Because White People Represent All Humanity While Non-White People Are Weird And Distracting

Noah-2014-Movie-HD-Images

An interview with Ari Handel, the co-screenwriter of the movie “Noah,” asked him about the movie’s all-white casting. Handel’s answer really captured a lot that is wrong with how Hollywood thinks about race:

Q: While there’s a lot of diversity shown in the animal kingdom, there’s no racial diversity in the cast. Can you speak to that?

A: From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise. You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, “Let’s make that not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman.” Looking at this story through that kind of lens is the same as saying, “Would the ark float and is it big enough to get all the species in there?” That’s irrelevant to the questions because the questions are operating on a different plane than that; they’re operating on the mythical plane.

As Alexis Rhiannon says, “white privilege in biblical proportions.”

If your reflex response is “wait, there’s only one family, so they all have to look related,” stop and think a second. Why do Noah and Mrs. Noah have to be the same race? Why do Noah’s son’s wives have to be the same race? If we do have choose just one race (although we don’t), why does it have to be White? Etc.

Oh, well. Nice to see that some religious leaders and intellectuals have been objecting to this aspect of “Noah.”

This entry posted in Popular (and unpopular) culture, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

64 Responses to Because White People Represent All Humanity While Non-White People Are Weird And Distracting

  1. 1
    brian says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate on a Biblical movie thread makes my week. BUT…

    Let’s say the casting was different. If we make Noah’s family “the multi-culture pals” Benetton ad style, someone would complain “The producers are minimizing the importance of race!”

    If Noah’s family were Asian/African/Pacific Islander/MesoAmerican etc, someone would say it was historically incorrect, hilarious as that would be.

    If the “villains” of the piece were Asian/African/Pacific Islander/MesoAmerican etc. someone would boycott, somewhere.

    The only “safe” choice is to cast the Na’vii from AVATAR in everything. Which would offend people like me who think that every movie should star the green women from STAR TREK : TOS.

  2. 2
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Noah and his family are white because God is a white dude. Duh.

  3. 3
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Therefore, all men (by which I mean the global substitute for “people,” of course) were white until Ham’s post-flood curse. So an all white cast makes sense.

  4. 4
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    In case anyone actually doesn’t know by now that I’m a die-hard atheist, those posts ^^^(points upward) were intended to be satirical.

  5. 5
    Ampersand says:

    I’m a die-hard atheist,

    Does that mean you don’t believe Bruce Willis exists?

  6. 6
    Manju says:

    Oh, well. Nice to see that some religious leaders and intellectuals have been objecting to this aspect of “Noah.

    Well played, sir.

  7. 7
    Abbe Faria says:

    Everyone in the film is 9-10 generations from Adam and Eve. Adam is usually portrayed as white in art, because Abrahamic religious art was mostly developed by Caucasians.

    What’s strange is the assumption Abrahamic religions should represent all of humanity, whereas religions like Shinto or Hinduism are local and culturally specific.

  8. 8
    Dee says:

    Noah co-stars Jennifer Connelly, whose mother is Jewish, and Logan Lerman, who is 100% Jewish. Surely they can play Old Testament characters.

  9. 9
    brian says:

    I don’t know if discussing which rich actors got cast to play which trivial part in our popular culture REALLY matters at the end of the day. The phrase “polishing the brass on the Titanic” comes to mind, especially when news headlines like “Study: People of color breathe air that is 38 percent more polluted than white people’s” are vying for attention. “Pick your battles” is probably my point.

    It does remind me of the way neo-Nazis were all upset that Heimdall was played by a non-Nordic actor, apropos of nothing.

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/04/17/study-people-of-color-breathe-air-that-is-38-percent-more-polluted-than-white-peoples/

  10. 10
    Doug S. says:

    Well, it could have been worse. They could have made all the descendants of Cain black and the descendants of Seth white.

  11. 11
    Ampersand says:

    I don’t know if discussing which rich actors got cast to play which trivial part in our popular culture REALLY matters at the end of the day. The phrase “polishing the brass on the Titanic” comes to mind, especially when news headlines like “Study: People of color breathe air that is 38 percent more polluted than white people’s” are vying for attention. “Pick your battles” is probably my point.

    Well, nothing I discuss on this blog “really matters at the end of the day.” It’s a blog, and an obscure one at that – it would have to increase in importance a hundredfold to even have trivial importance.

    That said, I do think that representation matters. It may not be the single most important issue in the entire world, but talking about issues is not a zero-sum game, and there’s no rule saying that only the single most dire issue should ever merit discussion and all other issues are a waste of time to discuss.

    In Your Face Jam: Why Representation Matters to Me – Comic Book Resources
    I mean, do you have any form of post specifically about why representation matters? I remember seeing parts here and there both from studies and I think anecdotal. The direct consequences of the lack of or negative representation of PoC? – People of Color in European Art History
    Korra Is Not Tan • Why Representation Matters
    Why Media Representation Matters : AAUW: Empowering Women Since 1881
    Postcards from Space: Why I Fight for Diversity in Comics
    Francisco, Writer, New York City | The Gay Men Project

  12. 12
    Ampersand says:

    Noah co-stars Jennifer Connelly, whose mother is Jewish, and Logan Lerman, who is 100% Jewish. Surely they can play Old Testament characters.

    I don’t think anyone has said otherwise.

