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The performative nature of casting Black actors in remakes of white stories

The performative nature of casting Black actors in remakes of white stories

The performative nature of casting Black actors in remakes of white stories
October 15
09:00 2020

As an African American woman, I know how portraying Black people in diverse roles is incredibly important. Black people deserve to see themselves in a variety of stories, and non-Black people need to know that we have a range that goes beyond the generic Tyler Perry movie tropes. Lack of representation in Hollywood stories is a prevalent, ongoing issue. In fact, only one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of the 2010s features a Black lead (2018’s “Black Panther”). In response to criticism concerning diversity, Hollywood concocted its own solution: pasting Black actors into remakes of white stories.

I grew up with numerous female movie characters to look up to. As a middle schooler, I had Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior to learn resilience and strength. While they checked the box of female representation, they were missing the essence of reliability: they did not look like me. When news broke of “The Little Mermaid” remake starring Halle Bailey, a Black singer and actress, as Ariel, I was conflicted. Little Black girls were going to feel the magic of relating to a princess who looks like them but on the other hand, why couldn’t Disney just create a new enchanting story?

There is only one original Black Disney princess. Tiana, who spent the majority of her story with an amphibian, made her debut in 2009’s  “Princess and the Frog.”  There was controversy surrounding Disney’s decision to release the film a week before James Cameron’s “Avatar”, many fans believing “Princess and the Frog” was deliberately set up to fail. 

That is where the performative nature comes into play. Movie studios are aware of pf how they need to produce at least a few films starring Black performers to seem as though they appreciate diversity. But instead of investing money in quality writers to compile a new story, they insert a Black actor to reiterate an originally white story that has already garnered a loyal fanbase.

With this method, the production companies do not have to do the dirty work of convincing people the movie is worth a trip to the theater, therefore they are guaranteed to make money from the film. Remakes may seem repetitive but they play on the consumer’s emotional attachment to the story, basically guaranteeing the movie will have a good turnout at the box office.

The movie industry does not take interest in creating fresh Black roles. Hollywood does not believe Black characters are as profitable as white characters. It does not believe movies with Black leads perform well during award season. Granted, there is data to support that many upscale award shows are less than generous when it comes to Black films. The 2015 and 2016 Oscars awarded all their acting awards to white actors, sparking the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. 

A true ally would create stories that normalize portraying Black people as humans who experience love, triumph, defeat – the full gamut of life. Commitment to creating visibility would result in more stories being told not adapted from historical events or purely about the struggle of being Black in America.

 If Hollywood was dedicated to representing Black people in diverse roles I would have grown up seeing teen romance movies like “The Fault In Our Stars” with Black love interests. I would not have seen token light-skin actresses assume roles of characters originally written to have dark skin, enabling society’s obsession with complexion. I would have seen a young Black man making a heroic trek to save the world look easy in a sci-fi dramedy.

More Black actors are being seen on the big screen so, on the surface, it seems the Black community should be satisfied. But in the same way, remakes manipulate the consumer by appealing to their emotions, they create the illusion that Hollywood is truly integrated. If the movie industry believed in the value of Black stories, it would be evidenced by a rich collection of original films.

Featured Illustration by Durga Bhavana

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Rhema Joy Bell

Rhema Joy Bell

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