ELSEWHERE: Star Trek and Racebending

Pop America has long had trouble with figuring out the whole Race Thing, from stereotyping POCs (people of colour) to casting white actors to play POC parts to preferring white actors for the best roles. Racebending incisively approaches pop-culture’s difficulty with race in a way that helpfully expands the conversation.

About Seth T. Hahne

Seth T. Hahne is an illustrator, web designer, and son of hippies. He illustrates CAPC's featured articles out of all the special feelings in his heart. His favourite authors are Murakami, Bolaño, and Ishiguro. His favourite film is Snow Falling on Cedars. And his favourite music is cool jazz. Seth reviews comics, graphic novels, and manga at his own website, Good Ok Bad: Home of the 3-Star Review, where he would love to recommend something worth your while. He rides a scooter to work.

  • Esther Starr

    Wow… I mean yeah, I was a little bugged by the choice just because I’m an OCD kind of person who likes everything to be consistent in general, but this smells of conspiracy theory to me. Besides, I’ve seen plenty of cases where traditionally white roles were given to black/minority actors, and for that matter some male roles to female actors. Can someone say overreaction?

    Just my humble opinion.

  • Susan Gerard

    As was mentioned, “bottom line”. B.C. is hot right now, but Javier Bardem would have been fantastic, too.

    It’s rampant, not just the US. The Impossible, a (fantastic) Spanish Film about the experiences of a Spanish family in the 2004 tsunami, cast Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor as the leads in anticipation of a wider audience. It’s all about the bottom line.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    On it’s own, it’s a triviality. But put together with the long and consistent history of casting white actors in non-white roles (cf The Last Airbender fiasco, for instance), it’s less overreaction and more just plain justifiable fatigue and frustration.

    I’m curious, though, which traditionally white roles do you have in mind—especially since pretty much *all* roles (even those of POCs, cf Charleston Heston as Mexican cop or Mickey Rooney as Japanese man) are traditionally white roles. When all roles begin with a single dominant ethnicity, as those outside that ethnicity begin being cast, some of those roles naturally will shift from the dominant ethnicity to those outside the elite group.

  • Esther Starr

    Well, just off the top of my head, there’s Nick Fury in _The Avengers_, and for minority plus gender shifting, “John Watson” to “Joan Watson” in the new Sherlock Holmes show (played by an Asian woman), and Colonel Graff being played by Viola Davis in the new _Ender’s Game_ (though it’s not said whether Graff is white or not in the book, but Viola is both black and female). Also, the BBC cast two black actors as key supporting characters in new versions of Shakespeare’s _Richard II_ and _Henry V_. It was especially awkward because the BBC was trying to present the plays with meticulous historical accuracy in just about every other respect (even getting native Frenchmen to play the French), so the black casting choices stuck out like a sore thumb. It’s one thing if you set out to “reimagine” a Shakespeare play entirely (like setting _Macbeth_ in Japan), but this just smacked of forced political correctness.

  • Esther Starr

    One thing I find interesting is to look at people who make politically incorrect comments about race, get mocked on Internet forums as white supremacists, then reveal that they’re actually POCs trying to inject balance into the discussion. That’s always funny to see. They tend to be the sanest-sounding voices in conversations like these. It’s happening right now with an Indian in that Racebending thread.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    For what it’s worth, the Nick Fury one doesn’t count because the film version of Nick Fury comes from the Marvel Ultimate universe, which *sort of* reimagines the Marvel Universe as if it were first created circa AD 2000 rather than being wholly a product of 1963. And in the Ultimate Universe, Nick Fury is black.

    Of the remaining you mention, the only one’s that seem odd would be the Shakespeare adaptations, if indeed they are aiming for historical accuracy.

    Regardless, these examples do little to take away from the frustrations of Asians who are pretty blatantly discriminated against in casting decisions and the distasteful casting practices in Hollywood, in part catering to an America who they believe want to see white actors in peach roles.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    I’m not really sure how that’s apropos to this conversation.

  • Esther Starr

    So “Joan Watson” doesn’t seem weird? Okay. :)

    A few other points that have been raised are that 1) Ricardo Montalban was actually a white European who darkened his skin for the role, 2) this might be one of those “lose-lose” situations, since one could easily imagine complaints about the film being in poor taste by connecting terrorism with a dark-skinned villain, and 3) Abrams tried to cast a POC but couldn’t.

    I’m not denying that the majority of big-name actors right now are white, and I’m not even denying that it is odd for Khan not to be played by a POC. And I agree with the “bottom line,” that Hollywood wants to make money whatever it does. But some of these cases might be more a result of Hollywood’s general reluctance to cast unknowns than racial discrimination. It’s always safer to go with a big star, and this has led to plenty of high-caliber, underrated white actors getting passed over for juicy roles too.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Despite the title to this post (which I didn’t choose), I’m more interested in highlighting the work of Racebending than in pointing to the particular point of contention over Cumberbatch’s role in the new Star Trek film. I highly recommend not just their blog (linked above) but their Tumblr as well.

    Both taken together give strong insight into some of the issues forming the foundation of contemporary media portrayal of non-white characters and actors and may lend empathy to those in positions of privilege toward those who do not have that privilege. Race is a prevalent struggle in both American society and in the church and the best way to find a healthy, loving, charitable, and compassionate pathway through these struggles is:

    1) For the privileged to hear where the underprivileged are coming from—and adjust speech, thought, and action in order to care for these members of our communities.

    and

    2) For the underprivileged to persevere in dialogue with grace and compassion in an effort to bring light to misconceptions—as well as patience with the bruised egos and hurt feelings that such revelations tend to engender.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Joan Watson didn’t seem odd because: 1) the Holmes mythos has been so variously recast and reinterpreted over the years that Holmes could be a 12-year-old Maori hermaphrodite and I probably wouldn’t bat an eye, 2) neither Holmes nor Watson feel at all quintessentially Anglo—once you take Holmes out of the deerstalker, anything goes, and 3) there were plenty of Asian women living in Britain contemporary to Holmes so even if they wanted to put Joan Watson in historical Holmes-mythos Britain, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to cast in that direction.

  • Esther Starr

    I mean that it seems like there’s a narrative that’s being spun for us here, and it might be worth considering that not even all POC agree with that narrative.

  • Susan Gerard

    Interestingly, and a propos this thread, Khan’s backstory and existence results from a
    *Eugenics* War. He’s the product of selective breeding (or genetic engineering) to create the perfect human. And he’s a POC. That he’s being played by B.C. is a tad ironic.

    Thank you for your link to Racebending. I’ll be reading more about it. Is there any advice on how to be an activist for this cause? I hope so.

    btw, Sherlock Holmes *was* a 12-year-old Maori hermaphrodite in the original (j/k; I just like the idea).

  • Esther Starr

    BTW, I goofed in my comment about _Ender’s Game_. Card was thinking about changing Graff into a woman, so I confused that character with the commander he reports to. Graff of course is being played by Harrison Ford, it was that commander I was thinking of.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Hey Susan, I think that the site occasionally organizes the usual kind of protest activities (letter-writing, etc.) for different causes (in its generation at the time of the Last Airbender movie, there was a lot of activity with regard to that film’s casting), but for the most part it seems primarily focused on educating as regards the concerns of non-white depictions in popular media (e.g. film and television).


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