Question of the week: should casting be colour-blind?


So this week, we have in the cinemas a movie called Thor, all about (Marvel’s version of) the eponymous Norse god of Thunder. It’s already got a lot of people worked up. We have the pagans who don’t think it’s a proper depiction of their gods for starters. But we also have the comics fans who are annoyed that Idris Elba is in it.

Now quite how you could object to Idris Elba being in anything, even Luther, I don’t know, because he’s awesome. But people are objecting that he’s playing a character who’s white in the comics.

Idris Elba as Heimdall

Heimdall in Marvel comics

So today’s not at all explosive question is

Should casting be colour-blind? Should you cast the best actor for a role or the best actor who also looks the part for the role?

For those of you who want to go to advanced classes, let’s consider the movie Suture in which Michael Harris…

Michael Harris in Suture

…and Dennis Haysbert…

Dennis Haysbert in Suture

…played identical twin (half-)brothers.

UPDATE: I’ve now included a clip of Suture so you can see what I mean:

As always, answers below or on your own blog

  • Having worked on a production of the musical version of “Two Gentlemen Of Verona” in my impressionable youth, where the casting was so color-blind that the royal family had three different races, I would have thought that by now it shouldn’t bother me, and for the most part it doesn’t. I have no problem with Felix Leiter and Nick Fury being black, for example. I didn’t get all the fuss about the casting of Jonathan Pryce in “Miss Saigon” here on B’way years ago.
    But I think it could go too far and this is a good example. Even though the film is based on the comics, there’s still the basis of the original Norse myths. And don’t we always fashion our gods in our own image? Did those old Vikings even know that black men existed? Why would they have one of their gods not be like them?
    But like you said, it is Idris Elba and I wouldn’t mess with him anyway (based on ‘Luther’), let alone when he’s a lower-case god. So even though I think it’s wrong, I still think it’s cool.
    It’s the TV series ‘Merlin’ where color-blind casting does take me out of the story, when I see the black knights and especially in the case of Guinevere.
    I’d hate to think it makes me look racist. It’s just that it doesn’t feel believable.

  • To be fair, there was a backlash in the comics world against the backlash over the casting of Idris Elba.

  • Surely it depends whether it’s relevant. If you have a family and they’re all different races, that makes no sense. If you have a version of a comic-strip, like Thor, does it really matter if a character changes race *if* that has no bearing on the (fantasy) story?
    Fun somewhat-relevant factoid: Judge Dredd was initially drawn as a black man by its earliest artists. It was months into the run before IPC settled on him being a white guy.

  • SK

    The Vikings (actually I suppose it should be ‘Vikers’, shouldn’t it?) traded with the east through Byzantium, and went down the coast of Spain at the time when it was occupied by the Moors, so it seems pretty likely they they would have known that men with dark skin existed.
    I’m going to go with the answer that looking the part for the role is not distinguishable from ‘the best person for the role’, but that skin tone (I prefer to say that when dealing with aesthetics as ‘race’ is a slippery, not to say genetically dubious, concept to start with) is less important when it comes to that than other issues of physicality: better cast Idris Elba as a Norse god than Arthur Darvill, for example.
    That Adrian Lester looked the part for Henry V by being regal (as I understand it from reviews, not having seen the production) was more important than that his skin was darker than the historical Henry’s; but you wouldn’t want to cast someone totally physically unsuitable (and sometimes that depends on who else is on the stage: you don’t want a big and beefy hero facing a slight and scrawny villain, or there’s no sense of threat).
    What I will say is that there can be a moment of resistance to an atypical or unhistorical casting, but in my experience that tends to fade as one gets used to it. I don’t watch Merlin on account of how it’s shite, but if I did I suspect that while at the beginning I would have found Angel Coulby sticking out, by this point I would simply accept her as Guinevere. I’d be more bothered, frankly, by the fact that the character they are calling Guinevere seems to have nothing to do with the character of the same name in Mallory.
    Now, there is an issue maybe when the skin tone of a part is actually relevant. For instance, what if a white actor played Othello without make-up? How would that work? Could that get across his being an oddity in Venice? What if Othello was a white actor, and Iago was darker? That would be… odd. I’m not saying I’d be against it in principle, but I’d have to be convinced it would work.
    That doesn’t apply in this case, though: there’s no reason for the skin tone of a minor god to be an issue.
    And if the skin tone of gods vis-a-vis their historical cultures is an issue, surely the first place to start is with the decidedly un-Mediterranean-looking Liam Neeson as Zeus?