  13. 13
    Ampersand says:

    The only “safe” choice is to cast the Na’vii from AVATAR in everything. Which would offend people like me who think that every movie should star the green women from STAR TREK : TOS.

    Heh.

    But since there is no “safe” choice, maybe they should try to do what’s right rather than futilely try to be inoffensive.

  14. 14
    brian says:

    Well, nothing I discuss on this blog “really matters at the end of the day.” It’s a blog, and an obscure one at that – it would have to increase in importance a hundredfold to even have trivial importance.

    Don’t sell yourself short, I suspect you have a bigger impact that you give yourself credit for.

    It may not be the single most important issue in the entire world, but talking about issues is not a zero-sum game, and there’s no rule saying that only the single most dire issue should ever merit discussion and all other issues are a waste of time to discuss.

    Not a waste exactly. but in my time doing therapy for individuals and groups, I’ve gotten very aware how limited a person’s mental energy for worry, concern and anxiety about the problems in the world is. And when people have too long a list of things that are a catastrophe, the world gets closer to overwhelming them. So I tend to remind people to keep it to a top 3 gripes about the world and all in it, otherwise despair sets in. I tend to spend a lot of time discussing triage and prioritizing.

    BUT… writers need material. So maybe I’m wrong.

    Though in my anonymous blog, maybe I’ll start ranking items from “minor issue” to “interesting pain in the neck for others” to “add to your top 3 list!” to help keep my 2 dozen readers from freaking out about EVERYTHING. ;)

  15. 15
    Jeremy Redlien says:

    Not a waste exactly. but in my time doing therapy for individuals and groups, I’ve gotten very aware how limited a person’s mental energy for worry, concern and anxiety about the problems in the world is. And when people have too long a list of things that are a catastrophe, the world gets closer to overwhelming them. So I tend to remind people to keep it to a top 3 gripes about the world and all in it, otherwise despair sets in. I tend to spend a lot of time discussing triage and prioritizing.

    Oddly enough, this is precisely why I ended up focusing on queer representation in films, it was a much easier, much simplier problem for me to address then other more complex ones. Rather than focusing on “oh my god look at how much violence and suicide is faced by LGBTQ people” (or other rather pressing issues) I can just… watch movies and then write my opinion of them.

    Admittedly, this sometimes can be depressing after watching the umptenth iteration of “trans/gender non-conforming people are crazy serial killers” or “Lesbians, Gays, and bisexuals always wind up dead” tropes (among many other negative media images), yes, but at least I don’t have to spend a lot of time dwelling on more serious and more depressing issues that I can’t solve. However, I have taken classes in film analysis and and thus have a background I can use to address problems related to LGBTQ representation in media and film.

    So that’s what I do.
    -Jeremy

  16. 16
    time123@gmail.com says:

    I don’t believe the guy in the interview told the truth. He should have said

    “We thought about non-white actors but Denzel and Will Smith passed and Sam Jackson is buys doing phone comercials. Once that was out of the way we thought about how to make the most money. We figured that since white people have most of the money and we assume they like to watch movies about attractive white people that’s what we needed to cast. We all sort of felt bad about that so we came up with a semi-artistic excuse. We didn’t spend a lot of time on our excuse so it’s pretty thin.”

  17. 17
    closetpuritan says:

    time123:
    You can probably cross out everything before “We thought about how to make the most money.” Although I think that execs overestimate the cost of casting non-default-humans in lead roles…

  18. 18
    nobody.really says:

    I had the same reaction as closetpuritan. Some professional artists may be reluctant to acknowledge that they’re in business – but they are. And when people are betting $130 million on an artistic endeavor, they’re going to want to minimize the risks and maximize the potential. If movie makers think that they can sell more tickets if they have a cast of white (famous, thin, articulate, able-bodied, heterosexual, …) people, or by wearing purple socks, movie makers are going to hire those people and wear those socks. They can dress up the rationale any way they choose, but I have to suspect that when $130 million is on the line, money and anxiety are driving a lot of the decisions.

    Every good morality tale needs an enemy. So who is the enemy here?

    1. Maybe evil movie makers are. That is, perhaps as a factual matter there is no correlation between hiring white, famous, thin, articulate, able-bodied, apparently heterosexual, … actors and selling movie tickets. That’s an empirical question, and I haven’t seen a lot of quantitative research.

    2. But recall: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men (and women) do nothing. So perhaps the enemy are not the evil movie makers — who may be wrong but are at least sincere in their error – but the good movie makers – who do not labor under the delusion that race matters to box office, yet still continue to make movies starring only white, etc., actors.

    The good news is that Disney has not yet succeeded in bringing all literature within its control, so the original source material for Noah remains in the public domain (for now). Anyone who thinks that the race of the cast makes no difference in the box office – and has the cash to back up this conviction — is free make his or her own version.

    3. And this leads us to the final alternative: Perhaps the evil movie makers are right. In that case, the problem would not be with the racism of movie makers — but of movie watchers.

    So, who is the enemy? Perhaps Pogo said it best: We have met the enemy…..

  19. 19
    mythago says:

    If we make Noah’s family “the multi-culture pals” Benetton ad style,

    Interesting how often this reaction comes up, as if the only alternative to an all-white cast is some kind of artificial, image-driven ‘multi-culture’ pals carefully selecting one person who is visually representative of each of a bunch of Western cultural tropes. It’s either foolish or a carefully constructed false dilemma, and given the cheerful ‘devil’s advocate’ in your comment, I’m assuming the latter.

