Posts Tagged ‘racism’

“Evidently, it’s elementary, they want us all gone eventually…”


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meera-syal-headshot-2013Meera Syal appeared in a short play on BBC Radio 4 recently. Syal, a versatile actor and writer of Indian extraction, was playing a (presumably white) police liason officer called Jackie Hartwell in this mini-drama. She did a great job as usual, her ethnic background was neither here nor there. It made me wonder; are we entering a new post-racial era for actors, on the radio at least?

To some some extent we are seeing racial and gender lines disappearing across the arts. We have recently seen Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. idris-elba-as-james-bond
Then there were those rumours about Idris Elba taking over as James Bond. Why not? his fans enthused – Idris has the charisma, machismo and sex appeal required to play 007. Did Ian Fleming ever mention anything about his character’s race? And would it matter if he had? Eventually Tom Hiddleston was named as the new Bond, but the fact that Elba was mooted for the role shows that things are shifting.

In JK Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter saga, the play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, Noma Dumezweni, originally from Swaziland, takes the role of Hermione – heartily endorsed by JK Rowling might I add. 812Dumezweni was considered the best person for the role, but her casting is not merely irrelevant to the part, it is an exiting signal. There is a radicalism in opening out a franchise that so exemplifies the white middle class mileu (albeit with the addition of wands and talking hats). Admittedly, this has only happened on the stage, a world away from the risk-averse conditions of the film-industry, but it is a bold move.

So are we looking at a rainbow utopia where anyone can play a character of any cultural background? The answer is no. This cultural tide will only go in one direction, and for understandable reasons. In popular entertainment’s depictions of race, the shadow of ‘blacking up’ and minstrelsy still looms large. White people imitating black people, in stereotyped and clownish ways, continued on British TV up until 1978. For many years, the only black actors in film played nannies and ‘savages’, and black contributions to the moving image continue to go unrecognised. At this year’s Oscars, the lack of black nominees became such a hot potato that it threatened to derail the awards ceremony.

In the UK, the employment options for black actors are arguably worse, with many leaving to seek work in the US. Idris Elba himself took this route, eventually breaking through with his role in The Wire.

jrnarNon-white actors still need all the high profile parts they can get, which is why the instances of white actors playing people of colour is still so controversial. Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings attracted flak for featuring a cast of white actors considerably ‘darkened’ to play their middle-eastern roles.

Of course, in an ideal world none of this would be a problem. All acting is inhabiting somebody else; attempting to understand the emotions and motivations of a (usually fictional) person who has nothing to do with you. It is a practice requiring the highest form of empathy, an empathy capable of crossing the boundaries of class, age, sex and yes race. You would usually want to make yourself look more like your character too. In purely artistic terms there should be no barriers to inhabiting the persona of another human being.

In societal terms, however, we still see structural discrimination in all areas of life. And until there is parity of opportunity and power regardless of race (and sex for that matter) then screen-based depictions of life will be part of an attempt to redress the balance. It’s not just about the art, it’s more complicated than that. It may be some time before a white actor gets to play Othello again.

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