In an episode of the 1960s TV series "Star Trek", the heroes encounter factions of a warring planet who are, literally, half black and half white (one side of their faces is white, the other black). The metaphor seemed obvious at a time when black/white racial tension was high in the U.S. and some have gently mocked that episode as rather heavy handed. But I sometimes think -- though I could be wrong -- that detractors have missed the sublime beauty of that episode.
You see it all comes together in a scene, midway through, when series' heroes Kirk and Spock admit to one of the aliens that neither of them quite understand what the aliens are fighting about since they look the same. To which the indignant alien demands "Are you blind? I'm black on the right side -- he's black on the left!" And it's then that the true message is presented, as you realize the aliens are engaged in a centuries old conflict over a racial distinction so trivial that up until that moment no one -- not even we, the audience -- even noticed it!
And it makes one wonder how would humans explain racism, or sexism, or religious strife to an alien with, say, six tentacles and three eyes, a hermaphrodite who might worship a mould culture? An alien who would listen patiently to our explanations of thousands of years of conflict and persecution and then simply shrug and say, "Sorry...you all seem alike to me."
And that's my little preamble to talking about that most loaded of topics...race.
I came upon various internet message boards discussing the Canadian co-produced Partition, a movie set in India about the conflicts that arose during the creation of Pakistan. At issue was the announcement that a central Muslim character would be played by Kristin Kreuk -- who is not, in fact, Indian, nor of the Muslim faith.
The discussion took on two aspects -- whether a non-Indian should be used to play an Indian, and whether Kreuk at least looked the part. Bearing in mind the discussion seemed to be primarily between Indians, or people of Indian ancestry, and some adamantly said Kreuk did not look the part and it was an insult to cast her...while others said that they knew people from the region who did, in fact, look like Kreuk.
There's a danger that people, too determined to define themselves -- or others -- concoct unrealistically rigid templates of what someone "should" look like. As an example, there was a comment I saw on the Internet Movie Database about the Canadian movie Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity in which a commentator remarked it was silly to cast Sandra Oh, a Korean-Canadian, as a Chinese-Canadian. Given there was a time when Asian characters were played by white guys in ridiculous make up, most people might think as long as you've got the continent right, you're basically doing okay. For that matter, I'm reminded of an anecdote told by the white American magician/comedian Penn Jillette (the tall one of the Penn & Teller duo) about how when the two of them were touring China he was mistaken for Michael Jordan -- the black American basketball player. To a westerner, born and bred in a cauldron of racial distinctions, it sounds absurd...but obviously to the Chinese, one very, very tall American looked very much like another very, very tall American; the identifying characteristic they focused on was not pigmentation, but height.
Anyhoo...back to Kreuk in Partition.
Obviously, there's been a long history of hiring white actors to play non-white roles, a tradition that was gradually weeded out over the years. As such, there's a certain cultural/historical baggage when casting someone of the wrong ethnicity for a part. Although some take their racial typing seriously, I would argue to most the real crux of the debate is whether it's tit for tat. Rarely (though occasionally) will you see Jewish actors complaining if a Gentile plays a Jew, nor do homosexuals usually object when a straight actor plays a homosexual. And that's because with so-called "non-visible minorities" the work flows both ways. Jewish actors play Gentiles all the time; gays play straight. And so, in a sense, the issue is less political than practical. If the field is more or less level, if the work opportunities flow both ways, the question becomes less contentious.
White American actor John Malkovich once claimed he could've played black activist Malcolm X -- and you know what? Maybe he's right...provided Denzel Washington can be considered for the role of, say, John F. Kennedy. But until that day happens, until a role really, truly goes to the best person, regardless of the role, and not just to the best white person, then no, John Malkovich shouldn't be playing Malcolm X.
So in that sense, should Kreuk be allowed to play an East Indian, knowing that there are few roles for Indian actresses in western films (few, but growing exponentially in the last few years)? Well, maybe not. But then there's the other side of the equation. Kreuk is moderately famous, and the filmmaker wants to tell this important story (inspired, apparently, by his own family history) to as many people as possible. Already the movie is getting more publicity -- and publicity among young, historically disinterested Smallville/Edgemont fans -- than it would have if Kreuk wasn't in it. That's no guarantee of box office success, but at least people know about it, and are learning about the political events it depicts just because Kreuk's name is associated with it (probably more people than are aware of the previous Canadian-made but Indian-cast film on the topic, Deepa Mehta's Earth).
