Scene Stealers

Rowland: Hollywood fails to cast its light on diversity

mrowland@modbee.comApril 24, 2014 

Staff Photographer

Marijke Rowland and Ruben Porras for the new Modesto Famous page. Marty Bicek/The Bee

MARTY BICEK — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

Make-believe is entirely what we make it.

The world of pure imagination has brought us Oompa Loompas and Orcs and Hippogriffs.

So it always has baffled me why the entertainment industry has such a tough time creating and cultivating diverse casts and story lines. We can dream up a green ogre and his talking donkey friend, but a truly diverse cast often seems too fanciful to even imagine.

The issue of diversity in casting, or more like the lack of it, came to light again recently when the co-writer of the biblical blockbuster “Noah” explained the total absence of people of color in the movie. Sure, it can assemble a seemingly endless assortment of fanciful creatures onto the ark with its $125 million budget. But it can’t find a single black actor to join them.

Script co-writer Ari Handel explained the intentional reasoning behind this to the faith-based website The Higher Calling earlier this month:

“From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Benetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise. You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, ‘Let’s make that not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman.’ Looking at this story through that kind of lens is the same as saying, ‘Would the ark float and is it big enough to get all the species in there?’ That’s irrelevant to the questions because the questions are operating on a different plane than that; they’re operating on the mythical plane.”

What Handel is saying here is astonishingly simple. Populating a movie by all-white actors makes race not a factor. Because, clearly, white people are a default for all people. Diversity just complicates things. So we left it out.

You don’t even have to begin to peel back the glossy veneer of his argument to see its cracks. The idea that a diverse cast, in a mythological story populated with fanciful creatures (the filmmakers made a point to create a menagerie of creatures instead of the ones we are familiar with today) boarding a boat two by two, would somehow take people out of the movie is laughable. Just as insulting is the insinuation that projects that include them – like Benetton or, heaven forbid, “Star Trek” – are somehow ridiculous for doing so.

Diversity isn’t distracting. It’s empowering. It’s real life. And no flood (biblical or otherwise) of wrongheaded thinking about its inclusion will change that fact.

Honestly, I find shows and movies that don’t include much diversity to be distracting. How is it those “Friends” somehow only had other white friends in the middle of Manhattan? And how can “Once Upon a Time,” a show set entirely in the world of fairy tales, look like it’s modeled after only Snow White?

The stubborn perception that diversity somehow weakens its entertainment value runs contrary to empirical evidence. Some of the most buzzed-about shows on TV right now feature robust and diverse casts. “Scandal,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Sleepy Hollow” – these aren’t programs content with letting non-diverse casts be “stand-ins for all people.”

But what really makes those shows so interesting and exciting is not their rainbow casting, but that they let their diverse characters be more than just window dressing. Who gets to tell stories and have stories told about them matters. And it helps make the stories more interesting. And there’s nothing even remotely distracting about that.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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