    So, that aside, the point that Amp raised is not how many black guys should have been shown on the Ark. It’s that in Hollywood, “white” = “no race”, everybody else is consciously racial. We can’t have a black Noah because white audiences will not see him as Everyman. We can’t have his family made up of people who played extras in Zero Dark Thirty because then the movie would be about Other People. We sure can’t just happen to have the whole cast be black, because then the same people who don’t blink at an entirely white cast will suddenly flip their shit about ‘realism’ and what the ancient Hebrews really looked like.

  20. 20
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I do wonder how much the attention given to representation takes away from work on the American justice system. Aside from that I might as well let people work on what they’re interested in because it’s their choice rather than mine, I leave the possibility open that lack of friendly representation contributes to the bad behavior in the justice system.

    On the other hand, it’s almost as plausible to me that letting the justice system get away with abuse which is substantially racist is part of why bad representation seems plausible.

  21. 21
    brian says:

    I’m heartened by the high percentage of people that get the idea that creative endeavors are essentially commercial transactions. I’m sure that back in the cave painting days, someone was charging a handful of mammoth jerky to look at the latest work of “Throg of the Hill People, the visionary who devised charcoal mixed with spit as a pigment.”

    Making the protagonists stand ins for the audience goes back to the beginning of story telling. I never quite get why people into identity politics don’t grasp the concept of marketing to the audience with the biggest pile of mammoth jerky.

    CRACKED summed up the “protagonist as a blank face” theory pretty brilliantly, and with better jokes than I can usually muster on a Sunday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrbKuOaVF3k

    I’m all for over-thinking an issue, as anyone who knows me can attest. But it shouldn’t be a shocker that the protagonists “look like” whoever is the potential buying audience. And with the possible exception of graffiti, I’d argue that all art is done as an exchange for cash or at the very least social praise and attention which amounts to the same thing.

    And anyone making a conscious decision NOT to have the protagonists look like the target audience is either going to wuss out and go with the multi-culture pals option i referenced earlier (or the Captain Planet casting trick if you’re a 90s kid) OR they won’t sell their art for as much mammoth jerky as they could have gotten. Not because of racism, but because the audience wants as much of a blank mask on their protagonist as possible, to put themselves into the place of whoever gets to save the cheerleader, save the world. (I actually like the Captain Planet approach. it makes it easier to have a chance at a larger market, but I digress more than usual.)

    Hey, I don’t make the rules. I just know what they are. :)

  22. 22
    Ampersand says:

    I’m heartened by the high percentage of people that get the idea that creative endeavors are essentially commercial transactions.

    This seems odd to say in the age of youtube and webcomics. Obviously, many creative endeavors are commercial transactions, but many are not. I guess you could say that if it’s done for free, then they’re seeing social praise or whatever. But I think this sort of reductionist approach also ignores that people can have more than one motivation for doing something. Part of my goal with my work is to make money, but that’s far from the only goal.

    I never quite get why people into identity politics don’t grasp the concept of marketing to the audience with the biggest pile of mammoth jerky.

    We do get that. Why do you think otherwise?

    But, with respect, I’d disagree with you on a few points:

    1) It’s not the case that a movie can’t be a huge hit unless it has a white dude protagonist. Think of Beverly Hills Cop, Men in Black, Blazing Saddles, Hunger Games, and Independence Day (to pick films from four different decades); all of them were enormous hits. The fact is, mass audiences are perfectly capable of identifying with non-white-male protagonists. Otherwise there would never be hit movies starring anyone who isn’t white and male.

    All mega-hit movies need a protagonist who appeals to a mass audience. “Make the protagonist a white dude” is one strategy to appeal to a mass audience – and a crude, boring strategy. But it’s hardly the only strategy, nor is it a necessary strategy. It’s certainly not a “rule.”

    (Although it’s about sex rather than race, this link may be relevant.)

    2) Although I love “After Hours,” they exaggerate a lot to make their point. For example, they cite Iron Man as an example of how hit action movies require a blank-faced star like Keanu Reeves – but in the “Iron Man” movies, the filmmakers work hard to make sure that the audience sees plenty of Robert Downy Jr.’s extremely expressive face (he was barely in the armor at all in Iron Man 3, and frequently shown in “under the mask” x-ray shots in The Avengers)

    In fact, there are plenty of high-grossing action films that have protagonists that (although they are usually white men) aren’t played by bland, interchangeable actors: Think of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

    3) For action movies in particular, huge portions of the profits come from worldwide screenings, not just from the US. (And the US itself is less white every year). You’re wrong to assume that for a protagonist to “look like” the potential buying audience, that means the protagonist has to be white. The potential (and actual) buying audience, by any reasonable measure, is enormously diverse.

    4) The original post wasn’t about the race of the “protagonist” in Noah. It’s about the decision to have an entirely-white cast.

    5) Although I’ve followed the lead of that Cracked video in talking about movies intended to be mega-hits, of course a lot of money is made from lower-budget films that never become mega-hits (and those films risk a lot less money up front, too). The idea that you can’t make money unless your protagonist is a white man can be disproven by literally hundreds of examples.

  23. 23
    brian says:

    As for hundreds of examples, we would bog down into discussion of the “everyman” in pop culture, the comparison between the risks of the old style studio system vs the modern blockbuster economic model, and we would be half way to collaboration on a media studies textbook. Which would be rather fun actually.

