PAGE 09: Casting the Other

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By Dr. Rachana Patni

Casting related decisions have often stirred a proverbial hornet’s nest, especially when the casting of minorities is concerned. Casting minority groups with respect, without reifying, and without creating stereotypical caricatures of those that are already sidelined in our society due to various social categories that do not make it to the mainstream, is a difficult job because casting is steeped in the agenda of commercial success rather than of egalitarian representation. 

There are so many reasons for being concerned about casting as was traditionally done. One grouse used to be that the marginalized categories do not make it to the lead role. Another is that even when the marginalized characters deserve to be central to the plot, a Caucasian male is often somehow made the hero; men are given a preference, blacks are subordinated to whites, and there exists an elaborate ladder of postcolonial inclusions and exclusions. Versions of this also happen at the national and regional levels. Some casting directors can be very influential and extremely malevolent in opening or closing doors to talent depending on whether the particular talent rubbed them the right way or not. Merit is being seen as a social artefact in various academic circles today and it is true that public opinion can often be engineered to celebrate mediocre talent.

The casting decisions in representing any kinds of gender identity issues are also riddled with difficulties. Not only is this a newer and lesser known terrain, but there are also various opinions about what makes casting more ethical or less, hence knowing rights from wrongs is often likely to be difficult. It is made even more complex when multiple identities are being portrayed by a role. For example, in Unsound (2020), one of the lead characters in the narrative is deaf and transgendered. In making the casting decisions for Unsound, diversity was an important aspect of the merit of the actors who got chosen to portray the characters in the film. The film has been recognized for the way in which diversity formed the backdrop of the casting decisions. This film prides itself on having one lead actor, from the LGBTQ community who is deaf. The other lead actor is Reece Noi, who is also from the LGBTI+ community and is also half African Caribbean. In fact, most cast members are from the LGBTI+ community in this film that seeks to portray that love is love, regardless of the categories of human beings participating in it. Other identities prioritised by the cast include being from an indigenous community, being an Aslan ambassador, and helping those with disabilities. They also had a commitment to ensuring a diverse split between females and males in the crew and cast working on the film.

Valentina (2020) describes the journey of a young girl coming to terms with the fluidity of her transgendered identity in a world which is otherwise so solidly defined. The protagonist in this film, Thiessa Woinbackk, is a transgender woman who has her own successful online presence as an advocate of acceptance and inclusion of transgendered individuals in Brazil. Made by siblings who are both out-gay, Pereira dos Santos with his sister, Erica, it turns out that this film was first conceptualized in 2013. By the time it released in 2020, there is a resurgence of lack of tolerance for transgendered people in Brazil. Most of the cast and crew of the film belong to the LGBTQ community. In this instance, it becomes patently clear that casting decisions are not simply about casting a wide net to find the best actors; they are also about privileging the rights of certain identities to portray certain truths on film.

Is it enough to just be part of the LGBTQ community to represent a particular identity within that community? If so, what then makes it so difficult for us to realise that being human is enough to be cast in any particular identity?  In an ideal world with no identities being privileged over others, that kind of universalism would have been an aim. But things are not so simple. Taking charge and creating films that prioritise diversity over some formulaic commitment to commercial success is activism for inclusion. Particular narratives of power, elitism, and global success are challenged through this activism by expanding who gets to circulate in the world as talented and worthy of gracing the screen with their presence. 

Casting must, therefore, be seen as an important form of gatekeeping that can enhance the quality of films by allowing different identities to participate effectively in filmmaking. One way in which this may be done is if the casting directors themselves identify as minority. However, being from a minority group does not give one the automatic tag of being a mascot for inclusion as we are all capable of making errors in casting another. Still, it is good to give more people the chance to make their own diverse mistakes.

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