Social Commentary

Color Blind: The Virtues and Pitfalls of Cross-Racial Casting, Part I

Last night, I decided to finally succumb to the buzz, and watched the new Netflix show, Bridgerton. All that I knew about the show was that it is set during the Regency period and that it was quite steamy…i.e. lots of nudity and sex scenes. I have always somewhat reluctantly enjoyed Jane Austen, and the novels she set during that era, so I figured I might enjoy this new show as well. And it is well-crafted. And easily addictive. I found it begrudgingly satisfying in the way all guilty pleasures are. To some, that’s watching trashy reality television. For me, it’s apparently binging on Regency soft-core porn. ­čśë

Like Austen, writer Julia Quinn invents a protagonist who is a headstrong and stifled young woman whose sense of fierce self-determination is seemingly at odds with her predestined station in life and the established mores of the age. As you might expect, she wants to find love and true companionship, but being a young landed woman of a certain age, must also find a husband as soon as possible. In Bridgerton, the young protagonist’s name is Daphne, and her older brother (Anthony), is bound and determined to find her a suitable match. In this case, the eldest brother is overly picky and cannot bring himself to approve of any of her would-be suitors.

Enter the newly-minted Duke of Hastings. He is an old college friend of Anthony’s and dutifully mannered, classically handsome, exquisitely dressed, and obviously, London’s most eligible bachelor.

And Black.

Wait. What?

If this film were being made in the late ’60s, it would be called Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? That classic movie stars Sydney Poitier as Dr. John Prentice, the Black fianc├ę to a young (headstrong and free-thinking) white woman named Joanna, who brings him home to progressive San Francisco to meet her otherwise liberal parents – played by Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. In that film, the lefty white couple’s attitudes are challenged when their daughter introduces them to her African-American fianc├ę – a doctor, no less – and their true veneer and liberal hypocrisy and is exposed for all that it is. The movie was of its age, and at the same time, also timeless and far-sighted. You might even say, ahead of its time. How are we still having these conversations nearly 55 years later?

In 2017, visionary actor, writer, director, and producer Jordan Peele completely turned Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? on its head, and injected horror and menace into the premise, mixed genres and allusions in a lovely postmodern pastiche, and produced Get Out. In doing so, he effectively created his own genre of film – social justice horror. Or Racial Thriller. Or whatever film historians will ultimately call it. Essentially, it is a movie about relationships between white America and Black America, and the horror that can arise out of the collision of those two forces…particularly to African Americans, who have been historically abused, maligned, oppressed, and traumatized by systemic racism in this country for over 400 years. This racism is systemic because it underlies EVERY institution in America, from our criminal justice system to housing market to education system to…well…EVERYTHING. But in these films, that racism translates to real people, whose relationships are not merely transactional, but rooted in a deep-seated racism that permeates our very words, thoughts, and actions. The true horror is that we (WHITE AMERICA) are finally seeing what Black Americans have lived in this country since they were first brought over in chains. Peele’s film arrived just three years before the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter summer of protests, but it wasn’t necessarily prescient. Because as a Black man, Peele had already lived this reality his entire life, as every African American has for centuries. It was merely that white America was finally seeing the cell phone videos for the first time. Those images have undoubtedly been imprinted on Black peoples’ minds for generations. OUR eyes have opened, not THEIRS. And yet, if you look at the number of people who reject BLM or deny the existence of racially-motivated police brutality, it seems that only a half of white America have opened their eyes. There is still a LOT of work to do. And that is why there is nothing more urgent or timely than the work Jordan Peele is producing right now.

But what does any of this have to do with Bridgerton and my enjoyment of this light-hearted romp through Regency England?

TO BE CONTINUED…

If we can only elect one president in this world who would you vote for?

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

I would probably choose Chris Rock. Not only is he incredibly funny, he has a really nuanced understanding of race in this country. He has the ability to be critical, yet hopeful, about the fragile state of race relations in this country. Racial tension is clearly one of the most divisive and corrosive problems plaguing our country at the moment, as well as several other ‘culture wars.’ We don’t necessarily need a Commander in Chief with 20 years crafting legislation in the Senate, but someone who’s been on the streets, and in neighborhoods all over this country, drawing the lifeblood from the people they perform for. Chris Rock is actually incredibly intelligent, and has a very pragmatic and sensical approach to a lot of what ails this country.

I actually feel the same way about another comedian, Louis C.K. They both use self-depracating observational humor to critique our peculiar ways and questionable choices, while celebrating life and all its infinite diversity. Their comedy is quite philosophical, and often practical. They view this country as great, but just in need of a swift kick in the pants. We need to get out of our own way. It’s not unpatriotic to criticize your country. In fact, it’s just the opposite. A true patriot knows the principles this country was founded upon, and how far we still have to go to get there. As Browning said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp…” and the worth is in the trying. These two men understand the great work we still have left to do, but choose to use their art to help us laugh (and cry) ourselves all the way there. That kind of vision is skeptical optimism, and something Washington is sadly in need of.

Although many might think I am joking, or simply crazy to propose that a comedian occupy the most powerful seat in the land, I actually think we could use some levity in the office. Although they have both shocked and offended at times, they use it pointedly, and know when to turn it off. They can scrap with the best of them, but also know how to clean up nice, and play fair. I think we could use someone who looks at the world creatively, and sees the value and worth of each person on the planet, regardless of skin color, sexual preference, wealth, or whatever our superficial differences or deeply divisive serious conflicts. A comic is an observer and innate communicator. They seek to probe our flaws and foibles, and examine what divides us, while also using the healing salve of comedy to bridge our cultural differences, and find a way to laugh as one.

Obviously, there would be questions of foreign policy experience, domestic aptitude, executive experience, blah, blah, blah… But we’ve had plenty of those guys in the White House, and where has that gotten us? And the precedent is there, since we have had an actor, after all.

I would enthusiastically endorse a Rock/ C.K. ticket in 2016!
(“Rock the Vote”)

If we can only elect one president in this world who would you vote for?