Can a gay actor play a straight person? Can a black actor play a white character? What is acceptable and what is taboo?
This week I saw an article about Kristen Stewart pertaining to this very subject. When asked if straight actors should continue to be cast in LGBTQ+ roles she said: “It’s a slippery slope conversation because that means I could never play another straight character if I’m going to hold everyone to the letter of this particular law.”
Even the actors who play these characters are confused and aren’t sure what the “right” answer is. What comes first: representation, diversity, storytelling or historical accuracy?
The musical Hamilton has been on everyone’s mind this year with its release on Disney+ this summer. It has a phenomenal soundtrack and boasts a diverse cast of actors. I love Hamilton and it has never bothered me that some of the actors play White characters. Their race never interferes with the storytelling and I still find the relationships between characters believable and their musical skill unparalleled.
Yet, I can’t deny that this play is not necessarily historically accurate when it comes to representing real-life people. I am rather certain that George Washington is not a person of color. This actually works in favor of the musical in a variety of ways. Hamilton already has undertones of discussions of race in songs like “My Shot.”
More than that, the author’s intention in writing Hamilton was to give people of color the opportunity to get a role on Broadway and the playwright, Lin Manuel Miranda, does this without sacrificing the quality of the story.
The solution to this enigma isn’t actually clearly defining what roles belong to what people. The only person who truly knows who will best portray the role is the storyteller. The actual problem is equal opportunity. All people should have the opportunity to work.
Since Broadway and Hollywood are White-dominated fields, it’s important that the majority make sure that the minority get a seat at the table, that minorities still have the opportunities to tell their stories. That we make room for everyone to play roles that best fit them.
Since people of color historically have had fewer roles on Broadway than White people it was by design to provide opportunity. In the case of Hamilton, every person of any race had the opportunity to audition for any role of their choosing.
Manuel said on his process, “I’m going to cast the best rappers I can find, whether they’re white or not. It’s a thorny issue, but I think that race and gender should be considered the same way that height and age are — they’re a factor.”
Roles should be cast with two factors in mind, the first of which is a skill. Who was the best actress, who is the best rapper, who is the best dancer, who had the skills that were best for portraying the character?
The second factor is the story. The story part is a little bit more complicated. A story about 1600 England is probably going to have a more caucasian cast if the director is trying to make a period piece. I would expect the inverse from a movie like Black Panther since the story takes place in Wakanda, an African country.
However, if the race of a character does not mean sacrificing the messages and the integrity of the story, race should be treated as a factor just like any other physical character description. But in most cases, it should not be the difference between an actor being able to portray a character and the job being given to someone else.
This week, Twitter was also rather bothered that in Sia’s new movie there was someone playing an autistic person that wasn’t autistic. I do completely understand why people would be upset about this. The last time I heard about someone autistic getting a movie role was the most recent Power Rangers movie in 2017.
I think that someone who isn’t autistic will have a much more difficult time portraying someone as autistic when that experience is unique to people on the autism spectrum. Additionally, because autistic people get fewer roles than neurotypical people Sia should have taken this opportunity to give this role to someone who is able to portray it with skill but also with understanding.
You don’t always have to understand people’s experiences to realize that they’re different from others. I will never know what it’s like to be Black or to be a man. I do know that I can respect other people’s experiences and I know everyone deserves to work and to be a storyteller.
Stories should be told by the people that can most effectively tell them. Race and sexuality are factors, but they are often a minor part of a larger story. If the messages of a story can be preserved then we should be giving roles to people that can represent those themes the best.