Thursday, October 12, 2006

The ink is black, the page is white

The entertainment biz has been abuzz of late with the news that Halle Berry has signed to star in the upcoming DreamWorks film Class Act. The movie is based on the real-life story of Nevada schoolteacher Tierney Cahill, who ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in 2000 to give her sixth grade students firsthand insight into the inner workings of a political campaign.

I know, that doesn't sound like earthshattering news. The reason for all the conversation, however, is the fact that Tierney Cahill is of the Caucasian persuasion...

while Halle Berry is... well... otherwise persuaded.

In the words of Lance the Intern in Undercover Brother, it's about to get racial up in this piece.

So-called "colorblind" casting — the concept of casting the best available actor in a role, even if the actor's ethnicity differs from the character as written — is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood. A few examples that come immediately to mind:
  • Morgan Freeman as Red, a character conceived by author Stephen King as Irish-American, in The Shawshank Redemption.
  • Michael Clarke Duncan as Wilson "The Kingpin" Fisk, a character drawn as a white man throughout 40 years of comic book continuity, in Daredevil.
  • Louis Gossett Jr. playing characters originally written as Caucasian in both the film An Officer and a Gentleman and the television series Gideon Oliver.
  • Denzel Washington in the recent remake of Man On Fire — the lead character was played by Scott Glenn in the original film.
  • Will Smith reprising the role made famous by Robert Conrad in the film version of Wild Wild West.
I could cite a dozen more examples, but you get the idea.

The difference, however, in Class Act is that Tierney Cahill is an actual living person, where all of the instances noted above involve actors portraying fictional characters.

Historically, when producers and casting directors have selected actors to play recognizable real-life public figures, they've made an effort to cast people who at least passably resemble the public figures in question. (Often with an abundance of help from the makeup department.) On the other hand, when casting roles involving real-life people whose faces are less familiar to the general public, Hollywood many times throws doppelganger concerns out the window. Julia Roberts, for instance, looks nothing like the actual Erin Brockovich, nor does Tom Cruise resemble the real Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July).

The case of Tierney Cahill would seem closer to the latter examples. Had I not just turned up the above photograph of Ms. Cahill on the Internet, I wouldn't had known whether she looked more like Halle Berry, Holly Hunter, or Hilary Duff. Given that the story Class Act will tell about Cahill has nothing directly to do with her race, I doubt that the casting of Berry will make any difference in the way the movie presents its protagonist — as opposed to a film about, say, the life of Leni Riefenstahl.

Since Tierney Cahill appears to be all right with the choice, I don't suppose anyone else has standing to argue. Hey, if Hollywood wants to make a movie about my life, and they decide to cast a tall, muscular, attractive actor to portray short, portly, moon-faced me, more power to 'em. (My vote? Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Just in case they happen to be casting this week.)

But the most interesting point in the Class Act debate, at least from my perspective, has less to do with the fact that Halle Berry is playing a woman who in real life is white than with the common assumption that Berry is somehow inappropriately cast in a role that is ostensibly other than black.

Lest we forget, only one of Halle Berry's parents, her father, is of African descent. Her mother is an English-born Caucasian woman from Liverpool. Assuming half her DNA derives from either parent, isn't Halle as much white as she is black?

Not in America, she isn't.

I note this because, like Halle Berry, I am what we today fashionably call "biracial." (In case that's a new word to you, it does not have sexual implications of any kind, thank you very much.)

Although I was raised in an adoptive family by two African American parents, my biological mother was a Caucasian of predominantly German heritage, while my biological father was black. I was conceived and born in 1961, at a time in our nation's history when my biological parents committed what was by law a crime in many juridictions, in the very act that gave me life. In several of these United States, they could not have legitimized my parentage through marriage even had they been so inclined.

As I was growing up, I always identified myself as "black" — remember, kids, this was back in the day before we were "African American," and when we only just beginning to get over being "Negro" — mostly because that's what my adoptive parents were. (The story is actually much more complicated than that, but we'll tell that lengthy tale another day.) This despite the fact that my ethno-external characteristics are slightly more vaguely defined than those of Ms. Berry, leading to a lifetime of oddly personal questions and interesting ethnic misidentifications. During my 44 years, I have been presumed, at various times, to be:
  • Black.
  • Mexican.
  • Native American.
  • Asian Indian.
  • Cuban.
  • Filipino.
  • Hawaiian.
  • Puerto Rican.
  • Korean.
  • Chinese.
  • Various flavors of Central or South American.
  • Jamaican or some other flavor of Caribbean Islander.
  • Samoan.
  • Tongan.
  • Guamanian.
  • Malaysian.
  • Australian Aboriginal.
  • Eskimo.
  • "Mixed," whatever that means.
And those are just the ones people were brazen enough to voice aloud in my presence.

(True story: I actually had a buddy of mine in college get angry with me — albeit momentarily — when he discovered that I was not, in fact, Puerto Rican as was he. I think the primary reason he had befriended me was that he thought he had found a kindred soul in our lily-white university environment.)

Thankfully, my daughter — whose mother is Caucasian, but whose features and coloring are similar to her dad's — is growing to adulthood in an environment where being ethnically indeterminate is at least somewhat less the stigma it was when I was her age. Indeed, it brings a smile to my face sometimes when I drop her at school in the morning and she's greeted by her two best friends — a fair-complected European blonde and a dark-complected girl whose family came originally from India — and the three of them walk onto campus together as their own little human spectrum.

I hope that someday, all three will be able to play whatever roles they choose to play in life...

...and no one will question whether they're right for the part.

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