Guest Blogger: Daphney Etienne

The Play’s the Thing

Gerard Depardieu and Abigail Breslin have been in the news lately for the same reasons that Angelina Jolie was in the news in 2007, and Jennifer Lopez, back in 1996. Not because of their superb acting skills, but because they’re applying their skills to play someone who is physically not the same as they are.

When Jennifer Lopez signed on to play Selena in the 1997 biopic about the late Tejano singer, the Mexican community was outraged. Mexican-American activists were critical of Lopez taking the role, preferring an actress with Mexican roots, rather than the New York City native born to Puerto American parents.

Three years ago, Angelina Jolie took on the role of Marianne Pearle in A Mighty Heart, the story of the search for kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearle. Although the movie was met with positive reviews from critics and viewers alike, many criticized the casting choice.

In the movie, unlike in Selena, race was not an issue. However, the African-American community questioned the choice of having Jolie, a white actress, playing an Afro-Cuban woman. The director, Michael Winterbottom, defended this, claiming that the two women are friends. They are very similar people in their roles as woman and their respective roles as journalists and actors.

If to act basically means “to become the other”, why does race or nationality matter so much? It is physically impossible to become the same nationality as another, but it is totally possible to portray another. Both Lopez and Jolie received great praise for their roles, with people deeming Jolie’s performance as Oscar Worthy.

Gerard Depardieu, a white actor from France, is the latest to be criticized, and even attacked for playing someone of another race. He is set to portray famed writer, Alexandre Dumas in the new film L’autre Dumas. France’s Representative Council for Black Associations said “it’s insulting for a white actor to play Dumas, whose grandmother was a Haitian slave”, claiming that it is as if saying a Black actor is not talented enough to play Dumas.

Are these groups forgetting that Dumas like Marianne Pearle, are both mixed race. (Pearle, like Jolie, are both half French). Dumas spent his whole life in France, so if race or ethnicity really matters in the casting choice, is not more fitting to have French men to play Dumas?

We now have talented young actress Abigail Beslin playing Helen Keller in the Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker.

Groups representing blind and deaf actors are outraged. Sharon Jensem, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, told the New York Times, “We do not think it’s OK for reputable producers to cast this lead role without considering an actress from our community”. The show’s producer, David Richenthal, claims that “the production was unable to find a blind or deaf child actor with the star power to bring enough of an audience to justify the show’s large budget”.

He is right. Acting is a business. Breslin, Jolie, Depardieu are big enough names to attract people to come see any movie or play. As sad as it is, and as much as I hope it changes, for an actor or actress of color, if your name is not Jackie Chan, Will smith, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, or Denzel Washington, chances are you cannot open a movie, and when there is so much money involved, it is not easy to take a risk and cast an unknown.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Daphney Etienne

  1. Daphney, I’m so glad you posted this! It was already a great op-ed piece, but I love all of the interactive elements you added with the change in medium.

    We talked about this in class on Monday, I completely agree with your stance. Sure, it would’ve be great if the “Selena” producers were able to find a Mexican-American actress to portray the main character. But even in the world of Hollywood and glitz and glam, I don’t think this is a feasible goal.

    Granted, yes, I bet a bunch of Mexican-Americans auditioned for the role. And I’m sure a few of them made a great impression on the casting directors. But at the end of the day, the goal is to make a profit. Period. We’ve talked about this a lot in my “Media and Society” class—the opportunity for success (i.e. a monetary profit) is the driving force in the movie industry. Various awards and accolades are great – which should generate additional revenue – but if a film doesn’t have that “star power,” there is a slim chance it will be successful in the box office.

    It would’ve been great if the producers took a chance on an unknown to play Selena, but in today’s competitive industry with ruthless ratings, it’s too big of a risk. When “Selena” was being filmed, J-Lo was a star on the rise. The producers knew she was on the way up to Hollywood’s A-list, and they wanted to capitalize – literally – on this opportunity. And who could blame them?

  2. Cassie says:

    I do agree with you-I find it sad that actors with more credentials or actors with “bigger names” are chosen over actors who could fit the role better or (in Abigail Benslin’s case) actors from specific “communities.” However, one could look at it in a different light: perhaps it isn’t so bad for the actors you mentioned to take these roles over others as (like you said) more people will go see the film/play and therefore hear the story. Isn’t that the point? Honestly, this kind of stuff has been happening since the beginning of the film industry. For example, in Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) Gregory Peck was casted to play a Jewish man. Gregory Peck is not Jewish. In early western films Latino actors were hired to play Native Americans. This continued regularly until Dances With Wolves. This was one of the first films that gave much-needed work to Native American actors. That was in 1990!

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