain ethnic background. According to casting director and former actress Elaine Del Valle, speaking with NBC News, “If they say to me, ‘Hire a Latina,’ I know Latinas that have blonde hair and blue eyes and with terrific Spanish, but that’s not the one that they want to hire or sometimes they do depending on what they’re looking for. They want someone who looks it and looks it to them.”
Del Valle, though believes that as diversity increased behind the camera, so too will it increase in front of the camera, allowing films and television shows to represent a larger range of skin tones, backgrounds, and experiences more in line with the real world as seen by American minority groups.
A similar, though somewhat different debate, has also surfaced from the other side. It is a question of whether actors of an ethnic background dissimilar to a character should be cast at all, even when they are of the larger minority group in question. A biracial actor being cast to play someone of a full minority background, for example. This has come up specifically in debates surrounding casting for both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians.
In the latter case, leading man Henry Goulding’s casting was criticized by some due to the fact that he is mixed race (he is of British descent as well as Singaporean and Malaysian). Many fans of the books, excited to see an Asian man cast as a romantic lead, found it inauthentic or insulting that the studio would cast someone who wasn’t fully Chinese.
In the case of Black Panther, meanwhile, actor Amandla Stenberg said in an interview with CBC, that they chose not to audition for a role in the Marvel film precisely because they’re biracial. Stenberg said it would have been odd for them to see themselves onscreen with a Nigerian accent, next to much darker skinned actors.
Neither the Crazy Rich Asians issue nor Stenberg’s is easy to solve. Casting agents and studios are not allowed to ask actors who audition for roles about their specific ethnicity. It’s a rule designed to curtail racial bias in casting decisions, but in some cases, an ethnically authentic cast can be important to both the story and the audiences.
No matter which way you slice it, the crux of the matter, as it often does, comes down to increasing the number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people who hold positions of power in Hollywood. The greater the diversity behind the scenes, the richer the stories in front.