Actors in Make-up

8 March 2008

Controversy has erupted over Robert Downey jr having been cast in the rôle of a black character in Tropic Thunder. By coïncidence, over the last couple of days I have been watching The Most Dangerous Game (1932) in bits and pieces. The coïncidence is in that Noble Johnson, an African-American, played a Caucasian in that earlier film.

I don't think that we should give much of a d_mn about blacks playing whites or vice versa. It should be no more than a mild curiosity.

On the other hand, Tropic Thunder stars Ben Stiller, and the fact that he still has a career in movies certainly does offend me.

Addendum (09 Mar): I am now told, distinct from the report of the Daily Mail, that Downey plays a white actor playing a black character. (So the rôle would be somewhat more like that of the main character in Soul Man (1986).)

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2 Responses to Actors in Make-up

  • I think that the main reason this is offensive to people is that fairly recently in our cultural history, Caucasian performers playing African American characters were fairly commonplace and those characters were most often presented as ugly stereotypes.

    This practice wasn't limited to whites playing blacks either, as an example I would point to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

    It is possible that as more actors and actresses play out of their race believably (e.g. Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart) than the stigma attached to this will fade over time. However, I am unsure that such a part in any movie headlining Ben Stiller could aid that process, the chance of stereotypes not being played for laughs is very slim.

    • Daniel says:

      That may be it for most people who are offended, but what I'm reading instead expresses different sentiments, such as the claim that this casting reflects a belief that black actors aren't up to such rôles.

      (If, as I now read, the rôle is actually that of a white actor playing a black character, then whoever played the part would have to be made up at some point as if of a different ethnicity.)

      It should perhaps also be noted that, in the first half-century of the parallel film industry which made films for blacks, white characters, when they appeared at all, were almost invariably played by black actors in white face, and were almost invariably depicted as fools or as villains or as both.

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