From white actors playing people of colour to the able-bodied ‘cripping up’, attention has returned to the issue of “-washing” in films. The debate around casting those who can actually relate to these characters has reignited as more take up parts that would be better done by underrepresented groups. By Sadia Nowshin.
Perhaps the best known of all the ‘-washings’, whitewashing refers to characters that are originally people of colour being played by white actors. Since the recent rise of the BLM movement, many white actors have stepped down from their roles of playing characters of colour.
But, many argue, this isn’t the point. The point is to cast actors of colour in those roles in the first place, and stepping down to absolve yourself of the guilt while failing to call for that change in the industry doesn’t achieve a lot.
Most recently, the upcoming release of “feel-good” film Come As You Are has received criticism. A story of three disabled men who take a road trip to a brothel, the main characters are played by able-bodied men.
There’s something not quite right about these actors who know nothing about what it’s like to have a disability ‘cripping up’ in a film that laughs about how the only way the disabled characters can find a partner is to pay for it.
The director said they didn’t have the time to “cast someone with a disability just because they have a disability” and instead went with “great actors who are actually prepared to take on this role”.
Many criticisms have said this suggests they’re more interested in pretending to send their so-called “amazing message” than finding actors whose actual struggles they’re essentially exploiting for profit. Saying it would take too long to find someone ‘willing’ to do the role suggests that it’s not a character that the community would endorse.
It begs the question: Goldwyn Films, who is your “amazing message” actually for?
The main response to those who call out various forms of ‘-washing’ is the argument that directors are just casting the best actor for the role. After all, isn’t acting all about pretending to be someone you’re not?
However, POC, the LGBT+ community and disabled actors already struggle to gain recognition in the industry and aren’t often cast in roles that aren’t specifically their demographic.
When white, able-bodied and cishet individuals take over the experiences of these communities who have suffered from the very systems they benefit from, they take up the few roles these actors are actually considered for.
A big part of making the industry more diverse is recognising that actors from underrepresented demographics don’t only have to play roles ‘written for’ them.
It shouldn’t take shoehorning in a ‘minority’ character to cast a person of colour or including a ‘token’ LGBT+ role – these actors should be considered for roles that don’t necessarily ‘require’ the lived experience they bring. While minority characters should be played by minority actors, those roles shouldn’t be what they are restricted to reading for.
Enacting the reform that is needed starts with the audience. By no longer accepting the justifications that the same people just so happen to be perfect for roles that an underrepresented demographic could better represent, film makers will have to reassess their process.
After all, the industry follows a trail of money. If the profit is still to be found in the typically attractive, privileged professionals parading on screen in roles written for other demographics, then they’ll have no motivation to change.
How can I help?
⭐ Join the debate. Call out films that prioritise profit and lazy casting over accurate representation.
⭐ A friend of mine wrote this great piece on the issue of ‘cripping up’ in films – I’d recommend giving it a read.
⭐ Watch films that do it right. Moonlight is a must-see, as is Dear White People and the lesser-known Tangerine casts black trans actors.