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The "Rules" About Which Actors Can Play Who Never Made Sense
There were never even actually rules
Netflix is embroiled in a controversy over its new Jada Pinkett Smith-produced show, Queen Cleopatra. In the “documentary series” (their words), Cleopatra is played by Adele James, who is Black. I wouldn’t normally note an actor’s race, but the people who made Queen Cleopatra made it clear that James’ race is a key part of the show: Queen Cleopatra is part of a series called “African Queens”; Pinkett Smith explained “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me.”
This casting choice has caused a firestorm on social media, but hey: What doesn’t cause a firestorm on social media? More notable is the fact that many Egyptians are unhappy. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities declared the show a “falsification of Egyptian history”, and an Egyptian lawyer filed a suit seeking to shut down Netflix in Egypt. Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef — seen here being lauded by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in 2012 — accused Netflix of trying to “take over our Egyptian culture.” In short, Netflix is being accused of “Blackwashing”, an inversion of the “whitewashing” accusation frequently levied against Hollywood.
On its face, Queen Cleopatra would appear to be an egregious violation of Hollywood’s norms about which actors can play which roles. The subject is a historical figure whose lineage is largely know (detailed discussion of Cleopatra’s ancestry to follow) played by an actor whose lineage is decidedly different. The people who claim that figure as part of their history are loudly objecting to the portrayal. We might expect Netflix to be in full damage-control mode; we might expect a groveling statement in which they vow to “do better”, paired with a sizable donation to…I don’t know. Somebody.
That hasn’t happened. And that’s largely because the rules about which actors can play who are an incoherent bunch of nonsense. They’re not even really “rules”; they’re a disjointed series of notions enforced by internet mobs. If we want to address the real problem of insensitive racial portrayals in media, then we should try to tease out some principles about which actors can play which roles.
What’s “whitewashing”? I’m going to define it myself, because my whole argument here is that the dialogue on this topic is a braindead puddle of diarrhea, and I’ll stand by that accusation to my dying breath. I define “whitewashing” as “when a character whose race is relevant and not white is played by a character who appears to be white.”
That’s a wordy definition, but the words are purposeful. The first key phrase is “a character whose race is relevant”. There are many times when a character’s race is not relevant; God willing, there will be many more times when a character's race is not relevant in the future. Hamilton is the prototypical case of a production saying “just completely ignore race”, and judging by the pornographic sums of money that play raked in, audiences were on board. But other times, race just does matter; I love Ben Stiller, but it would be a mistake to have him play Jackie Robinson.
The second clunky phrase in my definition is “a character who appears to be white”. I used this unartful word jumble because — and this is important — everything we’re talking about here is a giant pile of horseshit. What does it mean to “be white”? In a practical way, we all sort of know, but “white” is a societal construct, not a meaningful scientific category. Attempts to define “white” will inevitably end up kind of goofy; I’ve pointed out before that most people from North Africa and the Middle East — many of whom are, in a literal sense, brown or black — are “white” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There just aren’t any lines with a scientific basis that we can draw here. So, my definition of whitewashing includes the phrase “looks white” instead of “is white” because that’s the best I can do when forced to deal with this pseudoscientific 18th-century bullshit.
Why even bother making a definition of whitewashing? Because there is actually an issue here. The Hollywood of yore was blasé about casting white actors in non-white roles. Sir Laurence Olivier played Othello, Marlon Brando played a Japanese villager, and John Wayne played Genghis Kahn (the only hard-ass dude on a horse he was not qualified to play). The first problem with these castings is that they’re not remotely believable; Laurence Olivier looks like a Moor about as much as Lucy Liu looks like Bigfoot. The second problem is that the roles often devolved into racial caricature; Mickey Rooney’s turn as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is so racist that I’d call it “bad even for 1961”, which is saying something. There was a long era of Hollywood treating racial issues with blithe indifference at best and crass generalization at worst, and we shouldn’t repeat those mistakes.
Many people feel that the solution to whitewashing is to demand that actors be the same race as the characters they play. John Leguizamo recently slammed the casting of James Franco as Fidel Castro, writing “he ain’t Latino!” In 2010, The Atlantic deemed the uproar surrounding Jake Gyllenhaal being cast as the lead in Prince of Persia worthy of an article. There was even a recent, Cleopatra-specific iteration of this fight: In 2020, Paramount was accused of whitewashing when they cast Gal Gadot in the role (the project was later shelved). In my experience, Hollywood is extremely sensitive to social media’s opinions on this matter; I’d estimate that maybe five percent of studio jobs exist solely to make sure that the studio doesn’t step in this particular bear trap.
