When Cloud Atlas came out last year, many people (who weren’t familiar with the book or movie) were rightly pissed. There were shouts of yellow face, the usual “Hollywood is racist” articles, and the mystification as to why anyone would cast white actors in Asian roles at all, especially when prostheses were necessary.
Then, there were the expected responses: The script called for trans-racial performances (and it did), the actors were the right ones for the job (eh), and roles should just go to the best qualified performer, regardless.
Now we have a (somewhat) similar but not (at all) analogous situation with Jared Leto playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club. People are angry for many different reasons (negative portrayal, mediocre acting, narcissistic award-acceptance speeches, cross-gender casting, and more). Others are coming to Leto’s defense saying he did a great job with the character, even if he is cis.
The underlying frustration I see in the responses to both movies is the absolutely real and completely unresolved issue Hollywood has with actors of color and sexual and gender minorities.
The argument from the “pro-Leto” and “pro-cross racial casting” hinges on one great assumption: all things being equal.
When the argument is: “A cis person should be able to play trans if a trans person can play cis.” Or “A white actor can play a POC if they’re right for the role.” Or some other version, what the person is really saying is “If all things are equal, a cis person can play trans and vice versa.” And “If all things are equal, the best actor should get the role, regardless of whether it was written for a POC or not.”
I agree with these statements, superficially. I think there is plenty of opportunity for cis actors to explore a trans character and vice versa. And, sure, why couldn’t an actor of one race play a different race, if they’re best for the role? I can envision a utopian version of Hollywood where this could work.
The problem is, of course, NOTHING is equal. Asian actors are not cast in white roles. Trans actors are not cast in cis roles. The three most notable Academy Award wins for African American women in the past 20 years have been roles which hinged on their blackness (Berry in Monster’s Ball, Davis in The Help, and Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave). Were these women luminous and masterful? You betcha. But I’d love to see women of color win for playing senators, suburban moms, queens or debutantes one day, too.
When Calpernia Addams, Laverne Cox, and Candis Cayne get cast as the heterosexual love interest at the same rate as Cameron Diaz, Salma Hayek, and Kiera Knightley, then Leto can get a pass from me.
The point of rants and raves like the ones against Leto’s performance are to call attention to the fact that there are working folks in Hollywood who are talented, good-looking and ready for prime time. And they’re not getting cast. Which is why we need more people talking about this, saying “Where is our representation?!” And we need more creative folks on the inside, insisting that the ingénue can be black and the first lady can be trans. Only then will we have a shot at all things being equal.