Several other bloggers of color, mentioned the problematic casting of Jolie as a biracial woman in A Mighty Heart, the film adaptation of Mariane Perry’s story of the kidnap and murder of her journalist husband and their lives together. I stayed out of it because of the dangerous waters in which such casting questions would lead us all to swim and I am only jumping in it now because of changes to the book itself.
In short, in a world where so few parts are decidedly written as women of color, why are those parts not given to actresses of color? This question becomes particularly salient when you think of all the amazing actresses of color who do not work or of how many academy award winning and nominated women of color have to make a living playing criminals, sex objects, and beauty shop owners afterward. As Angela Basset once said about going to school and coming through the ranks of Hollywood at the same time as an adult Jodi Foster, “She and I did not run in the same crowds then or now.”
On the other hand, saying that only black people should play black roles, quickly leads to the parallel argument that only white people should play white roles. For the most part, that is the way it goes in Hollyhood. However, the amazing Shakespearian trained black stage actresses who have fought to play Juliet or Ophelia & the more popular film actresses like JLo and Halley Berry (neither of whom I am a big fan of mind you) remind us that such solid lines must be crossed for women of color to be seen as both women and viable actors. The subtle turns of Freema Agyeman on the BBC series revival of Dr. Who also reminds us how naturalized the white female body is in every genre and how naturally the black female body can be inserted as both black and normal in the most well known and well watched stories. Her subtlety and the writer’s ability to keep her part on par with all the other “female sidekicks” who came before her without making her simply a white character with a black actress are truly exceptional (in every sense).
Both sides have merit. Thus, I stayed out of the conversation, to mull on my own, as the water was murky indeed.
However, I cannot help but notice a disturbing turn of events that must be discussed. As in the case of all book to movies these days, the cover art on the book has changed to reflect the film.
I had major issues with this when Will Smith dawned the cover of I, Robot since the film was so clearly not based on the book. It did not occur to me then to think about what Will Smith’s face on a book with no black characters in it meant, particularly since the detective he is playing was white in the books. My issue in this case was more with the now typical Smith turn as a “reverse racist” figure in his films – symbolically dawning a hood in Bad Boys II or making jokes in a lynching scene in Wild Wild West giving way to his clear hatred of robots in I Robot, scripted to directly mirror structural barriers for black people in the film. The book had no such narrative, instead addressing the problems with technology and using the Robot sentience to comment on life itself.
One has to ask, would people who picked up the book, having never read it, be disappointed that the character inside was not the character on the outside? I know I have taken books home on a whim based on the gender or race of the person on the cover art when it is a genre where we are sorely absent.
But I, Robot is fiction. A Mighty Heart is not. Will Smith on the cover perverts the former but does not erase real people as Jolie’s face on the latter clearly does.
As you can see from the original cover to the right, and the new cover, above, Jolie’s face has replaced Mariane Pearl’s permanently. The erasure of a black woman on screen, when great pains are taken to tell the audience that she is in fact black is something we most wrestle with in order to find a solution that honors the final goal of having parts be open in Hollihood for everyone. The erasure of a black woman from her story completely is an unexpected side effect of this race blind casting that requires attention.
Seeing Jolie looking out at me from underneath Mariane Pearl’s name on the shelves was akin to seeing Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes looking out to me from underneath Cleopatra’s crown. The same thing was at stake, white women replacing black women in historical moments in which the women were black in the social imaginary.
Just yesterday my father admitted that neither he nor anyone else in his town knew that Cleopatra was black when the movie came out. Many people I know were shocked to find that Cleopatra was black, some still are, as a result of that movie. So what earned Elizabeth Taylor accolades, in the same way they earned them for Jolie, also erased a history and put African Americans in the position of fighting to reclaim what was so obviously our herstory.
In the end, this is the real problem with the conflation of racisms in Hollihood and N. American society at large. Like heteronormativity that casts all people as straight, white supremacy casts all people as white. In a world where this is the accepted norm, literally casting a white woman in a black woman’s place feeds into the erasure of black women as subjects, be the Queens or wives, from a world in which their subjecthood is always already compromised. Further it puts us in a perpetually defensive stance in which our anger at being erased and at having to reclaim reinforces the image of us as angry and race obsessed because the wrong goes unacknowledged.
I haven’t really sat with this thought long enough to wrap it up for you all in a nice neat package. It is a jagged thought. A jarring thought. All I can say is, I am writing a letter to the publisher of Pearl’s book to demand her face be returned to her book and I urge you to do the same.
ps. while looking for an Elizabeth Taylor pic, I discovered that Columbia Pictures is planning to remake the film. No word yet who will play the AFRICAN queen.