Saturday, March 18, 2017

Who They Cast...isn't a big deal...

I was in my favorite Japanese Market buying random sushi when a kid who works there and I started discussing Hollywood's adaptation the manga/anime "Ghost in the Shell". Neither of us wanted to see it as we felt it was yet another instance of Hollywood "white washing" someone else's art. A stereotypical "Fan boy" who was eavesdropping on our conversation chimed in and pointed out how since MOST anime characters were so western in appearance, that the race of the actor playing a particular character didn't really matter.
          I held my tongue and didn't engage the guy further, but it's easy to think that way when the hero in 90% of films looks like you.  Despite how "multicultural" Hollywood claims to be, certain sad truths about the entertainment industry remain barely changed.

        During Hollywood's "Golden age" the only roles for blacks, Latinos and Asians (if at all) were as crude stereotypical ancillary characters.  If there was a lead role for a character of color he or she would be played by a white actor in stage makeup. Most notably the Charlie Chan films of the 30s and 40s. Recognition was very rare as evident by the fact that during Hollywood's "Golden age" the only actor of color to receive a major award for a performance was Hattie McDaniel in 1939's Gone with The Wind" in which she played a loyal slave simply known as "Mammy". During her acceptance speech McDaniel thanked the academy and said how she wished to be "a credit to her race."
        Hollywood has changed since the 30s, but the roles for actors of color seem to always be drawn from the same tired well. If you're a black actor in Hollywood and receive recognition for your work you've played one of the following roles:

Obsequious negro: This character is usually a slave or yes man who doesn't want to rock the boat and tells others to follow his lead, but usually is made an example of by the same power structure he spoke out to protect. His character is generally selfless and noble and his dressing down (or even death) usually inspires a white character to some noble calling. In literature "Uncle Tom" in Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", in film too many to mention.

Master Criminal: This character is generally intelligent; however, he tend to rise to power on the streets though violence and criminality and generally serves two cinematic purposes: 1. White liberal statement about educational opportunities for people of color and the bias against them in corporate America. 2. An Object lesson proving that crime doesn't pay. Example: Frank Lucas "American Gangster"

Redeemed Buck negro: he is a sullen  rebel who fights authority at every turn but somewhere near the end of the film "gets with the program" and dies for a worthy cause. Example: Denzel Washington's Silas Trip in the film "Glory"

Magic Negro: This is the character who isn't a "stereotype" but rather possesses a strange wisdom of the world around him, but whose only purpose in the film is to aid the growth and development of one of the film's white characters on his/her journey. Example: Will Smith in the film "Bagger Vance"

Noble Martyr: The martyr may or may not die during the course of the film, but he or she will suffer to expose an ugly truth.  Best Examples: Any film about the life of Martin Luther King OR Silas in the film "Twelve Years a Slave".

Coon: A coon is the ridiculous comedy relief who seems to embody a wealth of black stereotypes for comedic effect. He has little if any depth and generally angers blacks who see the film in question. Example: Rod Tidwell "Jerry McGuire"

For black actresses the roles for which they receive notoriety are fewer as are the stereotypes, among them are:

Mammy: she is the loud sassy but nurturing character who holds all characters regardless of their race or station together. Best example Hattie McDaniel "Gone with the wind"

Hoodrat: The hoodrat is the uncultured  female character who embodies negative social stereotypes of black women she is the female equivalent of the "buck negro" given that she rebels against the power structure and the character is rarely given any real depth or even back story.

Magic Negro, Martyr and Coon can all be female but the last  character seems not to be going anywhere.

Jezebel/Vamp: She is the black temptress whose purpose seems to be gratifying the lusts of various male characters. She is more sex object than sex symbol and is oft portrayed as amoral. Example: Too many to mention.

Sadly Latinos have barely fared any better. Roles for Latin actors are slim and sadly stereotypical.

Latin Lover: This character seems more positive than he actually is. On the surface the character is a polished, sophisticate with a way with the ladies. The downside, he rarely ever has a moral compass and seems obsessed with his own gratification. He is the negative stereotype of the Latin male as oversexed, callous and womanizing. Example Antonio Banderas in ANYTHING.

Cholo/Bandito: This character is the lawless rebel. He's selfish, self destructive and has little regard for anyone or anything. In early Hollywood he rode a horse and wore a sombrero, now he's simply a gang banger or convict.  He usually winds up dying in a blaze of glory or dying in a prison cell.
Example: Carnal "American Me".

Overly Passionate Latino: This character can be male or female. He or she takes anything "no matter how big or small" and blows it comically out of proportion.  The character is a bit of a take off on the "coon" (Latin version) as he or she is generally in a film for comedic effect.

Master Criminal: (same as black master criminal. Example Tony Montana "Scarface"

Spitfire:  (female) The Latin Spitfire is an odd combination of hoodrat and Jezebel. She's intentionally uncultured and primarily there as a sex object

Asian Americans are one of the least represent groups in American cinema and their representation always seems to be in a light many see as stereotypes:

Sage: A wise man or woman who seems to possess great knowledge and attempts to give a warning which falls on deaf ears. Example the shop keeper in "Gremlins"

Scientist/Nerd/Geek: He or she is supposed to be great at math, science, computers or something else that resulted from strict parents putting his/her nose in a book at birth. Character generally can save the day, but defers to assist leading white character who is destined to. This character is generally portrayed as asexual.

Shop Keeper: This character is a take off on immigrant stereotypes and generally is crude and lacks sophistication. He/she is rarely cast in a favorable light and is generally a rude ancillary character of a shooting victim.

Martial Arts Master: This character is either a young martial artist with incredible abilities on his journey to mastery or a wise sage who is attempting to spread his/her knowledge.  Example: Jet Li in anything.

Evil Genius: This character is a take on the master criminal, but usually is attempting to take over the world or something grandiose in a take on the 19th century "yellow peril" paranoia which lead to the Chinese Exclusion laws. Example: Ming the Merciless

Dragon Lady: She's the Asian equivalent of the vamp. Her character uses sex as a tool and a weapon. She's seen as having a mean streak and is generally cunning and evil. Example: Too many to mention.

Lotus Blossom: She is the Asian damsel in distress in need of rescue preferably by a "white knight". Example Suzy Wong "The World of Suzy Wong."

          If I may summarize, leading roles in most Hollywood films don't fall to actors of color even when they're written by and with persons of color in mind.  Ghost in the Shell is just another example of a positive character of a given ethnic group vanishing into a pale oblivion as those who've never read source material enjoy it unaware of the source material. It's oddly reminiscent of Bass Reeves. Bass Reeves was a black law man in the "Indian Territory" that became the state of Oklahoma. He was legendary in his exploits as a peace officer. Books were written about him as well as a popular comic strip. However the strip came out in the 1920s and some thought the idea of a black lawman might upset some so instead of his being black, he became "The Lone Ranger" a white man with a black mask.
       Reeves was a hero to generations of Americans who never had any idea that he was a man of color.  He has been portrayed on television and on the silver screen dozens of times, but has never been portrayed by an actor of color. But in retrospect, I guess that's not a big deal.

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