A favorite tactic of the political left is to declare an opponent racist. Take the recent controversy surrounding Senate nominee Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). He was attacked as a racist after describing a libertarian view of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. He did say he objected to the end of abhorrent racial segregation and persecution – he simply identified how the Act diminished the rights of private business owners.
Hollywood politics are no exception to racial attacks. Recently Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece about “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “The Last Airbender,” listing them as recent additions to Hollywood’s “rich history” of casting white actors in ethnic parts, giving the example of John Wayne playing Genghis Khan.
Quickly, before I delve further into why Lee’s article is ridiculous, let me point out a double standard. In Tom Clancy’s book, “The Sum of All Fears,” his villains are Muslim extremists. In the film, they are neo-Nazis. No one complained about that swap, especially the Times, as their review ignores the change.
Moving on. Lee writes that “the movie industry can still seem woefully behind the times when it comes to matters of race.” This is such a non-committal accusation that the Los Angeles Times should have lost it on the editing floor. It’s a classic strategy that accuses, while giving the writer a cover.
He then points to Miss USA Rima Fakih, Will Smith and Sonia Sotomayor as examples of how America has moved past its racial prejudice and is embracing ethnic diversity. Let’s flip that around and see what Lee is saying. He argues that Will Smith, Rima Fakih and others are successful despite their race. This insults their abilities. Race has nothing to do with it. Ms. Fakih is a beautiful, talented young woman. Smith is a great actor, and a cool action star.
Further calling Hollywood out on some racial bias is utterly ridiculous. Hollywood doesn’t just cast white people in ethnic roles. It casts other ethnicities in traditionally white roles as well. Let’s look at a few recent films: Will Smith recently starred in a remake of “I Am Legend,” a role that was played by white actors Charlton Heston and Vincent Price in prior remakes. Samuel L. Jackson has recently played Nick Fury in the “Iron Man” movies, originally a white comic book character. I’m pretty sure the Los Angeles Times hasn’t commented on Marvel Universe’s racial change, as their blog post on Fury doesn’t mention that Fury was originally a white character.
Casting is not as simple as selecting an actor based on their race. Author Edward Jay Epstein wrote in his book “The Hollywood Economist” that in order for films to get certain tax breaks they will sometimes cast actors from certain countries, or shoot in countries that give them tax breaks. This can drastically reduce the cost of a film.
Additionally, attaching a name actor like Jake Gyllenhaal to a film (or Smith in “I Am Legend” or Jackson as Nick Fury) ensures fans will support it.
Finally, even more important than tax breaks and fan base, Smith in “I Am Legend” and Jackson as Nick Fury are examples of studios casting the best actors to play the part. The fact that the Los Angeles Times doesn’t recognize Gyllenhaal’s acting ability in their article shows they would rather fill racial quotas than reward excellence. See the “30 Rock” episode about fulfilling quotas. Even those that benefit are insulted by the practice.