Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ethnically Ambiguous?

Ages and ages ago, I was reading about the Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl thing which made me think. I didn't get to really think those things through, because of the whole moving back to America thing. It's kind of interesting which ethnicities people deem acceptable to "substitute" other ethnicities for.

As far as I can tell, black and Asian characters are ethnicities you can't put white people in. Blackface and yellowface have been attempted in the past, but is generally barred from mainstream TV and movies, because it's in bad taste, and more importantly, someone might sue.

However there are a ton of other ethnicities that are apparently more fluid. For example, look at the career of Cliff Curtis, who, for those of you who are wondering, is Keisha Castle-Hughes's dad in Whale Rider.

Mr. Curtis, reveals is Maori, however, his acting career reveals he played Pablo Escobar in Blow, Amir Abdullah in Three Kings, Shiekh Faddallah in The Insider, Claudio Perrini in Collateral Damage, and Mort Whitman in Spooked. So that means a Maori actor has played, a Latino character, an Iraqi character, an Italian character, and what I assume to be a white character.

My point is that there are certain roles that casting directors consider to be racially ambiguous enough to cast people not of those ethnicities, and that's ok. I mean, how many Arab characters are played by South Asian actors? Or Latino actors? And also vice versa? My guess is no casting director would put a Latino actor in the role meant specifically for an African American. With Asian characters, yellowface these days takes the form of cultural appropriation, rather than actual yellowface. Although Angry Asian Man tells me that Rob Schneider does yellowface in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. (This is complicated by the fact that Mr. Schneider is part Filipino. But you know, that's just an investigation for another time.) However clearly Latino roles, Native American roles, Pacific Islander roles, Arab roles, and I would guess South Asian roles, sometimes, are all up for grabs. I would even be curious if Filipinos would be included in this grab bag of brown. Apparently some brown people in the eyes of the viewing public all just look kind of the same.

On the other side of the equation, I find it kind of hilarious that in Disney cartoons, voices are assigned to ethnically specific actors. Well, sometimes. I mean I'm sure B.D. Wong and Ming Na Wen are happy for the residual pay they get from Mulan reruns, but still, what is so ethnically specific about an Asian American voice, and if there is one, why is Eddie Murphy in the movie?

And then of course, there are headtrippy, well ethnicity-wise anyway, movies like The Matrix, where a black man plays the Yoda/Mr. Miyagi role, and some part Asian guy, passing as white, takes on the Karate Kid role. Does Keanu Reeves count as Asian either? That's also a story for another time, I think.


Lizard said...

i have noticed the phenomenon of racially ambiguous people being deemed 'acceptible' for certain roles in real life too. asian restaurant staffing springs to mind. it seems like they want to mantain the illusion or atmosphere of china or india or whichever, to a blind and retarded white clientele. indian restaurants are crawling with mexicans (my mom has a hilarious story about this i should tell you sometime), and there's a vietnamese restaurant in PDX that, as far as i can tell, hires only black haired people, ethnicity be damned.

i've also got a half chinese half white friend who has gotten mistaken for just about everything except african. people assume she's whatever they are, apparently.

people see what they want or expect, i guess.

Vox said...

A lot of Native American actors seem to be cast in roles of varying ethnicity, too (and a lot of Asian American actors seem to have been cast in Native American roles in the past, though most of the recent movies I've seen have been more careful about getting Native American actors for those roles). And then there are the mixed people like Lou Diamond Phillips, who get cast as just about anything. I guess ethnic ambiguity is the big thing in Hollywood now.

And oh, Rob Schneider, why? WHY?

lovelesscynic said...

Lou Diamond Phillips is such a great example. I totally forgot about him, seriously how many different types of people has he played?

Oh Rob Schneider, the only comfort is that no one actually knows that he's part Asian. So let's just not tell anyone, shall we?

Vox said...

I think African/African American is the only ethnicity Lou Diamond Phillips hasn't played yet. (And have you ever noticed that you have to say his full name? Or at least I do.) It's great for his career that he's so versatile, but it sucks for people who aren't "ethnically ambiguous" and get shorted out of one of the few Asian/Native American/Latino/whatever roles.

And I really hope you're right that no one knows Rob Schneider's part Asian. He's such a tool.

lovelesscynic said...

I think it's partially because Diamond is a cool middle name. Particularly in relation to Lou and Phillips. And it just seems to flow well.

Factorial said...

Hell, look at the ridiculous things perfect strangers feel compelled to ask me if I am (WHY IS THIS SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE) or people I know to varying degrees have assumed that I was:
-Gypsy (really)
-Native American (there is a standing offer of $$$ if the next time this happens I start to sing "Half Breed" by Cher)
-Italian (this was the most entertaining, as I was flirted with in Italian preceeding the question)
-Native Hawaiian / other Pacific Islander
-"Some Kinda Middle Eastern"
-North African (this the most flattering, as it is from my mom's North African clients -- she always shows my picture to the people she works with, and apparently a large percentage ask "Is her father African?")

And on and on.

In fact A's dad has now given up on "Is L Jewish?" and has started with "You know it's okay that L is Jewish." I WISH THAT I WERE KIDDING.

I've decided that the trigger for people with me is the hair. Also I think that because no one knows both of my parents people assume that the other parent is huge and brown. (I don't know if you'll get this reference, but I'm really close to printing out a picture of Iz to tell people is my dad.) Sorry folks, my mom and dad are both very tiny and white, and we will never know how they produced a gigantic white offspring. I'm like a cuckoo.