    Short version of my thesis would be financially it doesn’t pay to be clever or talented. Fair representation only makes financial sense in a small scale. If you want to make a blockbuster you go for bland and safe. You remake ROBOCOP, you make a sequel or just cast Russell crowe as noah with an all white cast because in those days everyone died within 20 miles of where they were born. In the bronze age diversity was people from 3 villages in the same room ;)

    btw if anyone knows how I could get Russell crowe into a youtube video chock full of diversity clue me in. ;)

  24. 24
    closetpuritan says:

    “Not because of racism, but because the audience wants as much of a blank mask on their protagonist as possible,”

    Not because of the execs’ racism in that case, but it’s still racism that makes the default human a straight white (not-elderly, not-fat, etc., etc.) man.

  25. 25
    Abbe Faria says:

    Film is an inherently racist medium. Earlier filmstocks were literally designed to catch white faces. Even now if you put a black and a white person next to each other it’s tremendously difficult to calibrate the lighting and camera to get the full range of tones. You pickup the range of detail on one face and smudge the other in the shadow or highlights. Most filmmakers don’t go for white skin so much as light/medium brown as these tan and can be worked into an orange/teal palette.

    Still, some of the identity politics in this tread is nuts.

    When people in China or India or Japan go to see James Bond or Mission Impossible or Spider-man or Harry Potter the draw is that these are Western and the lead is a white man. They’re not representatives of the global proletariat. These counties have their own cinemas for that.

    The idea that Noah should be black because I feel bad about slavery, or our action heroes show be obese and elderly because of ableism, that’s embarassingly tumblrish.

  26. 26
    KellyK says:

    The idea that Noah should be black because I feel bad about slavery, or our action heroes show be obese and elderly because of ableism, that’s embarassingly tumblrish.

    Nobody said any of that. Nice strawman, though.

  27. 27
    Harlequin says:

    If you want to make a blockbuster you go for bland and safe. You remake ROBOCOP, you make a sequel or just cast Russell crowe as noah with an all white cast because in those days everyone died within 20 miles of where they were born.

    The top 10 grossing movies of all time (worldwide) break down as: 2 with female protagonists, 8 male. Most have dominantly white casts, with all major roles held by white people and a strong majority of the secondary characters as well [exceptions: Morgan Freeman's role in The Dark Knight Rises; Don Cheadle in Iron Man 3; a bunch of the secondary characters in Harry Potter; if only Zoe Saldana in Avatar was actually shown on screen]. 6 are sequels. 3 are based on comic books, 3 on book series, 1 on a fairy tale, and 1 on a TV show/toy; that’s 2 original stories out of 10.

    The thing is, in claiming that this means that filmmakers are justified in picking dominantly white and dominantly male casts for their movies, you must ignore that almost all movies are dominantly white and dominantly male. By the same argument you should never make movies with white male protagonists, because almost all of the major flops in movie history have also had white male protagonists.

    To compare to my list above, the Wikipedia list of the 10 biggest flops has 8 starring white men, 1 starring Keanu Reeves, and 1 an animated movie with Ming-Na Wen as the first-listed cast member; 2 are animated, 2 aimed at kids, 4 based on a book, 2 based on a folk/fairy tales, 1 based on a radio series, 1 based on a comic book, 1 based on a video game; about 2 or 3 of them appear to have multiracial casts. That’s almost exactly the white and male proportion of the top 10 list. The largest difference from the box office successes is that there are no sequels, from which we learn: to succeed at the box office, one must have already succeeded at the box office.

  28. 28
    Harlequin says:

    I meant to say, and forgot, Abbe Faria:

    What’s strange is the assumption Abrahamic religions should represent all of humanity, whereas religions like Shinto or Hinduism are local and culturally specific.

    That is a very interesting point!

  29. 29
    mythago says:

    It’s a silly point, and keeps on with this weird trend of lumping in all “Abrahamic religions” to try and obscure that we’re actually talking about an ancient Near Eastern myth, involving people from a specific region and time period.

    Abbé Faria, you are yourself engaging in some rather ugly identity politics here, and you’re doing the spaghetti against the wall argument (throw out a bunch, see if they stick) while ignoring what the filmmakers actually said. They did not say “black guys wash out on film” (probably because in the 21st century, where we have digital recording and black movie stars, it’s a laughable claim). They didn’t say foreign audiences don’t pay to see anyone but white dudes (also silly). What they said, in effect, is that they see a white guy and think “Person”. They see a brown guy and think “Brown person.”

    brian @23: your thesis managed to ignore all of Amp’s counterpoints. Playing devil’s advocate is tedious if you’re not so much advocating as repeating talking points.

  30. 30
    nobody.really says:

    The thing is, in claiming that this means that filmmakers are justified in picking dominantly white and dominantly male casts for their movies, you must ignore that almost all movies are dominantly white and dominantly male. By the same argument you should never make movies with white male protagonists, because almost all of the major flops in movie history have also had white male protagonists.

    This was precisely the thought that prompted me to say that we need some empirical study of the question: It’s very easy to generate large lists of anecdotes.

    I would add, however, that arguably the relevant standard should not be largest absolute winners and losers, but best return on investment. After all, it may well be the case that adding Russell Crowe to a movie helps sell tickets – but it also adds $ millions to the budget. Less famous actors may sell less, but they may also cost less. And the drive for movies to be star vehicles almost certainly contributes to the drive to make them white vehicles.