In my opinion, the idea that actors must be the same race as the characters they play doesn’t work. The first problem is that it’s race essentialist. I’ve already called racial categories “pseudoscientific 18th-century bullshit”, and I stand by that. After all: What are the groups? Nobody seems to know. The furor around Prince of Persia is instructive: None of the people who complained seemed to be able to articulate who, exactly, would be qualified for the role. Blogger Jehanzeb Dar called the movie "insulting to Persians” and also “white people”, but had to backtrack and clarify that he actually meant the movie was insulting to "people of color”, presumably because many people — such as the U.S. Census Bureau — consider Persians to be white. There were calls for the role to go to a “Middle Eastern” actor, but “Middle Eastern” includes both Persians and Arabs. Wouldn’t casting an Arab as the Prince of Persia — and to do so in the name of casting an “authentic” actor — be the height of ugly American reductionism? Wouldn’t that be a lot like saying “We cast Jackie Chan as Akira Kurosawa because, hey: It’s all the same over there in Soy Sauce Land.” These racial puzzles are unsolvable because the categories are made up.
The second problem with the “actors have to be the same race as their characters” view is that it’s extremely limiting. It took real balls for John Leguizamo to say that James Franco shouldn’t take a Latino role, because Leguizamo has played many non-Latino characters. He played Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet, a genie in Arabian Nights, and even a deeply revered figure in Italian culture: Luigi from the Mario Brothers. Personally, I think that’s fine; I would never argue that Leguizamo should stick to “his own” ethnicity. And his ethnicity, by the way, is Columbian-Iberian-Afro-Basque; I don’t know who he’d be allowed to play according to a strict interpretation of the “has to be your own race” rule. Shakira, perhaps? Maybe that would work — we already know what Leguizamo looks like as a woman thanks to To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
A third problem with the “actors have to be the same race” view is that it just isn’t practical. In “my”episode of American Auto, we had a small role for an Amharic-speaking Ethiopian character. Incredibly, we found an Ethiopian, Amharic-and-English-speaking guy who could act, but let me tell you: We found precisely one guy. I don’t know what plan B was — CGI perhaps, or maybe a really convincing puppet. Good actors are hard to find, and the more limitations you have, the harder things get. In the course of wondering what Iranian actors might have been cast instead of Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia, I found this list of the best-known Iranian actors of all time, and #1 is The Guy Who Played The Iron Sheik. And folks: The Guy Who Played The Iron Sheik is not going to head up a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster. I’m not even saying he’d be bad — the dude invented the suplex, so don’t underestimate him — but a strict “the actor has to be exactly that race” rule just isn’t compatible with the realities of entertainment.
Queen Cleopatra flouts espoused principles of racial accuracy — at least, it does if one expects those principles to be universally applied. The undisputed facts are that Cleopatra was part of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, and that the exact identities of her mother and grandmother are unknown. So — to paraphrase Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis on SNL — her parents were little people…little, swarthy people. But perhaps not entirely. She may have also had Songdian, Iranian, or Egyptian ancestry. Of course, whether “Egyptian” means “Black” in this context is another race-essentialist question with no real answer.
Obviously, I don’t know if Cleopatra was all Greek or partly Greek, and I definitely don’t give a mummified cat’s ass. But some people in Egypt and Greece care a lot, and the extent to which Queen Cleopatra’s creators are blowing off their complaints is absolutely stunning. The show’s director, Tina Gharavi, penned an op-ed in Variety in which she dismisses Egyptian complaints about the show as racist. She writes:
“…why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter.”
“Perhaps, it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that.”
This is an absolutely gobsmacking PR turn. Let’s review the sequence of events: 1) A network makes a historical “documentary series”; 2) The people who are the descendants of that history — including prominent historians from that country — complain that the depiction is inaccurate; 3) The director calls those people racist. I am absolutely fucking floored by this turn. If Netflix made the Simón Bolívar story, and South American countries complained, I doubt they would dispatch the director to say “suck my hairy nuts you backwards bunch of cousin-fuckers”. Such a response would be totally unprecedented…as of a week ago. But now, it has precedent.