Ah hah! say some -- but that's always been the argument of producers, who claim they'd "love" to have hired an actor of the right ethnicity, but they need a star -- yet there won't be a star of that ethnicity if they don't get the parts when they come along. Yes, the old Catch 22. Nor is it an alien debate for Canadians, who often see foreign actors hired to star in Canadian movies.
Some critics of Kreuk's casting argued that there were plenty of famous Indian actresses who could've been cast. I'm guessing the people who wrote that were more familiar with the Indian movie biz than most western film goers and weren't considering the movie in its own context. Which is that, one assumes, Partition's director Vic Sarin (an Indo-Canadian) is not really aiming at an Indian audience, already familiar with the subject matter, but hoping to reach a western audience. Hence why even the film's male lead, Jimi Mistry, though of Indian ancestry, is not Indian either, but British, more familiar to fans of, say, "East Enders" (or the enjoyable Canadian comedy, Touch of Pink) than of Bollywood musicals. Sarin is trying to take an Indian story and bring it to an oblivious western audience. And in that context, no, there are no particularly famous Indian actresses in the west. Not yet.
But where things become really interesting is that Kreuk, herself, is not technically white, but rather Eurasian. And if we are too strict about ethnic casting, where would that leave Kreuk? After all, she owes a great deal of her fame to playing Lana Lang on Smallville -- a character who is white, middle American. In other words, if we were too Draconian, then technically Kreuk shouldn't have got that part either. In fact, one wonders why the characters in Smallville are so busy trying to figure out Clark Kent's secret when the real mystery is why their supposedly WASP school chum Lana looks vaguely Chinese.
The thing is, western nations like Canada are changing, and fast. Studies predict that within ten years or so 50 percent of big cities like Toronto will be non-white. And you know what? With all those races hanging out, mixing it up, there's going to be a lot of fooling about. Kreuk isn't unusual...she's just ahead of the curve. Pretty soon, the question won't be whether someone like Vic Sarin should be casting people of the incorrect ethnicity for a role...pretty soon, there won't be anyone of the "correct" ethnicity to choose from. In fact, there are talented Canadian actors coming along now who are actually benefitting from a vaguely exotic "ethnic" look, allowing them to slip into a variety of roles where once, they probably wouldn't have got any part at all.
The irony about the controversy over the ethnic casting choices of Partition is that the movie itself will be about an era when India and the newly formed Pakistan were torn apart by bloody conflict -- what we would now call "ethnic cleansing", as thousands on both sides were killed simply for who they were, neighbour killing neighbour over ethnic and religious differences. Funnily enough, many of those commenting on the movie on-line frequently referred to it as a "Hollywood" movie, and Kreuk as an "American" (or, alternately, a "Dutch-Chinese"). Caught up in their own cultural and ethnic concerns, they failed to recognize that the writer-director is Indo-Canadian, that Kreuk is Canadian (as is one of the co-stars, Neve Campbell, who will be playing a British woman), and the movie Canadian (technically, a Canada-U.K.-South African co-production) and that arbitrarily labelling it an American film might be just as contemptuous of Canadian sensibilities as any casting decision that raised their ire.
In fact, suppose the filmmakers had cast an actress from India (as some of the on-line commentators seemed to want). Wouldn't Canadians have a right to complain that, once again, it's a Canadian movie starring non-Canadian actors?
In conclusion, I guess my point is that, hypocritical though I may be, if Sarin had cast a wholly white actress in the part, and painted her up, I'd probably object more strenuously, too. Because then it's just the same old story of a white actor taking a part away from a non-white actor. But when you're talking about actors of already mixed ethnicity, like Kreuk, I'm more ambivalent -- do we really want an industry where people like Kreuk can only get parts that reflect their particular ethnic combination? How many parts are there specifically geared for Dutch-Chinese Canadians?
Sure, in an ideal world, Sarin probably could've found a "name" Canadian actress of Indian ancestry to play the part...but maybe in an ideal world, it shouldn't really matter.
Anyway, you might as well get used to Korean-Canadians like Sandra Oh playing Chinese-Canadians, and Kristin Kreuk playing white American girls and brown Indian girls...'cause as Canada's so-called cultural mosaic continues to diversify, the lines between ethnic groups are going to get blurrier and blurrier. And you know what? That's probably a good thing.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
Sept. 9, 2005
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