Casting for Diversity — You’re Doing It Wrong

Just recently, I was producing a film whose creator was adamant about having a diverse cast. When we began the process of casting we started showing the filmmaker actors with a variety of ethnicities, but were rejected because they weren’t all African-American. As we discussed this further it became apparent to me that we weren’t casting for diversity — we were painting people with a broad brush and on the road to promoting stereotypes. This made me take a broader look at how diversity is being looked at on-screen and unfortunately, the results are mixed.

There’s almost nothing more inspiring for a person of color than seeing someone who looks like you on-screen. It makes us feel represented and included. For years, people of color were treated like putting pepper in your stew — just a little brought out the flavor, but too much and you ruin the whole thing. There were two categories on screen — normal (aka White) and other. But as times have changed so have audiences — and the filmsthat made the most money went from those with the most recognizable actor to the ones with more inclusive casts such as Get Out, Black Panther and The Fast and The Furious franchise. The lightbulb has seemed to have gone off, especially in the realm of television, and we’ve seen more content catering to audiences that prize diversity.

It is a word that’s present almost everywhere. From company initiatives to TED Talks to political discussions, the concept of diversity is finally being given the spotlight it deserves. In the entertainment industry, where I live and breathe, diversity is being talked about both in front of and behind the camera with the idea of increasing representation and enhancing perspectives.

Working behind the scenes, I’ve noticed more and more creators of content desiring to also assist with increasing diversity on the screen. But sometimes, their methods are flawed.

Talking to actor friends of mine, I’m now hearing stories of “you were great, but we want our project to promote diversity so we need a (insert ethnicity)for this part.” Or even worse there’s still ones like“this role is supposed to be for a Latina, can you act more Latina?” And most the parts up and coming actors of color are being considered for are minor roles — like one pilot I worked on where their idea of diversity was to have several actors of color in the roles of bodyguards, cooks, and maids.

Because you can’t just dump in all the flavor just yet.

Hearing stories like this brings up my greatest fear — the mission to promote diversity will eventually be weaponized into a calling card of fear and division that will knock people of color backwards. Just how the practice of Affirmative Action has been for decades.

So when the director I was working with became adamant that African-Americans be represented in every role of the film. I, along with my casting director, felt the need to push back against a misrepresentation. We saw that showing people of color was important and necessary to him. He wanted to cast parts to those he felt were not given equal representation. But I believe he, like many, had not really thought about why he was doing it and how the final results could be detrimental to a righteous intention.

Film is an examination of the human condition. The reason for championing diversity is to give those of us who haven’t been heard an equal voice in this conversation. But there is always the danger of speaking for someone rather than with them. You amplify your own perspective and voice, rather than give us a platform to show the world our own. You mold someone’s image into how you think it should be rather than allowing us to show you how we are.

When a producer or director is looking to cast for diversity, they need to ask themselves:

Am I representing this community properly — showing the wonder and the blemishes?

Am I looking for the right actor or the pre-determined demographic?

Am I letting someone else tell their story or am I telling mine with a different color of skin?

Is what I am providing actually an opportunity?

Access to the stage should be given. But it’s helping no one if the players are still forced to conform to pre-conceived notions. In the new GhostbustersLeslie Jones was given equal presence alongside her co-stars. But her character was still molded in the overused cliche of the loud, streetwise black woman.

People are not a monolith — we have different backgrounds, perspectives, and quirks. It’s what makes us fascinating. So what we want is the opportunity to show that perspective. Rather than pre-determining the gender/race/sexual orientation for a role. We are looking for people’s eyes to be open to different interpretations of a role. We are looking to be represented with realism and balance.

In the documentary Robert Kennedy For President, we learn of a meeting between Bobby Kennedy, James Baldwin, and several civil rights activists. Over dinner, they begin to have a frank discussion about race in America that leads to a heated argument when civil rights leader Jerome Smith let it be known that he would never fight in the Vietnam War for a country that had continually treated him like a second-class citizen. Tempers flew and the meeting was heralded a disaster. But in the aftermath of that dinner something great occurred — the man who could have been president began to listen. And because of that willingness to begin to listen, great changes would occur in the nation.

The filmmaker who I pushed back against opened himself up to the opinions of myself and my casting director — he began to listen. The film was given a diverse cast of all ethnicities, including white, in roles where the actors could be seen as characters, not representatives of their skin color. And to date it’s giving said director his most successful festival run of his young career.

Because we stopped, we listened, and that is what we want on-screen diversity to accomplish.

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