Casting Color: Getting to the Root of Diversity in Film

I thought Chris Rock did a great job at the Oscars. He addressed the controversy about black representation in movies from both sides and brought humor to the issue as well. Humor makes truth go down so much easier!

Years ago, I took a screenwriting class, and the teacher stressed writing diverse characters into the script. While this may mean changes to the dialogue to account for accents and slang, it really comes down to the character descriptions. 

And I remember resenting this. Not because I didn't want people of various races in my stories should I have the good fortune to see my story on the screen but because I think that throwing in descriptions of someone with an Afro or dark skin at random is condescending. I have written a variety of ethnic characters, but it was because I saw certain people in those roles. When I write, when most people write, they have themselves and people they are familiar with in mind, whether it be Aunt Jane or the guy who checks them out at the grocery store. 

I know it sounds as if I am passing the buck, but I think that diversity in films falls squarely on the shoulders of casting directors. 

Casting directors have my admiration, because they can take a guy or girl who comes in to audition, someone wearing a sweatshirt or t-shirt or dress or shorts, and can envision them in the role with makeup and costume. It's a huge, creative talent. 

If I write a doctor, I want the casting director to cast the best actor for the role regardless of color or gender (unless color or gender are a necessary part of the story.) The character doesn't have to be an inner city doctor to be portrayed by a black actor. In the following examples, I can't say what the original scripts called for. Maybe they specifically described the characters as they were cast, but my point is that regardless of the description in the script, the casting director (with leeway from the powers that be) can go beyond stereotypes and simply find good actors who can play the roles.

I'm a huge fan of Firefly, which was kind of a space cowboy television show. The captain of the ship, played by Nathan Fillian, had a second in command who was a trusted fellow soldier in the last war. They cast a woman and a Cuban American, Gina Torres, in the role of Zoe. And when they turned the series into the movie Serenity, The Operative, a James Bond-style government man who tracks them throughout the film, was played by the gifted Chiwetel Ejiofor. The casting of these two actors was the result of casting directors who didn't have barriers up when they looked for talent who could play the roles better than anyone else. And these actors excelled.  

In the movie Prometheus, the ship needed a captain, not a black captain. Enter actor Idris Elba.

British television seems to get this better than we do. They use actors of color without the need to make an excuse for the actor's color. People are people.  Elba starred for several years as Luther. The character's description is "a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can't always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions." Are genius and passion limited to one particular race? No. Bring on the actor that can play the role.

In Dr. Who, Rose (white and blond) had a boyfriend, and I'm willing to bet  his character description wasn't "dark-skinned". They needed a good-looking actor who could do comedy and drama and gave us Mickey, played by actor Noel Clarke. And they didn't make an issue over the racial differences.

If they ever turned my book, Civility Rules into a movie? Edward and Nicholas would need passably athletic physiques and dark good looks. (And I'd like Edward to keep his goatee.) What do you think of Idris Elba as Edward and Isaiah Mustafa as his younger brother, Nicholas? Works for me.


I also love that British actors can look like people, not models, but I'll save that for another post. 


  1. Great post, and very valid points! I vote for Idris abd Isaiah for your brothers. I read somewhere that Sandra Bullock asks to see scripts that were written for a male lead, and she's got the clout to make 'em switch gender. So it's possible.

  2. I think those two guys would be terrific in Civility Rules. As long as Hollywood picks actors who can carry off the role rather than their pick be a "look how PC I can be," I'm fine with their choices. This past Oscar season had many different races in films to choose from. The voters just thought the ones they picked did a better job than the others. How many legends in Hollywood never won an Oscar?

    1. I would consider it a mark of excellence, myself.

  3. I couldn't agree with you more. Very well said.


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