Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ethnic (mis)casting

This post is not about actors being cast to play ethnicities which are not their own (Mexicans as omni-Hispanics, Asians as omni-Asians, etc). For instance, the new movie Star Trek (awesome movie) cast John Cho, a Korean, as Sulu, originally played by Japanese George Takei. However, in this case, the actual ethnicity of the character is really irrelevant to the role or any underlying themes. (Well, actually, Sulu was deliberately post-ethnic in his original character concept.)

I am actually referring to films in which the ethnic undertones are specific to the films characters as displayed in the film. For instance, I love Strictly Ballroom (I'm a little gay sometimes), but I have always had a problem with the fact that the underlying message of the movie is "white people can't dance." Scott, who has been dancing since he was walking, can't understand the basics of "true" dancing until he is instructed by his Hispanic girlfriend's family. Sure, it's a common trope, but what really bugs me is that every character in the movie is blond-haired blue eyed white boy poster child, except that the actor who plays Scott is dark haired, dark eyed, and generally Hispanic looking himself. (I suspect he's Italian with a name like Mercurio, but my point remains). So, the "white boy" who learns to dance can't even be played by a white boy...

Not necessarily a big deal, but Hispanic/White relations are hardly a loaded topic. When we deal with Palestinian/Arabs and Israelis, however, there are some serious emotions, so much that it seems one can't actually cast two actors of the correct ethnicities in a movie together. Don't Mess with the Zohan, a wonderfully funny movie with the deliberate message of "why can't we all get along?" has Adam Sandler in the title role fall in love with Dahlia, the Palestinian hair dresser from the other side of the street (nice metaphor). Only problem is, Dahlia is played by Emmanuelle Chriqui, who is Jewish (Moroccan Jewish, strangely enough). Why couldn't Adam Sandler actually date an actual Palestinian woman, or at least an Arab. And there are plenty: Salma Hayek and Shannon Elizabeth are of Arab descent. Okay, they're a little too well known, and obviously American. Chriqui is not well known, I only know her as the chick from that Lance Bass movie and the lesbian ex in The OC (did I mention I was a little gay?). How about Amal Hejazy, Farah Bseso, Clara Khoury, Amal Murkus, or Nadine Salameh?

Finally, what brought these thoughts back up for me, was watching a little indie Israeli movie called The Band's Visit about an Egyptian band trapped in a small Israeli town. Nice, light, but touching movie about the possibility of overcoming ethnic differences. But the main character is played by Sasson Gabai, a Jewish Israeli actor.

I don't have any objections to ethnic- or race-blind casting in films. Or weirdness, Observe and Report had one of the coolest and weirdest moments ever with the casting of the crack gang as a white trash guy, a hispanic guy, a thug black guy, a random white guy, and an asian guy. I think it's best to go about it that way, but when the ethnicity of a character is integral to the plot, maybe there should be some truth in advertising...

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