Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has come back into the news recently, specifically about the casting of Nome Dumezweni, a black actress, as Hermione Granger. Whether they should have done so or if it doesn’t fit I don’t really feel is up for debate. J.K. Rowling, who I assume would be the biggest authority on the subject matter, has given her blessing for the role. Case closed, right? Instead, I’d like to branch off of that story and talk about something I find really fascinating: casting non-white actors as white characters specifically to increase diversity amongst the cast. Affirmative action casting, if you will. It’s one of those things that I think people on both sides of the discussion tend to fail to take all the nuances into consideration, myself included. My personal opinion has bounced back and forth between both sides, but after a lot of time spent meditating on it I find affirmative action casting to be a very flawed thing, but also very necessary.
To avoid the angry tweets and comments, I’m going to jump ahead a bit and say that I think affirmative action casting is ultimately a good thing. I’m all for minority actors playing non-minority roles, but I don’t think it’s inherently regressive to disagree with that sentiment. Don’t get me wrong though; there are many cases where people don’t really have a leg to stand on when defending their anger. People upset with the casting of Dumezweni as Hermione, for instance, don’t particularly get my sympathy. The character’s race is ultimately coincidental and changing that race really has no effect on Hermione’s role in the story. In fact, making her black adds some nuance to her “being half muggle” conflict already present. Being angry over such a tiny change is just silly. That’d be like getting angry over a production casting a left handed actress for what your perceived as a right handed character.
However, there are several instances where race does affect a character. Casting a black actor as a Victorian Englishman wouldn’t be impossible to pull off, but it can needlessly complicate and hinder a story, especially if you need to take vital time to make that casting choice make sense plot wise. A character’s race also effects how we perceive that character. Let’s say that when Hugh Jackman says he’s done playing Wolverine, Fox casts a black actor to play the role. “Cool!”, you might say “More black superheroes!”, but what does it say when a black actor plays a character known for their violent and destructive tendencies? That same character who is often described as a savage beast. That same character who, in their most recent appearance, was literally confused for a wild animal trapped in a cage. You put a black man in Wolverine’s pointy blue boots and you immediately have an incredibly ugly and racist stereotype.
However, and this is the point I think trumps most criticism against any affirmative action policies, we live in a world where a good portion of our population has systematically been denied opportunities solely because of their race. At least in the superhero movie world, the properties being adapted primarily feature white characters, which leaves little to no room for black actors. Specifically looking at Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (so not including TV or Netflix shows), you currently have about five actually important black characters out of the many many main players: Nick Fury, Heimdall, James Rhodes, Sam Wilson, and T’Challa. Out of those five only three of them have been traditionally black in the comics: War Machine, Falcon and Black Panther, and out of those three, the last two have only recently been introduced into the universe. So that means that without any sort of racially blind casting, the MCU would’ve had only one black character for the vast majority of it’s existence.
Many critics want creators to make new stories featuring black characters instead of appropriating the white ones, and I find myself agreeing at least on a theoretical level. Swapping the race of a character gives that minority actor and in turn other minority actors more exposure, sure, but people won’t necessarily latch onto the character in the same way. Despite whatever the creator says, that version of the character will most likely end up being the “black” version of the character where as creating a new character all together gives both exposure and a unique identity to that character.
However, making a new black superhero doesn’t immediately guarantee that character will gain the popularity to make any sort of mainstream splash. It’s hard getting any kind of new character to stick, which is why I think racially blind casting is so important. It’s a bandage for the big wound that racial divide has left on popular culture. It’s not something I want to do forever, but until we reach a point where a minority superhero is just another face in the crowd, I think letting non-white actors take these parts is a pretty good thing.