  • MediumRob

    “And if the skin tone of gods vis-a-vis their historical cultures is an issue, surely the first place to start is with the decidedly un-Mediterranean-looking Liam Neeson as Zeus?”
    The question of how any of the Greek gods really look, given that seeing their true forms would make you go blind or burst into flames, is a tricky one. However, the descriptions of many of the Greek heroes and the gods in mortal-friendly human forms were un-Mediterranean. Apollo, Helen and Aphrodite, to name but a few, are all blondes; Achilles, Neoptolemos and Menelaus were redheads. Zeus is dark-haired (and possibly even blue-eyebrowed if you believe one translator at least). So Neeson’s acceptable, if a little less muscular than Zeus is generally depicted in art (Zeus being as strong as all the other gods combined, he claims in The Iliad).

  • SK

    Okay, so it’s Brad Pitt’s Achilles who’s more of an issue? (said he having just played an Elrond whose hair matched Tolkien’s description of ‘long, black and straight’ on precisely no counts).

  • Marie

    If Gods Behaving Badly ever made it into filmed or staged form, I’d be delighted with a cast of multiple races. If the gods are the gods they’re the gods of everyone. If Zeus can be a swan, he can also be black, or Liam Neeson.

  • stu-n

    I’ve seen it argued that Idris Elba was cast partly because Marvel didn’t want the film to be adopted by some of the white supremacist Odinists in the US. Anything that annoys them has to be a good thing.
    Also, Heimdall was one of the best things in the film. Elba was awesome.
    Funny thing with colourblind casting: colourblind Shakespeare is fine, but colourblind Dickens and Austen seem not to be (although less so with DIckens, perhaps – we’ve had a black Nancy in Oliver Twist on telly). I’m not quite sure why this is.

  • MediumRob

    “Okay, so it’s Brad Pitt’s Achilles who’s more of an issue? (said he having just played an Elrond whose hair matched Tolkien’s description of ‘long, black and straight’ on precisely no counts). ”
    If you’re going to be as true as possible to The Iliad (and associated stories), Achilles at the time of The Iliad needs to be in his mid to late 20s/early 30s at the outside. He’s too young to have entered the competition to be Helen’s husband, which would make him 10 or 11 at the time, since Helen’s brothers – Castor and Pollux/Polydeuces – would have been no older than 12 when they came to rescue her from Theseus’s grasp (she was anywhere up to 12 years old when she was abducted and she, Castor, Polydeuces and Clytemnestra were all born at the same time) so that gives a minimum age for doing proper fighting for heroes.
    Commonly, Helen is thought to be 13 when she marries Menelaus and has a daughter, Hermione, not long afterwards. She heads for Troy with Paris when Hermione in 9, so that makes her 22 and Achilles 20. Certainly, Achilles is still young enough he can pass for a girl at this point since he’s hiding out with a bunch of them to avoid getting the draft.
    The Iliad is seven years into the war so (assuming the Greek fleet comes after her not long afterwards, despite being becalmed by Artemis – I’ve read one version by Andrew Lang where it takes them 10 years to come after her, which seems unlikely…), that gives you an Achilles who’s 27 or so. Give or take a few years. So not Brad Pitt’s age and he’d certainly have to be younger than Helen, since it’s taken as a given that if he’d been old enough to turn up to the competition, Helen would have taken one look at him and said, “I’m having him” and the whole war would never have happened.
    The biggest issue with Troy wasn’t Brad Pitt’s Achilles’ though. Not by a long chalk

  • SK

    Ages for historical (well, mythical) things are a bit dicey anyway, though, given that what with life expectancies at the times we’re talking about, ‘really really bearded, venerable and wise’ meant basically ‘over thirty’.

  • Marie

    Re Shakespeare / Dickens / Austen, I think it’s because even the history plays of Shakespeare have attributes of myth, so they are of greater significance than the stories they are telling. They are about all humanity. Dickens / Austen are (largely) realist social commentary in a specific historical context which makes colourblind casting more difficult. With Dickens it’s easier, you would expect to encounter black people in 19th century London. It’s harder to see how it would fit with Austen’s regency domestic power plays. If you had black characters in Austen you can bet all the other characters would be commenting on it the same way they bitch about all other markers of social class and status.

  • MediumRob

    “Ages for historical (well, mythical) things are a bit dicey anyway, though, given that what with life expectancies at the times we’re talking about, ‘really really bearded, venerable and wise’ meant basically ‘over thirty’. ”
    Ironically, The Iliad/Troy is about the only one you can do any decent dating with. If you look at say, Jason and the Argonauts, then you have Castor and Polydeuces on the Argo at the same time as Heracles.
    I’ve added a video clip of Suture above (link here if you prefer) so you can see true colour-blindness in action.

