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I imagine there has been discussion of this topic on this board before, though I don't really know how to search for it. 

I've been watching old episodes of Siskel and Ebert on YouTube, and I came across their discussion of Voices:

Around the 22 minute mark, Ebert mentions that there were "protests" in San Francisco because the portrayal of deafness was not "technically" accurate and because a hearing actress played the main (deaf) character. 

What is interesting for a viewer today is how quickly and cavalierly Ebert dismisses such protests. Today we live in a world where it seems like every other movie has some controversy about an actor or actress not being part of the demographic group of the character. 

In principle, it seems like a good idea to have opportunities for actors who are parts of underrepresented groups on the screen, so I understand the cultural appropriation argument and the representation argument, and I'm sympathetic to them. But I also wonder if there is a line to be drawn somewhere. Can teachers only play teachers? What if the quality is not incidental to the part? (I think, for example, that the only reason Joey Lucas in The West Wing was deaf was because Marlee Matalin was playing her and not vice-versa.

Is Ebert's argument wrong here? Or just out of date?

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  • 2 weeks later...

When the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha premiered some time ago, some viewers and critics protested that some of the actors weren't Japanese but, instead, were Chinese. I don't recall what the production company said at the time about this matter (or if they said anything at all), but I wouldn't be entirely surprised if they had defended their casting decisions by saying that Zhang Ziyi is one of East Asia's and, by extension, the world's, greatest box-office draws, so it's "better" to cast her than someone who is Japanese but much less known (translation: less box-office revenue). *If* they or anyone made this argument, one could say, well, for one, the film did have some Japanese actors in it, so why not make the entire cast Japanese?; and, two, the film already had cache and familiarity because of the book it's based on -- therefore, casting less famous Japanese actresses wouldn't be such a "liability" in terms of ticket sales. I don't mean to imply that I agree with any of these arguments either way, but, then again, I am reminded of the casting of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Omar Sharif played Sherif Ali, but the studio cast Alec Guinness to play Prince Faisal. They darkened his skin with make-up and he faked an Arab "accent," and to this day I think: so they can get an Egyptian actor to play Ali, but for the part of the Iraqi prince, they dress a white man in Arab clothing and make his skin dark? I suppose we'll eventually see Charlton Heston play a Mexican and Jake Gyllenhaal play a Persian adventurer.

So Ebert seems out-of-date in the sense that representation matters for accuracy (not just racial or cultural, but contextual and historical) and also because, as you note, Ken, actors from underrepresented groups should have the opportunities for on-screen roles that historically have gone to others. And I'd agree that this includes people with disabilities as well. There are mutual benefits for casting a personal with a disability in the role of a character with a disability. Having said all that, acting is acting. There's something to be said about having faith in people's imaginations and in their ability to exceed the boundaries of their own experiences and to inhabit the lives of others -- something that reading good novels, for example, affords the reader, and the novelist as well. In other words, does one have to have had the experience of losing a child to play a fictional character who does? Or are imagination and empathy enough? If you happen to be an actor who has lost a child, and if you're asked to play such a role, would you even want to? Would it force you to relive the trauma? Would you suggest the studio hire a colleague who has not gone through such horror? (Granted, this example is different from an example about race, ethnicity, etc., which is equally complicated but for different reasons. In my opinion, to take on example, Chuck Connors playing Geronimo just isn't right.)

Over the decades, I think we've all seen impressive examples of actors acting out experiences they themselves haven't had -- poverty, autism, combat, cancer, death of a spouse, murder of a child, living as a foreigner in another land, playing a Mormon or a Christian or a Muslim while not actually being one, and so on. But I do think we've reached a point in the culture of cinema where all this will be less likely, with greater insistence and effort to ensure accuracy within roles. I'll admit, as someone of Chinese descent, that I'm uncomfortable with non-Chinese actors taking Chinese roles -- as I think Emma Stone did in some Cameron Crowe movie ... or maybe it was a movie based on a Nick Hornby book; I don't know ... but if she's even remotely Chinese, then I'm William Shakespeare. Speaking of which: remember how in Renaissance drama, female characters were always played by men? At least we've gotten far, far, far past that!

Edited by Michael S
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michael.

Here's a clip from Dick Cavett interviewing James Earl Jones about the same thing:


I think it is interesting (I'd love to know the Broadcast date) that Cavett's reaction is nearly identical to Ebert's in the clip (now taken down) above. He calls the letter to the NYT "silly."

James Earl Jones does better at trying to explain/contextualize the argument while stopping short of making it a mandate. I agree with them both (though Jones seems to understand this at a deeper level) that part of the argument is socio-political, about empowering people to make art and not really artistic (about whether the product is unacceptable.).


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Thanks for posting the Dick Cavett/James Earl Jones video, Ken. I agree that Jones understands the issue at a deeper level than Cavett. I suppose there's a part of me that wishes that politics could be divorced from art; Cavett says something to the effect that art should be art, and that politics should not be part of it (hence his comment about the "silly" letter). The reality is quite different, though -- not necessarily because viewers, readers, moviegoers, critics, et. al. politicize art when they interact with it (though they do that sometimes), but because a significant amount of art is inherently and purposely political: everything ranging from European paintings during the era of the French Revolution, to post-colonial/anti-imperialist novels written by people who have lived under colonialism, to films about civil rights or about political freedom, to stories about corruption among global corporations, to books about the oppression of women, and so on. There are even paintings in which the form itself is a political critique because the painter associated previous formal qualities with social/political structures (e.g., "that's so bourgeois," or "that's so traditionalist"). So Cavett seems naive here. Also, to return to my aside about Chuck Connors playing Geronimo -- that, in and of itself, is a political statement that encompasses so much about American history, the plight of Native Americans, the status of Native Americans in the modern U.S., the political habits of film studio systems, and more. If an actor embodies many of the qualities that Jones speaks about, could someone not of a particular race play a character who is of that particular race? Jones seems to say maybe? Or he doesn't rule it out explicitly. 

Of course, there are always questions about where lines get drawn. E.g, can a man write a novel in which the narrator or the protagonist is a woman? A while back, I was reading something in the NY Times (can't recall what the article was about exactly) and noticed in the comment section that a female reader said that she never thought male novelists could write female characters properly, and then she read Henry James, and, all of a sudden, there it was: a male author creating some of the richest female characters in fiction. 

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