The Problems with Colour-Blind Casting

In an idolised world, the casting of Dev Patel as David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic, would not have attracted attention or debate, and certainly not anger. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a Utopia. Far from it. The populists of Europe are gathering momentum and the Coronavirus is inching the world ever close to a recession. But I digress.

The casting of British-Asian, Dev Patel, in the role of David Copperfield, a character originally written as White in 1849 and subsequently depicted as such in films ever since, has been hailed as a wonderful example of colour-blind casting and Wokeism gone too far in equal measure.  

But first, it is important to point out that the conversation around colour-blind casting is not a new phenomenon. Its merits and detractions have been weighed up again, and again for decades. Most prominently in 1996, when Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson used his address to Princeton University on black culture to lambast the then dominant trend of casting People of Colour in traditionally White roles in theater.     

“Colour-blind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection . . . ” he said.

Since then, the discourse around the practice has only intensified and become more polarised, particularly in light of social media and its culture of outrage. This was seen in 2016 during the aftermath of the announcement that Black-British actress, Noma Dumezweni, was going to portray Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its West End run. There was so much vitriol surrounding the casting, author J.K Rowling had to comment:  

“I had a bunch of racists telling me that because Hermione ‘turned white’ – that is, lost colour from her face after a shock – that she must be a white woman… I decided not to get too agitated about it and simply state quite firmly that Hermione can be a black woman.”

At the heart of the argument for colour-blind casting is this – the best roles should be given to the best actors irrespective of skin colour or background. Simply put, acting should be a profession based solely on merit and talent, and nothing else.   

However, the stance wrongly assumes that we live in a post-race society, where the hue of someone’s skin is incidental. Colour-blind casting fails to recognise that race and culture creates a prism through which we see the world, and it sees us, and to ignore or miss that erases the need and importance of telling different stories.  

Following on from August Wilson’s point that colour-blind casting is a so-called, “A tool of Cultural Imperialists…”  The problem with the practice is that it positions White stories as the default and most important, and forces People of Colour to lose their identities in order to shoehorn themselves into it.   

With so much controversy surrounding colour-blind casting, many in the arts and entertainment sector have been looking at Colour-Consciousness as an alternative. The more flexible practice rightly offers broader roles to People of Colour, i.e. beyond the archetypes of the Black slave and Brown terrorist, but still acknowledging that their heritage shapes their lived experiences.

Going back to Dev Patel’s casting as David Copperfield, while I concede that acting is about stepping into the shoes of another and suspending disbelief, it is a shame to see Hollywood rehashing the same old stories again, and again, when there are so many fresh stories to tell that incorporate the British-Asian (and other) experiences. For example, where is the Hollywood war film that centre on the involvement of the Commonwealth during The World Wars?   

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