Recently, I had an interesting conversation about this Ms. Magazine article by Kathleen Richter. We were talking about how difficult it must be to create something for the any screen, big or small, in a society where everything is completely over-analyzed by a million watchdog groups and individuals representing every race and creed under the sun.
Things went bad when I mentioned how I always get annoyed when a character’s race is arbitrarily changed just to placate these groups. By “bad”, I mean I realized how much of a racist I am when it comes to this sort of thing.
My argument is this; Hollywood “race lifts” are done for a variety of reasons, and none of them good, unless you count the studio not getting sued by some special interest group “good”. The counter-argument; race lifts are done to include different races when they might not otherwise be represented, and if it doesn’t change the character, what difference does it make.
I can concede that if a race-lift doesn’t change a character, it shouldn’t matter at all, and most of the time they don’t change. Kingpin was still Kingpin in the Daredevil movie. Nick Fury is still Nick Fury, even though Samuel L. Jackson is now sporting “the patch”. Sokka and Katara were still Sokka and Katara in the awful The Last Airbender movie, which I will never watch.
However, even if its only on a visual level, race-changes still bug me. As a very visual person, a race-lifted character just doesn’t seem quite right. In the case of the The Last Airbender and the Spawn movies, it was downright horrendous. Dear God, is it awful when Caucasians replace non-Caucasians.
Also, as somebody who has created a lot of characters (who will likely never see light of day), I think it is unbelievable to change a character’s race and not change anything else about them. All but the most one-dimensional characters are changed simply by changing their race. Color doesn’t matter, but culture does, and people of different races have different cultures. People from different cultures experience life in different ways. It is a fact. It makes people who they are. I know we all love the melting pot idea, but it is very unrealistic to think we’re all ever going to think as one.
I think my biggest “beef”, though, is creators create characters the way they are for a reason. If a character was meant to be Caucasian, they would have been written Caucasian. If a characters was meant to be African-American, Hispanic, Asian or undead, they would have been written as such.
Now, this is where it gets sticky. Does this mean I adhere to stereotypes? Does taking in account of a races traditional culture and subsequent behavior when creating a character mean the author is painting said race into a corner or accurately portraying reality?
Either way, I don’t think it is doing anybody any favors by arbitrarily changing colors to “reflect reality” or encourage cultural diversity. Not being a racist dick, not excluding or not representing people simply because you don’t like them and realizing different people have different cultures and respecting them does far more for that cause.
Extra Credit: I would like to know where the line on race-changing is drawn. When is it applicable? Does it have to be a major motion picture or does it affect lesser films? Are books and other written media subject to race changes?