Hollywood still casts based on looks, even as it makes strides to diversify

Stenberg’s comments decision highlight an issue that some say won’t disappear anytime soon. Rhavynn Drummer, an independent casting director who’s worked on several Tyler Perry films and shows, noted that while lighter-skinned black actresses getting lead roles was more prominent historically, Hollywood has slowly begun moving away from excluding darker-skinned women.

“When I think about ‘Black Panther,’ it was not only an all-black cast, but a darker skinned cast,” Drummer said. “But I also look at other projects like ‘Dear White People’ or ‘Insecure’ or even ‘The Chi,’ and I do feel like if there is an African-American person in the room, as a writer, as casting director there is more diversity in terms of the different shades of black that we see.”

“Colorism is a symptom of racism,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and an author of the 2018 Hollywood Diversity report. “It goes hand-in-hand with racism, to the degree that we are addressing racism or adjusting our practices in ways to try to offset the effects of racism, we will likely impact colorism as well.”

A more diverse future?

In an effort to increase diversity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited its largest class ever in 2017, totaling 774 movie professionals. Thirty percent of the class were people of color, according to the Academy.

But practical effects have yet to be realized. According to a 2018 report on Hollywood diversity by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, little had changed in the years it had been tracking the entertainment industry.

Image: Danai Gurira as Okoye, left, and Florence Kasumba as Ayo with the Dora Milaje in "Black Panther"
Danai Gurira as Okoye, left, and Florence Kasumba as Ayo with the Dora Milaje in “Black Panther.”Elton Anderson / Marvel Studios

In an effort to help Asian actors navigate the film industry, casting director Julia Kim, a member of the Casting Society of America’s diversity and inclusion committee, started InvASIANLA. The group holds workshops and classes on how to prepare for an audition, take headshots, and reading scripts among other subjects.

Kim said she understands how casting Golding could upset fans because of the popularity of the character and the fact that Asians are rarely chosen to play a romantic leads. But, she added, Asian Americans should be happy when someone of Asian descent is cast as a lead.

“It’s an occasion to celebrate and not nitpick the amount of Asian-ness,” Kim said. “Inclusion means everyone who’s appropriate should be considered for the role.”

While there are cultural specifics that need to be respected between different Asian ethnicities, Kim said, a good actor will be able to communicate those nuances.

Image: Awkwafina as Peik, Nico Santos as Oliver and Constance Wu as Rachel
Awkwafina as Peik, Nico Santos as Oliver and Constance Wu as Rachel in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and SK Global Entertainment’s contemporary romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“My feelings are that the profession of acting is about being able to convey a character,” she said. “As casting professionals, we would do our due diligence to scour the authentic community but at the end of the day, the belief should still be best person for the job.”

The trend for actors of Asian descent is also promising, she noted. Kim said she has seen an increase in the number of Asian actors auditioning for roles.

“There is a viable career choice to make a living as an Asian actor,” she said. “And that they’re rising to the occasion as well in talents and abilities. As opportunities continue to rise, so the does the representation.”

And Hunt said that as more people of color find themselves in positions with creative decision making power, diversity is likely to increase.

“As artists, they’re trying to reflect the experiences they’re familiar with,” he said. “They’re trying to be true to their story and will probably have a cast with a range of different color tones.”

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