    The idea that Noah should be black because I feel bad about slavery, or our action heroes show be obese and elderly because of ableism, that’s embarrassingly tumblrish.

    Nobody said any of that.

    To be fair, Abbe Faria deserves the credit for that one, not me. I thought about saying it, but was afraid the final word might offend our Irish readers.

  31. 31
    brian says:

    This discussion reminds me of Roger Corman’s financial model. Make a low budget movie that pushes buttons people expect to be pushed, and then cash the checks. He is fond of the story how he made 200 films in three or four decades and lost money just once, when he decided to have a deep message.

    I don’t think it’s racism to try to follow a formula to a sure return on investment. Maybe it isn’t moving humanity forward much, but I can’t say I see a whole lot of villainous scheming at work, just an embracing of mediocrity.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10426947/Roger-Corman-interview-Audiences-will-turn-away-from-gory-films.html

    One film that did lose money – Corman’s first flop, in fact – was his provocative 1962 drama The Intruder, starring William Shatner as a segregationist who arrives in a small Southern town to stir up racist animus among the locals. Not only did the crew receive death threats during the shooting of the film, once townspeople realised that Shatner’s character was anything but the film’s hero, but no one ended up coming to see it.
    Corman was chastened. “It changed a lot of my feelings about filmmaking. It went to festivals and got really great reviews. One New York critic said, ‘The Intruder is a major credit to the entire American film industry’. And it was the first movie I made that lost money! I analysed it. Even though it got all the critical acclaim and so forth, it was too much of a lesson, trying to teach the audience. I had to get back to entertainment.”
    “From that I developed a style. What I tried to do is make a film on two levels. On a surface level, it might be, say a gangster film. But on a subtextual level it might be about some thing or concept that was important to me. Maybe some people would understand the two levels, and maybe they wouldn’t, but for me it was the way I preferred to work.”

  32. 32
    closetpuritan says:

    the idea that Noah should be black because I feel bad about slavery, or our action heroes should be obese and elderly
    -Not all movies are action movies
    -Not all action hero characters are Pro Action Men; often they’re ‘regular guys’ thrown into a dangerous situation–being out of their element can heighten the feeling of danger
    -Did you see ‘The Heat’? Or even ‘RED’ (stands for ‘retired, extremely dangerous’ IIRC)
    -I don’t remember Noah kicking much butt in the original, and I seem to remember common portrayals of him featuring a white beard.

  33. 33
    Ampersand says:

    I don’t think it’s racism to try to follow a formula to a sure return on investment. Maybe it isn’t moving humanity forward much, but I can’t say I see a whole lot of villainous scheming at work, just an embracing of mediocrity.

    1) There is no such thing as a formula to a sure return on investment, especially if you’re talking about high-budget movies. High-budget movies are a gamble; you can make a lot, but you can also lose a lot. 47 Ronin, starring blankface white man Keanu Reeves himself, lost $150 million, more money than any other film in history. The Lone Ranger, Jack The Giant Slayer, John Carter, Green Lantern, Cownboys & Aliens… Being a formula picture starring some white guy is not at all guaranteed to make money.

    2) No one is claiming that villainous scheming is at work. In the movie and TV version of the world, racism is caused and maintained by villainous schemes. In real life, however, it’s usually just white people finding it easier to go along with the flow of institutions that tend to promote white people’s interests, without anyone having to laugh maniacally or twirl their mustaches.

    As Edmund Burke didn’t really say, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

  34. 34
    Ampersand says:

    The thing is, in claiming that this means that filmmakers are justified in picking dominantly white and dominantly male casts for their movies, you must ignore that almost all movies are dominantly white and dominantly male. By the same argument you should never make movies with white male protagonists, because almost all of the major flops in movie history have also had white male protagonists.

    Really good point. Thanks, Harlequin.

  35. 35
    Abbe Faria says:

    I’m not supporting the co-screenwriter. I think he’s wrong that Noah is an everyman and wrong that race doesn’t matter at a mythic level, myths are obviously linked to particular cultures. I just think that when people ask “Why do Noah and Mrs. Noah have to be the same race… why does it have to be White?” There are sensible answers.

    It’s a silly point, and keeps on with this weird trend of lumping in all “Abrahamic religions” to try and obscure that we’re actually talking about an ancient Near Eastern myth, involving people from a specific region and time period.

    With “Abrahamic religions” I’m just trying to be sensitve and not claim it as a purely xtian myth, even though that’s who the film is marketed at. I have no wish to obscure that it’s a near eastern myth. I actually think a lot of people would come round to my pov if they gave a seconds thought about the relative positions of mesopotania, caucasia, sub-saharan africa, pakistan and china on a map.

  36. 36
    Harlequin says:

    Abbe Faria:

    What’s strange is the assumption Abrahamic religions should represent all of humanity, whereas religions like Shinto or Hinduism are local and culturally specific.

    mythago:

    It’s a silly point, and keeps on with this weird trend of lumping in all “Abrahamic religions” to try and obscure that we’re actually talking about an ancient Near Eastern myth, involving people from a specific region and time period.

