Opportunity is what it truly comes down to. After screenplays are developed, written, and gain backing to film, when it comes to who snags a role, whether black, Latino, Asian, white, or any other background, casting is everything.
In the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild and color-blind casting leading to Wallis being chosen, no one can deny her absolute strength on-screen as a powerful young black girl, her face set in a permanent expression of determination, her hair natural and afro-ed out. That image is sadly rare.
For Life of Pi, adapted from a book about a young man shipwrecked in the ocean with a Bengal tiger, source material dictated the main character’s background as Indian. Granted, a movie such as Lincoln focuses on the post Civil War-era inner sanctum of politics, historically mostly white and male. Hawkes and Hunt, too, are based on real-life people, who happen to be white.
“Pi, the book is written. It’s an Indian family. I just care about the story. Suraj was cast because he’s brilliant,” said Life of Pi and Lincoln casting director Kaufman, who has cast dozens of other movies, including The 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2005 Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain. “Often, everyone wants to create a feeling, and make sure that you’re representing a proper world. When I’m casting, and it’s not for a specific ethnicity, I try to look for people of different backgrounds for the same role. If it is a novel, and we’re following a specific story, or if it’s historical, like Lincoln, then yes, I stick to things honestly.”
Kaufman noted her own personal need to bring attention to differences, to kind of reflect from the inside, out, and into Hollywood and beyond.
“I do feel like we’re sharing one big world and we feel like we forget that time-to-time,” she said. “I’m a mother, and it’s important to do that [acknowledge diversity].”
As for Hopkins — who is white and a father to black teenage twins with his ex-partner Precious director Lee Daniels – diversity is also both personal, and very important.
“There are films such as Precious, which was a black film, with amazing performances recognized for their own merits,” Hopkins, whose credits also include Pineapple Express, Monster Ball, Good Will Hunting and Wall Street, said. “In The Paperboy, David Oyelowo has a part that was originally written for a white person, that was originally smaller in the novel. I just cast a film, The Dark Side [shooting in New York], where the part was white, and an Asian girl was cast. Whenever I can, I try to do color-blind casting, and it’s very hard to do.”
Why is color-blind casting so difficult? Hopkins noted a complicated web of concerns from directors, producers and studios that can actually backfire when it comes to truly representing a range of roles.
“When directors and producers say they want to do it, it raises so many issues. We live in such a PC world now. To me, it’s become so PC, people worry about things you really shouldn’t have to worry about,” said Hopkins. “New York is such a melting pot, yet some films cast in New York can be so white, and that’s not realistic. There are PC concerns if you cast a black person in the bad character role. It gets very tricky. There’s a debate about if you can cast a minority person in this part, or that part, and then everyone is cast white.”
The Academy declined to comment for this story.
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