  • Mark Carroll

    I don’t find myself much noticing the cross-genderness of some roles in operas (especially given the present lack of castrati). Things may look odd at first but I quickly get used to such weirdness. Brains are good at remapping semantic interpretations of perceptions. I’d expect the identical twin brother thing to be one of the things that the audience quickly gets used to.
    For historical recreations, I actually find it more distracting when they have made up someone to look similar to the person, because they don’t look the same, and for me a small but clear dissimilarity jars more. So, for me, not-quite-identical half brothers would be worse than clearly-different identical ones. Perhaps it’s to do with when that remapping machinery activates at all, or something.
    However, in something where, say, there were groups of people of various races, and race was important, I’d want some way to keep track of who’s meant to be what or it’d just get too confusing.
    I might feel differently if media weren’t already full of things we’ve learned to look past: German soldiers speaking English to each other, jumps around in time between scenes, the fact that someone in one thing looks and sounds the same as someone entirely different in something else (same actor). I have a hard time thinking of things where physical appearance really couldn’t be overcome by good acting, just as some little people are rather more intimidating than some big people.
    So, yeah, the Idris Elba thing doesn’t even register on my radar. It’d probably take old people playing the young children of parents played by children or something to make me really rethink that we can easily get used to odd things.

  • Gareth

    I suppose you could argue that all the Norse God’s should be white, as of course Hitler did in taking these as the symbols of his doctrine, but as the Marvel Universe is different to our own then they needn’t be limited to our (universes) views.
    Having said all that, the only problematic issue I did have is with the rumour that Will Smith was going to be Captain America, and it differs from the issue with Thor.
    Captain America was created during World War Two (forget what I said about universes, for now) as a super-soldier (Sounds a bit Nazi to me, as does the next bit)and in a country where race was such an issue, at the time, they would obviously want this symbol to be the all-American blue eyed poster boy. For them to choose a black man would suggest that they were experimenting on black people (we’re back to Nazi territory here) and this would give the story an altogether different origin, and meaning.

  • As for color-blind Dickens, I had no problem with Sweet FA in ‘Little Dorrit’ but perhaps the social standing of her character was a factor there. If she had been cast as Pet Gowan, that might have been a different matter.
    Mention of Will Smith reminds me of how the script for the movie version of ‘The Wild, Wild West’ had to bend over backwards and get all twisty with pretzel logic to explain away how a black man of that volatile time after the American Civil War could be trusted with such an important position. I read that Robert Conrad had been up for a cameo role in the movie (probably as President Grant?), but dropped out because of that casting. (And he was afraid it would make him look racist that he believed James West to be a white man.)

  • Good question! But a very hard one to answer. I think it comes down to case-by-case judgement calls. But in terms of fan reaction, I think it just has to do with how invested an individual is in a character in the medium he or she originates in. Personally, I really liked Elba in Thor, and I think it’s cool what Stu-n said about pissing off white supremecist Odinists with his casting. (That shows a case where there are outside considerations that might outweigh fidelity to the source material.) But then again, I’ve never read a Thor comic, so I don’t have any particular investment in those characters. (Yes, these versions are clearly Marvel comics characters and not the gods of Norse sagas, so that’s another point in excusing the color-blind casting.)
    Nick Fury is another story. Steranko’s classic version of Nick Fury is my favorite Marvel comic book character, and as a fan I do have a lot invested in that character. Therefore, I never cottoned to the Ultimate Universe revamp of him as Sam Jackson. They didn’t just change the skin color; they changed the CHARACTER completely. And when Jackson was cast in the movies, that solidified that image of Fury to mass audiences as opposed to the version I loved, so that pissed me off. I think it’s got less to do with color, however, than persona. The Fury people now know is just Sam Jackson in an eyepatch. That picture you posted of Dennis Haysbert in an eyepatch made me think of how much better a Nick Fury he would have made (in the classic vein, not the Ultimate one) than Jackson!

  • MediumRob

    So did you prefer Sam Jackson or David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury?

  • “If you have a family and they’re all different races, that makes no sense.”
    I’m British-Chinese, my wife’s American (via Russian/German/Swedish ancestry), and our son is Chinese/American genetically… although if you’re going to split hairs, you could say he’s Chinese/Russian/German/Swedish.
    Granted, we’re relatively rare as families go, but multi-racial families do exist. We’re not from the realms of fiction.

  • Noting almost witty’s response, clearly there ARE multi-raced families, both via adoptive combinations and marriages. It doesn’t take much for a racial characteristic to emerge with strength relatively unexpectedly. Genes: funny things really.
    But surely the more important element relates to the quality of the actor. Bang in a rubbish /lesser quality actor against others in the cast, and suddenly race difference become the mechanism by which the former are criticised. Really, they’re ‘rubbish’ because they’re not as good an actor, but you can bet your life that the issue of their race will come up in reviews.
    Does this happen because casting directors/directors overlook talent in pursuit of a particular vision of colour-blind casting? I don’t think so: I think they go for the best available in most cases, albeit in line with their vision of the production. The problem is that race is often very visible (inevitably) and can be left as an explanation for the relative lack of quality (sometimes sparking discussion about the chances of getting into training, getting parts, getting certain types of parts etc that non-white actors unfortunately can still face).
    Personally, I just want the best person for the role: some colour-blind casting works, some doesn’t. Suture was a great film.