Brown Out 3: What’s Brown Got To Do With It?

Ok, so! Final post on this. Emma Lindley kindly reposted my first article on writing ethnicity, and a mutual friend replied with what I imagine is a popular and understandable point of view:

What is your point? Do you think we should have colour blind writing and casting or not? I personally feel the ethnicity of the characters should reflect the original intent of the author wherever possible.

When viewing historical European pieces it jars to see people of colour in roles originally written on the implicit understanding that an indigenous European would fill that roll. 

Why? For no other reason than the suspension of disbelief being lifted. Productions work hard to make details such as costume and the sets as accurate as possible in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Casting actors against type only serves to break the illusion.

My reply:

It’s murky and not 100% on how I feel about this, but there are a couple of things to say.

I guess my general point is this: My experience when writing is that there is pressure – acknowledged or otherwise – to not ethnically inflect a character unless there is some sort of “issue” specific to that ethnicity being discussed.

The result is that the ‘default’ for a character is white. As I say, I understand why that is the case, but it can be insidious (as in my “I didn’t see him as black” example – the character was a musician from modern London, there’s no historical precedent stopping that being the case.)

But there’s plenty more to consider…

Firstly, there is a difference between theatre and film since theatre more obviously operates on a figurative level (though film is deceptive – more on that later).

With Shakespeare, we KNOW that we’re not looking at the 16th century, productions are often placed in different time frames (and if you were to be serving the historical precedent, everyone in the cast would still be male, regardless of character gender). Maybe this takes some getting used to at first, but since you’re suspending your disbelief by watching a play ANYWAY, it doesn’t take long. The interest is in the drama, which is why Shakespeare is popular as a dramatist the world over, not a peddler of history. The Emotional Truth in the drama is far, far more valuable that fidelity to history.

Secondly, In TV and film, I think white often becomes the lay default in many cases for lots of reasons – partly to do with indigenous ethnic make up as you point out, partly spectator familiarity (more on that later) and partly because of what producers people THINK people want to watch, even beyond historical European pieces. Meg did a follow up comment about Hollywood doing it all the time. The example of 21, a story based on the exploits of a group of mainly Asian-Americans, had Jim Sturgess in the main role when it hit the screen. He was considered more “bankable” than an Asian-American actor (despite not really having been in anything, definitely nothing huge, before they started shooting.)

It even bleeds into fantasy – e.g. there being a bit of a hoo-hah about a character in the Thor movie being black. Believing a man from a mystical realm goes around smashing gigantic robots and ice demons with a magical hammer – belief is seemingly (for some) more easily suspended there than accepting that a character in said mystical realm might by a little husky. I remember similar remarks about Lord Asriel when His Dark Materials was put on at the National. Yet the only thing about it I can find on the internet about it says:

“While I was initially surprised at black actors playing Lord Asriel and Roger (David Harewood and Darren Hart respectively), they both gave great performances”.

People’s illusions might get broken briefly, but the story/character brings them back into it.

Now those examples were expectations on fantasy which I think we can all agree, have no real reason not to be more open. On your point of historical European pieces, yes, absolutely it would be jarring to throw, say, an Asian Mr. Darcy when it’s extremely unlikely such a figure could exist.


Whatever people expect as real has often been either distorted or entirely made up.

In his essay, Television Culture, John Fiske states, “what passes for reality in any culture is the product of that culture’s codes, so ‘reality’ is always already encoded, it is never raw’. (A rough breakdown is here:

People are more and more obsessed with aggressive verisimilitude these days. I found the case of The Hurt Locker fascinating. A film praised left and right for being “real”.

Yet in order for Bigelow’s impression of reality to function, it has to rely on pre-existing codes. The visual system she employs can be traced back to Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers. That film borrowed its aesthetic from documentary camera work, and numerous war and action films have since made use of this style for the same effect, cementing its codification as system of verity, and allowing it to “short circuit the unreality of the image in order to present us the truth of the object.” (As Baudrillard says). It’s amazing to think but it really as simple as this – if a creative uses the right ‘signals’, we are inherently more likely to believe what we’re shown is truthful.

Even general knowledge of period dramas are also coded by other period dramas, not necessarily reality or the author’s intent.

Heathcliff, for example, is described as dark-skinned  (also a gypsy) by Bronte in Wuthering Heights, but  to my knowledge there’s only been one adaptation (the recent Andrea Arnold one) that’s taken that even vaguely into account. I suspect most people view Heathcliff as broody and almost certainly white. Mr. Darcy seems inseparable from THAT wet shirt scene from the BBC adaptation, though Austen never wrote it.

Macbeth was written to please a new king, not as a historical artefact. It is, on very many levels absolute bull (It’s even got ghosts and witches in it!). Even Shakespeare’s history plays are riddled with inaccuracies.

So we get used to things as ‘truth’, even when they’re not necessarily anything to do with it. That’s why people baulked at Michael Mann’s Public Enemies on an aesthetic level. That’s Not What That Period Looked Like.

As such, producers do not play to truth – they play to expectation of truth. Which is a shame because, as Emma says, audiences can actually suspend their disbelief of reality (coded or otherwise) more easily than most give them credit for.

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