August 31, 2017
On Signs of the Times
There are times when society casts a critical eye on long-held practices and past icons and begins to debate their current value. People may ask whether yesterday’s heroes still inspire or whether our present values have diminished their appeal. For evidence of this, look no further than the debate over emblems and figures associated with the Confederacy. This week two stories unrelated to that controversy caught my attention, and they demonstrate some of the challenges that we continue to face when dealing with – and perhaps moving beyond - the past.
In the first story, rapper-actor Ed Skrein, perhaps best known for playing Ajax in Deadpool, dropped out of the remake of Hellboy. He had been cast as Major Ben Daimio, a character who is Asian in the graphic novels that the movies are based on. Skrein is of Jewish, Austrian, and English descent, and he says that his background played a role in his decision. Skrein has not had a long Hollywood career; IMDB currently lists just 18 screen credits, two of which are for films scheduled for release next year. The decision to give up a role in such a high-profile film could not have been easy to make. The second story involves the famous Orpheum Theater in Memphis. The theater holds an annual summer movie series, and for the past 34 years, the series has included the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Not this year. After receiving “specific inquiries from patrons,” the theater elected to drop the film – permanently. In a statement, the theater company explained their decision this way: “As an organization whose stated purpose is to ‘entertain, educate, and enlighten the community it serves’, [we] cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population.”
Just what should we make of these two stories?
Shortly after Skrein’s decision, Lionsgate, the company remaking Hellboy, issue an incredibly supportive statement. In their statement they proclaimed, “It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues or authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.” A quick observation: What took them so long? It’s not a secret that the character is Asian; it’s right there on the page. Where was the “intent to be sensitive” during the casting process? Where was the “intent to be sensitive” when the casting announcement was typed up and released? If you take the studio at their word, they were asleep at the wheel, approving a movie based on a source they knew absolutely nothing about, hiring a director who was not familiar with it either, and instructing casting agents who were equally ignorant of the fact that the ethnicity of a key character had been changed. This seems highly unlikely. Yet the narrative is understandably appealing. The alternative is that they either didn’t care or didn’t think anyone would notice.
Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors in non-white roles and making non-white characters Caucasian – from Katharine Hepburn playing a Chinese character in Dragon Seed to Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil, from Ben Affleck in Argo and Emma Stone in Aloha. The justification for these casting choices has always been that there were few, if any, big-name stars of Chinese, Mexican, or Japanese descent and that actors and actresses with such backgrounds were not box office draws. Therefore, the reasoning goes, it is unwise to invest a hundred million dollars in a movie with an “unproven” star.
I’m not sure that these arguments ever truly held water, but they certainly don’t now. Back in the early 1990s, I was one of those voices supporting Jonathan Pryce in his efforts to be able to play the role of the Engineer in Miss Saigon in the United States. My reasoning was that Pryce should be judged on his talent and not limited by his ethnicity. It’s a sentiment that I believed most of the actors in the theater group I was part of shared. Now I’m not so sure. Many of the people I was working with at the time were Asian-American, and I can’t help wondering how many of them grew up dreaming of playing the lead only to see it given to someone else time and time again. It took a while for me to change my views, but after reading an interview with B.D. Wong, I began to see the error in my way of thinking. As he explained it, Asian-Americans were being told that, after holding auditions in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, no one could play an Asian character better than a Caucasian. Think about that. There’s simply no way to spin it. I don’t think one actor’s decision will change Hollywood, yet by opting out of the film, the issues has once again been brought to the public’s attention, which is where it belongs to be.
And now Gone with the Wind. In the interest of full disclosure, I have only seen the film once, and I am not a huge fan. Rhett Butler saying he now understands what Confederate soldiers are fighting for and going to enlist, slaves enthusiastically carrying shovels to dig ditches and defend the states that are seeking to deny them freedom, Scarlet’s constant indecision involving matters of the heart – there was so much that just didn’t resonate with me or that my knee-jerk reaction to was to reject. However, it’s a film I have always intended to return to, especially now that I understand more about the pre-Civil War South, and I own it on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Not every film ages well. There are a variety of reasons why what resonates with one generation is met with indifference by a later one, and vice versa. Time has a way of taking the limelight off former stars and acclaimed films. This is natural. However, to remove a film because an unspecified number of people were uncomfortable with it seems wrong. It makes it seem as if people are so fragile that the sight of something unpleasant – either in a film or on a marquee – is too much for them. The best response to a theater showing a movie that you are not interested in seeing is simply to close your wallet to it. If enough people do this, a theater will get the message.
However, the story brings up other issues. Just how does censoring a film “educate and enlighten”? Wouldn’t it be more educational and enlightening to hold Q & A sessions about the film, address its controversies, and explore the theory of the Lost Cause, a theory that the film so wholeheartedly embraces? None of this is possible is people can’t see the film.
There there’s the impact of comments and complaints in today’s society. I have no way of knowing how many people called the theater and made their objections clear. However, I have a hard time believing that it was such a large number as to constitute a majority of filmgoers. I realize this is little comfort to the poor secretary whose job it is to respond to the complaints of caller after caller, yet two hundred complaints does not a consensus make. We have a way of responding to long lists these days that gives them a power they shouldn’t have. Recently, a Yahoo news story claimed that there was enormous anger over the new Charlie Sheen movie, 9/11, yet the article itself contained less than ten negative comments - hardly a reliable sample. A more accurate article would simply have reported the release of the film’s trailer and asked what people thought of it.
I do not mean to diminish the opinions of those people who were disturbed by the showing of Gone with the Wind or by movies in which non-White characters are played by Caucasian actors, both old and new. There may indeed be a time when such films are no longer shown, yet that should be the result of the audience’s indifference to them, not because of censorship or willful amnesia. In fact, many of these films are already ignored by the general public, and the ones that aren't are part of a continuing discussion about the past and what, if anything, has changed. This is a conversation worth having, but we can only have it if we confront images from our past directly and thoughtfully. And this requires being able to see them.