When Gharavi isn’t calling Egyptians a bunch of racists who don’t know their own history, she’s twisting “Cleopatra might not have been entirely Greek” into “Cleopatra was probably Black”. Gharavi declares that while “we don’t know for sure” that Cleopatra was Black, “we can be certain she wasn’t white like Elizabeth Taylor”. She flatly states that giving the role to a white actress like Gal Gadot or Agnelina Jolie would be “incredibly wrong”. Elsewhere, she writes:
“What the historians can confirm is that it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like Adele [James, who plays Cleopatra in the series] than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.”
First of all: Historians do not all confirm that. Here’s a historian who says “Cleopatra VII was white — of Macedonian descent, as were all of the Ptolemy rulers, who lived in Egypt." Here’s a historian who says “there is absolutely no evidence” for the claim that Cleopatra was a Black African. Of course, Queen Cleopatra consulted their own set of historians, including professor Shelley Haley, who is quoted in the New York Times saying “Cleopatra reacted to the phenomena of oppression and exploitation as a Black woman would,” adding “Hence we embrace her as sister.” My feeling is that: 1) That is an astoundingly racist thing to say, because Black women are not all the same, and 2) That is an astoundingly ignorant thing to say because Cleopatra was an absolute monarch, and thus not the best example of an oppressed person. Perhaps Haley is the historian who convinced Gharavi that Cleopatra likely looked like half-Jamaican Adele James. Regardless: It is not accurate to say that historians agree that Cleopatra was not white.
Second of all: We sort of do know what Cleopatra looked like. There were coins minted of her at the time — which Cleopatra would have approved — and she does not look at all like Adele James. Though, to be fair, she doesn’t look much like Elizabeth Taylor, either. If I’m being honest, I think she looks a lot like Dame Edna.
There are also a few busts of Cleopatra remaining from her time, which give us some insight as to what she looked like. Does she look like a white lady? A Black lady? Something else? That’s for each person to judge. All we know for sure is that she had a nose so big that in at least one case it fell the fuck off.
Why would Netflix attempt this? Why would they make choices that so clearly piss in the face of the idea that racial depictions should be accurate, and that you need to be sensitive to a people’s history? I think the answer is obvious: There aren’t really any rules about who can play who and why. We don’t have coherent principles; we have a half-baked pile of pseudo-intellectual claptrap spouted by Twitter idiots and half-heartedly endorsed by studios who are seeking the path of least resistance. We’re trying to abide by a series of vague notions that are race-essentialist at their core and that quickly devolve into nonsense, as race-essentialist notions inevitably do. The rules only make sense when applied selectively, which reveals that they’re not actually rules. They’re expressions of a power dynamic.
The fact that no coherent rules exist in this space doesn’t mean that they could never exist. And, in fact, I think there’s a simple axiom that can solve the whitewashing problem without devolving into unworkable race-essentialism. That axiom is: An actor should be believable as the character they’re playing.
That means no John Wayne as Genghis Kahn — I’m not buying him in that role. No slathering Sir Laurence Olivier in Dutch Boy and trying to pass him off as a Moor — I’m not buying that, either. But we don’t need to go so far as to indulge the delusion that humanity has clear racial lines and that we should confine actors within them. That means "yes” to Kumail Nanjiani as Steve Banerjee even though Banerjee is Indian and Nanjiani is Pakistani; Kumail was believable and great. “Yes” to Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern even though he’s not Jewish; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role. And “yes” to James Franco as Castro…at least as far as race is concerned. I am a bit worried about that casting for other reasons; Castro was fiery to say the least, and I fear that Franco might play him as a totes-chill, laid-back stoner.
People in entertainment often ask each other if an actor “reads”. “Does he read as a gangster?” we’ll ask. “Does she read as a kindergarten teacher?” “Does he read as sympathetic?” It just means “are you buying this?” It’s a fundamental concept; we need to know that the audience is believing the illusion. Race doesn’t need a special set of rules; asking “is this actor believable?” suffices to protect against the cartoonish generalizations of yesteryear. We don’t need an illogical jumble of race-essentialist nothing, which is what we’ve tried to make work in recent years. We just need a more thoughtful application of the principles that have guided entertainment for a long time.
Writers get assigned episodes of sitcoms, but I don’t want to make it sound like I wrote that whole episode, because I definitely didn’t. Sitcom episodes are a collaboration; the other writers’ work is in “my” episode, and my work is in theirs. That’s why “my” is in scare quotes.