    I must be misreading one or both of you, as Mythago’s comment reads like a paraphrase of Abbe Faria’s to me…

  37. 37
    Abbe Faria says:

    The thing is, in claiming [top grossing films] means that filmmakers are justified in picking dominantly white… casts for their movies, you must ignore that almost all movies are dominantly white…

    This is wrong. The US makes about 800 feature films a year, India alone makes 1200. There is absolutely no way almost all movies, or even the majority of movies, are dominantly white.

    It is very telling that you’re all pissed at filmmakers for excluding non-whites, while it doesn’t even register that you yourselves are not-so-blissfully unaware of the majority of cinema. You all just have a distorted sense of the market due to your own viewing habits.

    In the movie and TV version of the world, racism is caused and maintained by villainous schemes. In real life, however, it’s usually just white people finding it easier to go along with the flow of institutions that tend to promote white people’s interests

    That’s untrue. White westerners (particularly, young white men) are incredible diverse in terms of their film consumption. In the domestic market the film genres which heavily feature non-whites – anime, martial arts, urban crime – are overwhelmingly consumed by young white men. There are massive industrys devoted to repackaging non-white culture for white consumption. That’s not the case in developing markets, many of which have very backward attitudes surrounding race.

  38. 38
    Harlequin says:

    Sorry, you’re right: should have specified I was talking about Hollywood films.

  39. 39
    Ampersand says:

    What Harlequin said.

    * * *

    Somewhat relevant to the discussion in this thread, from Sady Doyle’s review of the movie Gravity:

    Cuarón put a nerdy 49-year-old woman on screen, and then let the audience identify with her struggle to learn independence (bye, Clooney!), resilience and courage. Though the execution isn’t perfect-like many reviewers, I wish to God Cuarón had cut the subplot about Bullock’s daughter. There’s a fundamentally feminist parable at the center of Gravity. It’s a story about how a woman learns to take care of herself, for herself, on her own.
     
    This is precisely the sort of story that, as per conventional wisdom, you should not put front and center in your $80 million special effects sci-fi extravaganza. According to conventional Hollywood wisdom, stories about men are stories about humanity; stories about women are just stories about women, and therefore not “universal” enough to attract a male audience and blockbuster sales figures. And preferably, even those women’s stories are also stories about men, re: those women finding themselves a boyfriend. The idea that there’s no money in movies about women has been debunked repeatedly—comedies about female friendship, like The Heat or Bridesmaids or, heck, even the painfully bad Sex and the City movies, were all wildly successful—but Gravity is working within the two historically macho genres of hard sci-fi and action. (The difference between sci-fi and hard sci-fi is the difference between watching Star Wars and reading a theoretical paper about light-speed travel; the intensely technical, sciencey bent of the latter genre has long been presumed to be a boy thing.) Not only have most of the heroes in these genres been male, the audience for them is presumed to be largely male as well. Trusting that demographic to identify fully with a woman, so much that she’s practically the only person we see, is a very gutsy move. Gravity doesn’t just want us to root for Bullock; it wants us to feel, on some level, that we are Bullock. Men have to be willing to take that leap. 
     
    They’ve taken it. And they’ve taken it to the tune of $55 million in one weekend.

    A lot of Hollywood executives underestimate the audience. They may have trouble seeing themselves in a 49-year-old woman, or in anyone who isn’t white. But if the movie is good, audiences don’t have that problem.

  40. 40
    Abbe Faria says:

    No. You were taking about all films.

    If you want to revise your position and say top grossing films world wide are dominantly white, and hollywood films are dominantly white, and world cinema is dominantly non-white but should be excluded from the analysis – as there’s no way non-US cinema could possibly be top grossing globally – how is that not conceeding that non-white casting is box office poison?

  41. 41
    nobody.really says:

    The idea that Noah should be black because I feel bad about slavery, or our action heroes show be obese and elderly because of ableism, that’s embarrassingly tumblrish.

    Nobody said any of that.

    To be fair, Abbe Faria deserves the credit for that one, not me.

    As Edmund Burke didn’t really say, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

    Of course he didn’t say it; *I* said it. Was Burke trying to take credit for my work again?
    (…honestly, some people…!)

    No one is claiming that villainous scheming is at work.

    That would be Nobody, not No one. But it’s ok; people get us confused all the time.

    And I introduced the “enemy” motif @ 18 because my thesis was that film makers may be responding to the public’s racism, not their own, and thus I wanted to use the Pogo quote. And the Pogo quote is couched in terms of enemies. In short, I was being clever at the expense of being clear; sorry.

    You know, I sometimes wonder if this whole quotation business is worth the bother. As Shakespeare once said.

  42. 42
    Ruchama says:

    If you want to revise your position and say top grossing films world wide are dominantly white, and hollywood films are dominantly white, and world cinema is dominantly non-white but should be excluded from the analysis – as there’s no way non-US cinema could possibly be top grossing globally – how is that not conceeding that non-white casting is box office poison?

    The reason non-US cinema generally isn’t top-grossing globally is that it doesn’t usually have the same sort of distribution that US cinema does. Just about every time I’ve gone to a foreign country, the movie posters I see show some movies from that country, some US movies, and maybe a few others. Movies from the US are shown just about everywhere. (This past summer, several of my friends and I were all traveling to a bunch of different countries, and we started collecting cell phone pictures of Despicable Me posters, just to see how many different languages we could find in total.) Subtitles and dubbing are box-office poison in the US, while most countries that speak other languages seem to accept Hollywood movies with subtitles or dubbed voices without much issue.

