LINGUA FRANCA #2: TRANSNATIONAL CASTING IN FILM

Hollywood was never the most progressive when it came to representing cultures and ethnicities that were not white, Western, or European. For the majority of its history, Hollywood served as the glorification, through portrayal, of the white race as opposed to other races and ethnicities; something that reflected the political and social climate of the times, which Hollywood itself helped influence and guide. In its early history, white actors held a monopoly on film roles, with ethnic and non-white roles played by whites dressed in stereotypical clothing and face make up. By the 1930’s and 40’s, more and more non white actors started having roles in film yet the ones with leading roles were very rare. 

 Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda was already a famous movie star in Brazil in the 20’s. Coming to the US and gaining popularity in the 30’s and 40’s, she was one of the first major non white actors to be cast in leading roles. Her claim to fame was the 1941 film That Night in Rio directed by Irving Cummings. Her roles were generally those of the ‘exotic’, fiery Latin woman who was uncontrollable. The nature of foreign stars within Hollywood is an interesting one, using them as markers of difference from the ‘regular’ American audience and echoing the labeling of otherness to them. From a sales point of view, the use of Miranda as the Other garnered more sales of the movie because audiences love to see something other than themselves on the big screen. The Western gaze upon foreign stars elevated the sense of national pride and the dichotomy of cultures between the US and the rest of the world; a case of US exceptionalism. Of course, that is not the fault of the stars themselves, it is simply how their roles were written and what the studios wanted at the time.

Another interesting point about Miranda’s relationship with Hollywood is since she was a Brazilian, thus native to Latin America, she was given roles portraying people from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, etc. In a sense, the studios turned a blind eye to the nationality of the star, writing roles that suited how she looked like (to them, she looked like every other Latin American woman). Geographical specificity was often elided in Hollywood. Miranda herself had little to no say when it came to the roles she was given. Her contract with 20th Century Fox was binding and studio executives had little interest in ethnic or national specifications. (Interesting to point here, she eventually bought herself out of the contract but had little success working afterwards)

Fast forward to today, Hollywood is not as stereotypical and condescending as it was in the 40’s. A reformation within the Hollywood institution paved the way for less stereotypical roles and portrayals and a larger emphasis on foreign actors playing accurate roles. Yet the trend of Hollywood turning a blind eye on geographical specificity still continues. The question is, is it all that bad?

The barrage of Iraq war movies coming after 2003 showed Hollywood stereotyping and casting at its worst. Arabs were simply portrayed as a tool for American exceptionalism and heroism in the face of barbarians just as the Soviets were portrayed in the 70’s and 80’s. In the last few years though, a rising popularity of foreign films and actors paved the way for a more accepting and accurate portrayal of other countries and cultures within films. 

 Amr Waked in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Amr Waked in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Going back to geographical specificity, there are several movies where actors from one country portray roles from a different countries. For example, Wagner Moura, a Brazilian, plays Pablo Escobar, a Colombian in Narcos. In Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, as well, an Egyptian plays the role of a Yemeni. The examples are ample, even happening in Arabic produced/directed films: Jordanian plays the role of a Palestinian, Emirati played the role of a Kuwaiti, Lebanese playing the role of a Syrian, etc. The question begs itself: how important is it to cast an actor from the same country that the role is portraying? Since cinema is the portrayal of a reality unto fiction, would the origins of the actor matter if the role is written and directed correctly?

There are arguments on both sides of the spectrum. On one hand, geographic specificity is essential in the movie and portrayal of characters. For example, films like Noah and Moses used white actors to portray Egyptians and Semites just to appeal to a Western audience and neglected hiring actors from the same country or region as the film is. That is a major intentional oversight. For supposedly historical films (and many other films like it as well), the usage of non-ethnic actors demeans the portrayal of the characters and whitewashes the history behind the films. Hiring actors from the region/country where the film is set in, is not only important just for the sake of being accurate, it is also important in the fact that a foreign actor from one country resonates with the character and understands its mentality. A geographically accurate casting can help the actor identify with the role and deliver a better performance. 

On the other hand, it might not be completely necessarily to be geographically accurate. In films like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Appropriate Behaviour, Rosewater, and even Arabic films such as When I Saw You (Lama Shiftak), etc, actors from one country play the role of a person from a different, near by country. A part of me thinks that as long as the role is written, directed, and played well,  the nationality of the actor does not matter. The film can separate the actor from their origin to produce a work that can be great without compromising accuracy or respect to different cultures. In the case of Mr. Robot, Rami Malik, an American actor of Egyptian parents, plays the role of an American. His nationality, ethnic background, or culture is not a variable in his role as Elliot. There is always a burden of a foreign actor being a representative of their culture or country, a burden that is automatically given the moment he is viewed as the Other, either out of curiosity or ignorance. Elliot, the character, is one that transcends national and cultural boundaries, appealing to the very fragile humanity in all of us. He is a conduit of the fears, anxieties, and obsessions define us.

 Rami Malik in Mr. Robot

Rami Malik in Mr. Robot

There might be something to be said when it comes to actors portraying roles that transcend boundaries and cultures, appealing to the most human qualities in us. There might even be something to be said about actors needing to be from the country of region they are portraying. There are valid points in either arguments. But the truth is, I don’t know where I stand. The more I think about it the more it seems that it all depends on what kind of movie it is, what subject it deals with, how the characters are written and if there is a big enough budget to have the casting producers scout actors from different parts of the world. Thing is, in 2015, there is no shortage of foreign actors making it big. Brilliant actors. Hollywood is seeing a fantastic surge of a multicultural trend in cinema and TV that is both accurate (for the most part) and engaging. With that happening and world cinema gaining a massive traction and funding, this would surely be even more promising.