Does Skin Color Matter When Casting Actors?

A few months ago, the big news was that the new Harry Potter play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, had cast black actor Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger. I read this great article in Cosmopolitan, and saw lots of tweets and posts and comments and essays which made me want to throw in my two cents.

Noma Dumezweni
Noma Dumezweni

I am a huge Harry Potter fan, reading the books and watching the movies numerous times, but unlike some, I was not bothered by this casting choice. It did make me think a lot, though, about actors and roles and established characters and time periods, and our notions about who should play which parts, especially of those fictional persons who are dear to us.

When you cast a black actor as The Artful Dodger, for example, the public either already knows who the character is or can easily Google him to learn about him. He an an established character who has existed for close to two centuries in a story that has been performed, rebooted and read many, many times. We know what the story of Oliver Twist is about, what the themes are, and the horrible existence of the destitute in London of the 1830s. Having a non- white actor play this character changes nothing about the story. If you know the tale, you know the casting choice was about choosing the best actor and nothing more. Such was the case when my newly minted husband and I were in London for our honeymoon at a production of Oliver!, the musical version of the story. Two boys alternated playing Dodger, and on our night at the theater, the actor playing him was black. Of course I noticed, but as I knew the story, there was no reason to take further note of it.

Obviously, well-known and “classic” stories that we English speakers (and others) read tend to be more about white people and their experiences, mainly because of Who’s in Charge of the World at That Particular Time and What They Want to Publish is Stories About Them and Their World. They have the money, they make the rules. (This is also the reason that many women had to publish under pseudonyms, but that’s a story for another day.) These classics are great stories, to be sure, but they don’t tell everyone’s story. But if they are the only/main stories being told on stage or in the movies or on TV, where does that leave those actors who don’t look like our idea or the actual description of  what a character looks like? What if the skin color isn’t historically accurate? Does that mean that a black or Filipino or (fill in the non-white nationality here) actor will miss out on playing roles that are traditionally white?

Artful Dodger

It shouldn’t. I will tell you that after Oliver! started and the familiar story started, it absolutely didn’t matter. As with any good actor, he was the Artful Dodger for those 2 or so hours. So it’s not so much whether the actor can do it but whether you, the audience member, will let them.

If I were an actor, I would hate to miss out on playing certain characters just because of skin color. Sure, the black actor can be Othello – but what about King Lear or Iago or Lady Macbeth? What about Willy Loman or Odysseus or Captain Von Trapp? Or Elizabeth Bennet, Marian the Librarian, or Blanche Dubois? Do all of the skin tones have to match up properly in order for us to believe that certain characters are related or are in love?

I can hear some of you saying that this has to go both ways. Well, I don’t (necessarily) agree. What if the story is about race, either wholly or tangentially? it would be strange or, dare I say, inappropriate to see a white Porgy or Tom Robinson.  There’s also the issue, whether you agree with it or not, of cultural appropriation.

The only time casting could be confusing if it is a play or a movie that doesn’t have a familiar story line, and you don’t know if someone’s skin color is supposed to be relevant to the story. But, even then, as with any show, the script will explain that soon enough.

Ultimately, I would much prefer that the best actor gets the job. So please consider this my vote for Idris Elba to be the next James Bond.


9 thoughts on “Does Skin Color Matter When Casting Actors?”

  1. I just watched a local presentation of Happy Days and Potsie was black and it was kind of awesome.

    I have additional thoughts on this and it has nothing to do with the play, the casting or actors. It does have to do with JK Rowling and I’m just keeping those to myself.

  2. Great post! Combined with some other things I’ve been seeing and listening to over the last year or so, it really made me think.

    The issue of race in casting has been around for a long time, and thank goodness, we’re now seeing some movement in that area, in terms of a greater willingness to cast regardless of or even deliberately opposite the “accurate” choice, whether in terms of historical accuracy or rigid faithfulness to the book. Two recent NYC plays make that abundantly clear. A production of 1776 at CityCenter featured a diverse cast, with African American actors in the roles of Martha Jefferston, Stephen Hopkins, and Richard Henry Lee, among others. And of course there is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredible hip-hop/pop/Broadway musical, where the entire cast are POC. In both cases this can lead to thought-provoking moments as well as great performances.

    Casting a black woman as the adult Hermione should be less controversial (not that there’s been much serious controversy over either of the other shows I mentioned.) Because if you read the books carefully, not once does Rowling state that Hermione is white. In fact, the descriptions of her could easily refer to a young woman of color. At one point, she is described (after a summer vacation, I think) as being “browner than usual” from the sun. In part because of this, and in part because of the nature of fanart and fanfic, “race-bent” depictions of Hermione are both common and popular in HP fan art and fanfic on Tumblr and elsewhere. I loved Emma Watson as Hermione in the films; she was cute and tough and vulnerable, and it was great to watch her grow as an actress through the movies. But I think it’s time we stop thinking of her as THE personification of Hermione, and started thinking of her as one interpretation of a character whose race is never canonically defined in the books.

    I think you’re correct about being more cautious when it comes to productions where the focus is on race. Even there, however, I believe a skillful director and cast could make some interesting choices, if they handled it well.

    Of course, historically, white actors have often played roles like Othello and Madame Butterfly, where race is part of the plot. That practice is becoming a little more controversial now. It was one thing in eras when there were hardly any POC actors to call on; it’s quite another in this day and age, when there are plenty of actors of all colors to call on.

    So yes — Brava to you for your article, and to all the courageous producers and actors who are willing to shake up the status quo with more diverse casts and actors chosen on merit, not skin color.

    (PS. I should probably mention Hollywood’s history of whitewashing, which continues to this day — taking a character who is specifically a POC in the original text, and turning them into a white character in the movie or TV adaptation. Book covers do it too. It’s wrong because it perpetuates the erasure of POC from popular culture. So even though I’m all for casting the best actor regardless of race, if that character is of color in the original text, producers should think hard about why they’re doing it before they cast a white actor in that role.)

    1. Oh my – fabulous! I love your thoughtful answer and agree with all of it. There has been a tweet going around in response to JKR’s tweet that said she never mentioned Hermione’s race – it’s a photo of a “description” of Hermione from the book, but I find it silly. It says something about her “pale face.” I haven’t cared enough about it to look for it myself, and seriously, even if it did outline her color or heritage in painstaking detail, I still wouldn’t care. Thanks for the great comment!

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