  43. 43
    Harlequin says:

    If you want to revise your position and say top grossing films world wide are dominantly white, and hollywood films are dominantly white, and world cinema is dominantly non-white but should be excluded from the analysis – as there’s no way non-US cinema could possibly be top grossing globally – how is that not conceeding that non-white casting is box office poison?

    I used the top grossing films globally not to talk about a global audience in general, but because we had discussed above that the foreign box office was also a major source of revenue for Hollywood films and I was curious if that made a difference in the decision making. Actually, what’s really funny is that looking back I accidentally described the US top 10, not the worldwide top 10, since I had both lists open–the difference is one film (Oz the Great and Powerful in the US, Thor: The Dark World worldwide) which increases the number of sequels and comic book movies by 1, and decreases the number of book-based movies by 1.

    Further, I never said that the audience wasn’t racist: just that Hollywood execs make decisions with racist implications based on very little evidence and lots of just-so stories.

    Also, what Ruchama said. And I’d add two things: one, that movie distribution companies (of which the largest are also a product of Hollywood) make decisions about which foreign films to buy the rights to & distribute in the US. US receipts make up large percentages of world wide box office gross (source), with only one film in the top 100 grossing films >80% foreign box office, and 8 of the top 100 receiving more than half their gross in the US. So “Hollywood companies do racist things” is still a possible reason for the dominance of white, US-based movies in the world market. (I think Ruchama’s point about non-English-language films in the US vs worldwide is way more supportable as a reason, though, in addition to the difference in ticket prices in different countries.)

    And two, Hollywood has the biggest budgets around, and lots of the top-grossing films are special-effects extravaganzas.

  44. 44
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Not having seen the movie (don’t plan to, either) I still think that it’s worth trying to answer the obvious question: What would be an appropriate cast, in your view?

    It is always tempting to point at a clear position and say “Position X is incorrect.” After all, you have the whole rest of the universal set on your side. But there’s no reason you can claim the universal set as your own; it’s much more correct–to do a bit of mental work and say “Position X is incorrect; Position Y is more correct.”

    What’s your Position Y? What should the cast have looked like instead?

  45. 45
    Ruchama says:

    I don’t think people are arguing that this cast was wrong, necessarily. They’re arguing that the stated reasoning behind the casting is wrong.

  46. 46
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    It’s likely that almost nobody in that area was what we currently refer to as “white.” Then again, referring to historical accuracy in the context of a known-to-be-mythological Creation story is sort of an amusing question.

  47. 47
    Harlequin says:

    I don’t think people are arguing that this cast was wrong, necessarily. They’re arguing that the stated reasoning behind the casting is wrong.

    I suddenly have this mental image of the interviewee saying instead, “Well, we thought of this film as a thematic sequel to A Beautiful Mind, so clearly we needed to cast Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly…”

  48. 48
    nobody.really says:

    What should the cast have looked like instead?

    Like this. We’ve fallen for a false dichotomy: the cast can be white AND colorful.

    I also have suggestions for updating the look of the ark….

  49. 49
    RonF says:

    “Why do Noah and Mrs. Noah have to be the same race? Why do Noah’s son’s wives have to be the same race? If we do have choose just one race (although we don’t), why does it have to be White?”

    After re-reading the requisite chapters of Genesis and considering what Hebrew tribal dynamics were, I come to these answers:

    1) They didn’t absolutely have to be, but it would have been pretty unlikely for them to have not been of the same race.
    2) Ibid.
    3) That’s a legitimate question. What would be the ethnicity of the people in the place and time indicated for Noah, and what kind of actors and actresses would fit that now?

    If you’re going to try to be true to the story and the heritage of the people who told it, it’s pretty unlikely that Noah’s family is going to be multi-racial. So it would be politically correctly absurd to portray them as such. This story comes from the heritage of Iron Age Jews (Hebrews? Israelites? Semites? I suspect you’d know the correct designation better than I, Amp) and it seems to me that this should be respected when telling the story. To expand on an earlier comment, it makes a lot of sense to do that when you’re casting Star Trek, but not Genesis chapters 5 through 9. But, again, while I think it would be ridiculous to cast it as multi-racial I agree that it’s entirely well-founded to object that the single race selected was Caucasian.

  50. 50
    JutGory says:

    RonF: you are probably right that in a more insular tribal society, there would not have been much diversity. And, as g&w says, they probably would not have been white.

    But, re-reading the rationale and the original criticism, I think the criticism is misplaced. I do not think they were saying that white people=everyman. They said they wanted a uniform cast. They wanted an everyman story. That was the casting decision. They did not have to be white. It could have been all-black, all-asian, all-hispanic, all-Jewish (though maybe that will be Mel Brook’s next movie project-a spoof of Noah, starring Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman (if only Marty Feldman were still alive to play Noah!)).

    The separate decision was the marketing one: what race to choose. I think Mythago has a valid point that an all-black or all-Asian cast be met with much wailing and knashing of teeth about “historical accuracy.” But, if you believe what they said about their motivation, the decision to choose an all-white cast was more of a marketing decision than an artistic one.

    RonF:

    I agree that it’s entirely well-founded to object that the single race selected was Caucasian.

    What would your choice have been, and why?

    -Jut

  51. 51
    RonF says:

    That last was poorly worded. What I meant was more along the lines of what I put as answer #3. In other words, I’m pretty sure that Noah and his family very likely did NOT look as demonstrably “white” as the cast pictured above, so objecting to them on that basis makes sense to me. But I’d have to do some research to offer an opinion as to what current ethnic group most resembles the ancestors of the Iron Age writers of Genesis.

