Friday, March 30, 2012

Casting Color

Photo from
 Zachary Jernigan's blog
This might get tricky. Bear with me.

I read an article today about some hooraw over the race of some of the characters in The Hunger Games film. There was some hooraw last year over the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall in the film version of Thor.

Now I grew up with Thor comic books and pretty much everyone in them was white. This made a kind of sense to me as they were Nordic gods and I hadn't encountered anyone of color from that region in any of my experiences or  the media I watched. I liked Thor as a film because I like the character and I think Kenneth Branagh is an excellent director. Like any adaptation, there are issues of story and execution of that story and the characters maybe not being true to the source material.

(My friend Larry didn't care for Thor because of all the shouting and as he puts it: "There's one black guy in Asgard and he's the doorman?")

I didn't have any problem with the casting of Elba as Heimdall, it didn't bother me at all. But apparently there are quite a few folks out in the world that are Hunger Games fans and they're upset about some characters not being white. (You can search for the article yourselves or find another one, I'm sure. I don't want to link to it here.) These folks are racist and some of them are pretty proud of it, I guess.

So here's my question: as a reader, do you impose an ethnicity onto a character who isn't given one? I mean if there's a cue in a name that sounds Chinese or Korean or African, do you automatically assume that the character is not caucasian? Similarly, a male character named Joe from the inner city might be of any ethnic background, mightn't he? Which do you assume he is if the author doesn't tell you?

I avoid distinguishing a lot of my characters as one race or another, unless they are aliens. I want my readers to have an 'in' to the story by being able to see themselves in there if they choose to do that. But if, honestly this is an enormous if, any of my stories were adapted to a visual medium I would not care who was cast in any particular role. I don't speak for a race or ethnicity or anything else except myself when I'm writing. I just don't think about it.

I know it's important to some people and for various reasons. It's not up to me, though, to represent anyone except me. Could I write a great character who is black? Maybe I have. I can write strong female characters because my life is filled with them. Are any of my ladies in my stories Chinese? They might be, I never say. Do I know? Yeah, I do, but I don't think you need to. It's not important to the story which race they are. You can impose your own visualizations on my characters. Be aware that they're yours, though, and not necessarily mine.

It's 2012 and we are supposed to be past racism by now and we're not. This disappoints me greatly.


KansasBard said...

This is a huge subject, and one I'm sure would be best debated over a bottle of whisky. But I'll make two points here. 1) As a writer, I feel it's my duty to describe the character I see in my mind's eye. If I've given no description so that anyone could fill the role, I haven't written a very real character. 2) I have no problem writing people into my stories who aren't from the same socio-economic background or culture as me, but I am constantly afraid of stereotyping or creating a character that doesn't sound genuine. Writing characters outside my personal sphere of experience is one of the hardest things to do.

Unknown said...

I've actually been blogging in circles around this topic the past couple days, trying to get my thoughts together on it.

I balk at mentioning race, because I'm afraid someone is going to say, "Yeah, that's an offensive stereotype," or even just that I gave a character an ethnicity that their actions don't reflect. My experience with other ethnicities is that we all act pretty much the same -- but what if my experience is too limited, or just wrong?

So on, and so forth, in that manner. It's a complex issue.