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June 1995, Week 1


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Peter X Feng <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 4 Jun 1995 13:42:46 -0600
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Birgit Kellner writes:
>However, why is it "good" if actors and characters are of the same race?
>Does this assumption not represent a rather romantic notion about the
>"authenticity" of film as such, or its "realism"? If a film depicts a
>character who is aging, we certainly do not expect the actor to be aging, as
>well, but if a film depicts an Asian character, we naturally (?) presuppose
>that the actor is Asian, too. I am not stating an opinion here, I would just
>like to question the "natural" character of this presupposition.
To which I would add:
1.  Indeed, if we begin to insist that characters only be played by actors
of the same race, the logical outcome is that actors can only play
characters of the same age/gender/race/sexuality/physical ability etc.,
ultimately, actors will only play themselves.  Obviously acting is the art
(or craft) of pretending to be something you are not.
2.  However, questions of realism and representation aside, there is the
question of equity for actors.  (Stephen Brophy already made this point.)
In Hollywood, white actors generally have the latitude to play people of
color, while actors of color can usually only play other people of color.
(This is a gross generalization, as obviously there have been many actors
who have "passed" for white themselves, or who have made careers of playing
white roles.  Add into the mix the performativity [masquerade] of race --
think Charo -- and we could say that actors of color perform their "own"
race from a distanced, almost white, position.)  Thus, on those occasions
when I have argued for casting an actor of color, it is on the basis of
professional equity -- actors of color need work.
3.  Even when Hollywood has cast Asians and Latino/as by race, Hollywood
has often cast across ethnic lines: e.g., Cubans playing Mexicans, Chinese
playing Japanese, etc.  As an Asian American who grew up without much
contact with Latinos, I for one often cannot tell if (for example) a Puerto
Rican actor is playing a Chicano role, but I can almost always tell if (for
example) a Japanese actor is playing a Vietnamese role.  For me,
verisimilitude is destroyed in the latter case, and is more-or-less intact
in the former case.  For others, it will be different.  (I take it that
Kellner's question, in part, is "when and for whom does verisimilitude
matter?  and when and for whom do filmmakers take verisimilitude into
account.)  Does it matter if the film is "positioned" as an Asian American
film (e.g., Tamlyn Tomita as Waverly Jong in _The Joy Luck Club_) or a
mainstream film (e.g., Joan Chen as an Eskimo -- I don't know the tribe,
sorry -- in _On Deadly Ground_) or somewhere in between Asian American and
mainstream (e.g., Haing S. Ngor in _Heaven and Earth_)?
4.  Finally, this may be a tangent but I think it is related: what about
casting (e.g.) a Cuban American as a Cuban citizen or vice versa?  If/when
we insist on casting by race, should we also insist on casting by
nationality?  And (this may be too far off topic) do we want Cuban-accented
English to portray a character who is presumably speaking Spanish, for the
benefit of an English-speaking audience?  (I'll invoke the example of _The
Hunt for Red October_, where Sean Connery and Peter Firth shift, mid-scene
with the aid of a zoom-in on Firth's lips, from speaking Russian to
speaking accented English (Connery of course speaking some kind of
Scottish/Russian hybrid accent)....
Questions only, no answers....
Peter Feng
University of Iowa
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