Recently I watched Netflix’s remake of the 70s film The Boys in the Band. It’s a story about a group of homosexual men living in New York, and in this iteration, the entire cast was gay in real life.
Knowing gay men were playing gay characters made the story seem more authentic to me. I find my reaction curious, since I don’t have a problem with non-gay actors playing gay roles, just as I have no problem with gay men playing straight men, or lesbians playing straight women. But seeing a group of gay man bring to life gay characters in a gay story felt incredible. Whether or not the film was actually any good is a moot point, the fact that that the casting choice made a very powerful political statement, and also a very strong psychological one as well. It says that gay men are equal, and we own our own stories.
That was very much in my mind when I heard about the controversy over Sia’s casting choices for her film Music. I won’t go into too much detail about that since it’s quite a complex situation, but basically the film’s main character is a non-verbal person with autism, and Sia cast someone who doesn’t have autism in the role. Many in the autism community have reacted angrily to this, saying that someone with the condition should have been cast in the role. Sia replied, testily, that she didn’t think someone living with autism could handle the rigours of filming.
This controversy about actors playing roles that do not match their own lived experience is not new. There is a massive list of films where white actors have portrayed non-white roles, and each year there are complaints that film and TV industries across the globe do not create enough diversity in their productions. Even the Academy Awards stand accused of racism in their annual list of nominees.
These are problems that need to be addressed, mainstream media and the entertainment industry have controlled the narratives and followed very narrow formulas for success for decades. Playing to stereotypes and minimising diversity is how they have operated.
But does that mean that actors cannot or should not tackle roles that do not match their own life experience?
I don’t think it does. Any performance by an actor involves the audience suspending belief about reality. Be it a play or a film or TV series, we know it’s not ‘real,’ we know the dialogue is made up and the actors have memorised the lines. We know off-camera or off-stage there are crews of people working on the production.
We cannot just have a rigid rule that only those who have lived experience of a situation can portray that in the arts. It just wouldn’t work, and it would be artistically limiting.
But, every creative team should engage a robust process for working out who is best to play a role and why. There will be huge pressure from studios etc to use actors who have ‘bankability,’ and a sizeable fan base, and sometimes economics will be the most important factor in a decision. But too often choices are made based on prejudice or even laziness and an assumption that only certain skin tones or genders or whatever will appeal to viewers. What filmmakers and studios need to realise though is that the world has matured a great deal. What Netflix and other streaming services and cable providers are showing is that there is actually a huge appetite for diversity in the entertainment products people engage with.
For too long, minorities were pushed to the margins in films and stories. They were the antagonists, the traitors, the criminals, the depraved. Or they were the servants, the less intelligent, there to do the work that the elite were too busy to perform.
It is time for all productions to look at who is best placed to play a character authentically beyond mere celebrity. There is also a place for a greater diversity in the types of stories we tell, and for supporting every slice of our society to get a chance to tell their own stories. I’m not saying that every role has to be played by someone who embodies every aspect of it, but we need to keep it in mind.
After all, celebrating diversity simply reflects the world we live in and brings a greater understanding of, and empathy for, one another.