Color-Conscious Casting Fights Hollywood's Diversity Problem

Rather than pretending race doesn't exist, some producers are taking the bull by the horns to address the depressingly disparate representation of people of color in Hollywood.
Publish date:
January 21, 2016
diversity, Hollywood, diversity casting

Fellow pop culture fiends as well as pretty much everyone on the Internet has seen the grim situation on the Oscars ballot this year: White, white, and more white.

While "minorities" are actually rapidly approaching demographic majority status, they're still playing 25 percent — and sometimes less, depending on genre — of Hollywood roles, and when they are on screen, they're often forced into painfully stereotyped boxes as mammies, spicy Latinas, subservient geisha, and the like. It's a problem across the pond, too, with Idris Elba recently calling for more diversity on screen.

Some have suggested that the solution to this is so-called "colorblind casting," which implies that if producers simply ignore race, they can make casting decisions on the basis of merit and who's right for the part. The notion has gained favor in recent years, especially as it ties in with millennial attitudes about living in a "post-racial" society and not really seeing race.

The problem is that this doesn't work. Aside from the fact that these notions are completely illogical and racist when applied to society in general as well as pop culture, if "colorblind" casting was effective, we would see more people of color on screen. We don't. That's because producers still have racist attitudes, and they typically overlook people of color unless they're casting for specific roles, with said roles often racist themselves in addition to being limited. That's what makes exceptions like Star Wars: The Force Awakens so startling — they acknowledge that women and people of color can play any role, not just a purpose-built one, and that women and people of color are actually the largest filmgoing audiences so it pays to cast leads who look like them.

Instead, Hollywood needs to take on a more proactive role in addressing racial disparity both in front of and behind the camera, and one aspect of that is color-conscious casting, which is starting to creep across the Hollywood landscape as well as in other settings.

One instance that's currently blowing up the Internet is actually in theatre, with Hamilton, the musical that wasn't cast unintentionally: It was very consciously, deliberately, carefully constructed with a Black lead and a majority Black cast. A recent production of Awake and Sing! — about a Jewish family in the 1930s Bronx — featured an all Asian-American cast, highlighting the diversity of the Asian-American experience.

Back on screen, though, the upcoming updated Nancy Drew coming to CBS isn't just aging our girl detective up. CBS executives also announced that they, too, are making a color-conscious casting choice. We haven't met Nancy yet and we don't know much about her, but we know she definitely won't be white. (Now here's hoping that she and George have a torrid affair, thus realizing the dreams of every queer girl who grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries.) The network already has a good record on the subject, since it both racebent and genderbent the casting of John — or Joan, in this case — Watson on Elementary.

This kind of casting is changing the face of Hollywood, pushing it away from a white-dominated environment and into one where people of color stand a chance at better representation. We have a long way to go before we have anything even remotely resembling racial parity, but this is an extremely positive start. It also illustrates a growing awareness among executives of the fact that audiences are fed up with racist casting, and that when people are exposed to diverse casting, it pays off at the box office. Making a conscious decision to write thoughtful roles for people of color, and cast people of color in otherwise neutral roles, shows a desire to respond to a public that is calling for more racial diversity in film and television, on stage, and in literature.

Color-conscious casting is only one element of a much larger puzzle, of course — people of color still aren't well represented among top executives, in the writers' room, among producers (Shonda Rhimes shouldn't be the only well-known Black female showrunner), among directors and editors, and so forth. That requires a commitment to color-conscious hiring, mentoring, and industry practices, including the creation of a more friendly environment for people of color who might otherwise feel alienated by racism on the job.

Pop culture is important for many reasons, and in this instance, the push for color-conscious casting ties in with the larger social conversation about race in America. White society is being forced to acknowledge racism, complicity, and social structures thanks to the concerted efforts of movements like Black Lives Matter. Communities of color are holding politicians, publishing houses, Hollywood, and other institutions to account for their race problems, no matter how uncomfortable white people are with having a conversation about the elephant in the room.

Those looking for evidence that racism is dead are going to have a hard time finding it in an time when books about happy slaves baking cakes make it all the way through acquisitions, editing, publishing, and distribution despite objections — twice — when white people continue to be cast in white, Black, Latino, Asian, and other roles that should be going to people of color, when politicians only talk about race under extreme duress, when young Black men are dying on the other end of guns held by white police officers.

Color-conscious casting isn't going to magically fix the huge inequalities faced by people of color in America, and it isn't going to eradicate racism, but it's an important decisive step in confronting the collective notions that we can ignore race, that race doesn't matter, that racism is no longer an issue in this allegedly enlightened era.