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Redacting Racism: Some Thoughts on Race-Blind Casting

As major studios adapt to the changing business and cultural landscape, moving into the future all too often means revisiting the past. Few projects embody this phenomenon like the Paramount+ original series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,” which debuted last April. Set at the mythical Rydell High School four years before the events of the film “Grease,” the series was created by Annabel Oakes with Australian filmmaker Alethea Jones as showrunner. It is very much emblematic of the current era, which is defined by legacy studios creating streaming services and desperately seeking original content to lure subscribers. But rather than take a chance on something wholly new, they look to the classics in their vault and plot how to squeeze new stories out of old properties.

The first thing that strikes you about this prequel series is that the world of Rydell is decidedly more diverse than the school we saw in the 1978 musical or its 1982 sequel. Lifting the Greaser-Soc dichotomy from S.E. Hinton’s "The Outsiders,” we immediately note the presence of Latinx, Black, and Asian actors in major roles. In fact, a prominent Soc cheerleader named Rosemary (played by Charlotte Kavanagh), who is the blonde bombshell paradigm personified, dates Wally (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), an African-American Soc football player, and no one in this show set in 1954 bats an eye.

This new approach to world-building is omnipresent these days. We usually refer to it as colorblind or race-blind casting, but this does not quite capture what’s happening. The shows and films embracing this new approach to historical fiction and fantasy aren’t so much ignoring the races of the actors they’re casting as redacting the existence of racism. The non-white characters in the “Grease” prequel know they aren’t white and refer to it often. It’s just that the world they’re living in is not plagued by the same racial inequality we know—until the writers decide otherwise.

Casting non-white actors in roles not written for them has its roots in the theater and has been common for some time but not without controversy. In 1996, the late Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright August Wilson railed against the practice of colorblind casting. The following year, he further addressed the matter with theater critic Robert Brustein in a two-and-a-half-hour public debate moderated by Anna Deavere Smith at New York’s Town Hall Theatre.

Wilson, a product of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, plainly stated that he objected to Black people performing in plays not written for them, seeing it as an erasure of their identity and a toxic form of assimilationism. (He similarly objected to playing loose with gender in casting). Brustein fundamentally disagreed with the nationalist overtones of Wilson’s approach and voiced doubt as to whether art should be yoked to the cause of revolution like a beast of burden. You can read an account of the exchange here. Needless to say, the debate did not end with a rhetorical knockout on either side. And while it is important to ground any discussion of non-traditional casting with this exchange, it is striking how little currency this debate has today. In many ways, history has turned the page on August Wilson.

Though he’s never addressed or rebutted Wilson’s perspective directly, one major proponent of non-traditional casting is Kenneth Branagh, who was one of the first to bring that theatrical convention to film with his Shakespeare adaptations. Long before his recent go at “Macbeth,” Denzel Washington played a major Shakespeare character on the screen in Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which features Keanu Reeves as Don John, the nefarious half-brother to Washington’s dashing Don Pedro.

To my knowledge, Branagh has never spoken about his commitment to diversity in casting (evident in most of his work, including “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” his Hercule Poirot films, and his casting of Idris Elba in Marvel Studios’ “Thor,” which set off a minor squall of racist fanboy caterwauling). In the press for “Othello,” in which Branagh played Iago to Laurence Fishburne’s doomed moor, he said something that I think was revelatory. Branagh mentioned that Fishburne confided in him about his insecurity in taking on the Bard, saying, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn; I’m not supposed to be doing this.” Branagh replied, “And I’m just a kid from Belfast; I’m not supposed to be doing this either.” Despite being viewed by much of the world as the natural heir to Olivier, Branagh knows that, in many ways, he was once perceived as an interloper. Instead of forgetting that, he gives other gifted people a chance to show what they can do with material not written for them.

When it comes to non-traditional casting, it’s prudent to distinguish between the historical and the fantastic. To be clear, those who object to the practice seldom do, but the two realms bring up contrasting issues. In the fantasy and science-fiction genre, colorblind casting is somewhat fallacious because there’s no real reason why an elf or a Valyrian could be played by a non-white actor other than genre convention, which as an argument is about as solid as a sandcastle at high tide. But what about fiction set in what passes for our world? There the matter gets tricky.

I don’t watch “Bridgerton,” but clearly this show set in Regency Britain and featuring Black and Asian actors playing nobles did much to further this trend. I read a few articles on “Bridgerton” and discovered that the “Grease” prequel followed the same curious pattern: Black characters are introduced in a seemingly egalitarian alternative reality, only to have that abruptly reversed when the show reveals there is racist sentiment after all. In “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,” the show gives a viewer whiplash when the older generation suddenly starts casually dropping mid-50s racist asides about integration. Around that time, the show introduces Hazel (played by Shanel Bailey), an introverted Black girl brainiac caught between Greasers and Socs and not really fitting in with either.

I cannot really say why these shows lose their nerve in fully committing to escapism, but it is telling. The problem is in taking this half-measure. It has the unintended consequence of reducing white supremacy from being a pernicious system to simply a matter of bad manners (which is precisely how film and TV handled racism for much of my youth). Worse yet, in most of the cases where a show chooses to redact racism, patriarchy is still very much a concern (the “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” is a great example of this). And I worry that this sends the message that patriarchy is “the real issue” and race is a lesser, more superficial matter. Call it counter-intersectional, but I don’t think it does any good for the difficult conversations we are having regarding race and gender. 

It should be noted that so-called race-blind casting has been around for a long time. We’re just used to it going the other way: when white actors play characters written as mixed race or non-white. When Don Siegel made “The Beguiled” in 1971, he cast a white woman to play a character written to be biracial. When Sofia Coppola adapted the same novel in 2017, she followed suit and also eliminated a Black woman character that Siegel had in his film. Her reasoning: she wanted to focus on gender, not race, in this film set in the American South during the Civil War.

Of course, filmmakers have the right to cast who they want, but we should ask what the ramifications are for this kind of revisionism. In the case of something like “Bridgerton,” I understand it gives POC a chance to play roles usually denied them and POC fans of Jane Austen a chance to imagine themselves as the heroine. But in a history-hostile culture such as ours, where state governments are purposely burying our history, I worry greatly that utopian escapism will in some way come to stand in for how things were and compound an already big problem. Worse yet, when we choose to tell these stories and ignore the real stories of trailblazers, we could make it seem like all stories of POC who beat the odds are just more fantasy.

The issue with redacting racism gets at one of cinema’s most fascinating dualities: escapism versus realism. Film does both impeccably. And the medium is at its best when there’s a balance between these two drives. Non-traditional casting can be very successful in escapism, but it can also serve realism. When Andrea Arnold re-imagined Heathcliff as a Black man in “Wuthering Heights” (2011), she brought new dimensions to the tragedy (it should be noted that her casting of a Black man in the part actually has some basis in the novel).

When August Wilson raised his voice against colorblind casting, I think it’s safe to say “Bridgerton” was perhaps what he hoped to avoid. He failed to stop the practice with his words, but ignoring them altogether might make it so that we can’t tell the difference between fantasy and history ever again.

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