When I was little, I remember my father commenting on “Man of A Thousand Faces,” the movie about Lon Chaney. My father was pointing out to me how Lon Chaney had his own special make-up kit, and was able to make himself up to look like any character the filmmakers wanted, so he was able to get all sorts of parts. It was a new idea for filmmakers, apparently. Instead of needing to find an Indian with a facial scar, Lon Chaney would make himself look like an Indian with a facial scar. And he would get the part.
As an exercise in stage make-up, this was innovative. I suppose. I mean, Lon Chaney didn’t invent stage make-up, but he was apparently the first to apply it in this method in the film industry. Well, that’s something.
And it is something. As an academic exercise, there is something in being able to transform people with the use of make-up. I’m a big fan of the reality t.v. series “Face Off” in which make-up artists compete to create all sorts of creatures and make-ups. Sometimes the make-up artists do spectacular transformations on the models, changing gender, race, age, and all sorts of things. But this is exactly an exercise.
Now, I’ve been acting for a while, and I think it’s a great tool in ministry. And some of the reasons I think it’s so wonderful is that it gives us an opportunity to try on other personas for a bit. Acting allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes for a time; to experience a bit of life from another perspective. It also gives us practice in interacting. It helps us to learn to relate to one another.
In this way it can be helpful, as an exercise, to try on roles that are outside of what we know and who we are. Not as caricatures, but as humans, with thoughts and feelings. So we might play someone much older or younger, someone with a vastly different background, or someone who thinks very differently from how we think. As an exercise. But on the big screen, well, that’s different.
But why is it a problem for actors to be playing races that they’re not? Why am I even writing about this? I mean, what’s the big deal about a white actor playing an Indian, anyway?
Well, it’s precisely because it’s only ever white actors who get to play dress-up. Othello? A white actor in black face (1951 played by Orson Welles, 1965 played by Laurence Olivier, 1981 played by Anthony Hopkins). But when have you seen a black actor made up to look white in order to play Tony in West Side Story?
White has become default, even though white is not the majority of people on the planet. There are precious few roles as it is that aren’t written as white characters without white actors being cast as the non-white characters, as well. And again, non-white actors are not given the same courtesy. Non-white actors are not cast in white roles with a make-up job (although we know that this make-up is just as possible).
I’m a big Marvel fan, and I’ve loved the recent Marvel movies. I love that Idris Elba was cast as Heimdahl. I’m fairly certain that the in the original Norse pantheon Heimdahl wasn’t black. But Marvel’s own universe has said that The Ancient One is from Tibet. I’m fine with remaking The Ancient One as a woman in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. But Tilda Swinton is no Tibetan.
Unless we’re going to start opening up all roles to all actors, so that non-whites will be able to play the roles that have been going to white actors, even when it is important that the character be white, we should not allow white actors to play non-white roles. It can’t go only one way. To be clear, I’m saying that unless we allow non-white actors to play intentionally white characters, with all the make-up that it would require, then we must stop allowing white actors to play dress-up in the movies by playing characters of other races.