Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
Viola Davis pictured at the 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards

Recent Emmy’s remind us what proper casting can do for TV


One of the headlines after this year’s Emmy celebration was “most diverse Emmy’s ever”, a fact especially noticeable after the 2015 Academy Awards in which not a single person of color was nominated.

Emmy host Andy Samberg stated, “This is the most diverse Emmy’s ever. Racism is over, don’t fact check me on that.”

The Oscar snubs were even more noticeable in the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” movement that consumed much of mainstream media in the year previous. In no way does A-listers giving other A-listers awards constitute a real place for social change, but it does beg the question, what is a reasonable expectation of diversity?

An obvious place to start is that when a role is cast for a specific race, and their race is integral to their character, that role should be played by a person of that race. Perhaps this evokes thoughts of Jim Crow blackface and the early (and racist) cartoons of Disney. Those days are over, you might say. No one does blackface anymore. While that may be mostly true, we still see examples of white actors portraying other races.

In the 2015 box office bomb, Aloha, Emma Stone was cast as Captain Allison Ng, a one quarter Chinese and one quarter Hawaiian Air Force liaison to a land deal brokered by Bradley Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest. The film, while facing significant critical recoil, was also the center of controversy under an accusation of “whitewashing” the cast.

Perhaps complete and utter equality is impossible. After all, Trump seems to be pretty against this whole “politically correct” business.

But it isn’t just a matter of political correctness, it’s a matter of regular correctness. People of color are often cast in less substantial roles and forced to play stereotypes in order to “get widespread appeal.”

Production companies might not blatantly ask for a sassy black woman anymore, but the requirement can be implicit.

If anything, the Emmy’s this year is a reminder of what good television can look like. Some of the most significant characters on television are the people of color of “Orange is the New Black”, “Empire”, “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder”.

This isn’t to say that every TV show and movie should be a direct representation of every member of society, like say the cover of a middle school french textbook. Let’s call it the Bechdel Test of diversity. Like the Bechdel Test, wherein in order to pass, a film must have two named female characters that must talk to each other about something other than a man, to pass the diversity test, a film must cast a person of color in an appropriate role, and give that character something to do or say that is apart from their race or appearance.

Racism isn’t over, and something that became all too clear in the wake of Ferguson.

The real fight for justice and equality is clearly on the streets and in our courthouses and legislative buildings, but in the meantime our media should reflect people as they are.

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