    Here’s some questions that tie to the whole “marketability” debate. There have been a number of Bibically-based movies and TV shows in the last 10 years or so. What casting choices have they made? How well have they been received in the market? I will guess that if you’re making a movie or TV show about Moses or Jesus or other such figures, the primary audience is going to be Christians with some familiarity with the Bible, and they will know and accept a cast that does not look like white Americans. But I’d be interested to know what might be out there on this.

  52. 52
    RonF says:

    Then again, referring to historical accuracy in the context of a known-to-be-mythological Creation story is sort of an amusing question.

    I don’t think so. If you cast a movie based on Greek mythology, would you use Africans? Should a movie based on African mythology be cast using Caucasian actors?

  53. 53
    RonF says:

    [ threadjack ]

    Regarding the comment from the Gravity review (of one of the very few movies I have actually seen lately):

    “I wish to God Cuarón had cut the subplot about Bullock’s daughter.”

    It seemed to me that the subplot about Bullock’s [character's] daughter tied to Bullock’s character’s decision to live. The character was presented as someone who had withdrawn from society and relationships as much as possible because of the impact of her daughter’s death, and that it was influencing Bullock’s character to perhaps just give up and die. It was a non-technical barrier – as opposed to the numerous technical barriers – that she had to overcome to survive.

  54. 54
    JutGory says:

    RonF:

    Here’s some questions that tie to the whole “marketability” debate. There have been a number of Bibically-based movies and TV shows in the last 10 years or so. What casting choices have they made?

    I believe The Passion of the Christ was originally envisioned as a “true to life” (my words) of the events of the Bible. I have not seen it, but they wanted it to be “ethnically accurate” (my words, again) with “linguistic accuracy” (my words: Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, what have you). But, compromises were made so that it would have a broader appeal. Or, be accessible to a wider audience.

    I don’t know. I am fine with an artist having a broad (or ambitious) vision, but I won’t necessarily fault the artist for making a compromise that broadens the appeal of the artwork.

    After looking at the criticism here, I think the criticism falls into that category. They did not want to make race an issue, so they decided on a homogeneous cast. They did not say the cast had to be white, just uniform. That is was white is more pragmatic than anything else.

    Does that make sense?

    -Jut

  55. 55
    Harlequin says:

    They did not want to make race an issue, so they decided on a homogeneous cast. They did not say the cast had to be white, just uniform. That is was white is more pragmatic than anything else.

    Well, part of the discussion above is that the pragmatism of this choice isn’t as well-tested as a lot of people seem to think. And I also, in general, don’t think that the at-least-mostly-white creative team behind most movies would decide “racially homogeneous cast” and not be thinking “white” as their main choice. But granting that they did keep an open mind in this case, and your proposal was indeed their thought process, I can still find fault for not continuing the chain of reasoning. “We want a uniform cast so we don’t have the audience thinking about race. Oh hey, we can get Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly? Great! That means we need to have an all-white cast. ….That’s kind of an unfortunate conclusion. I started out wanting not to care about race, and my perfectly reasonable chain of thought ended up in the same kind of place a white supremacist would go. And if I’m acting the same way a really racist person would on the topic of race, maybe I should change what I’m doing. Now I’ll go revisit my earlier decision that all my actors should be the same race.”

  56. 56
    Ampersand says:

    I thought this was interesting:

    What nationality was Noah-and where did he com from in his ark to be landing the the mount Ararat in Turkey?
    Best Answer

    Dave L answered 7 years ago

    Noah was not Jewish as we think of the term today. There was not yet a nation of Israel. Specifically speaking, it is difficult to determine a nationality for Noah, other than to call him and others of the time “Antediluvians”.

    The nation of Israel was not started until after the time of Jacob, when God changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28). Jacob was descended from Noah, 11 or 12 generations later. At best, Noah could be said to be an ancestor of the Jewish race.

    Since the flood changed the face of the Earth, and there is no record of national names, we truly have no idea what nationality Noah was. Since it seems likely (many archaeologists agreeing) that the Garden of Eden was located in the area or ancient Mesopotamia (Iran/Iraq/Saudi Arabia in present day), and the Scriptural accounts point out that Adam and Eve were driven from Eden to the east, they could have migrated to Turkey to the north east, Iraq to the east, or Egypt, to the southeast (all present day names).

    It seems likely that one of these would be the area where Noah was from, considering his Ark having come to rest on Mt. Ararat, which seems quite likely as the ark came to rest after 160 days, less than half a lunar year (360 days). This was 160 days AFTER Noah and his family entered the ark, which happened 7 days BEFORE the rains began. Then, the rains lasted 40 days and nights. It is unlikely that something as massive as the ark (450 feet long by 75 feet wide by 45 feet high) began floating immediately. It would take quite some time to lift something so massive. So, once it began to float, well within a 4-5 month period, it came to rest. If you postulate a beginning in Egypt, or Iraq, a large unpowered structure floating could conceivably travel the distance to the Turkish mountain range where Ararat is located.

    So, if we’re going to be “realistic,” probably all the cast should be middle-eastern. I certainly would have found that a more interesting choice than making the whole cast white.

    But I don’t think all movies have to be realistic. Particularly in this case, when the screen writer says they were trying to get at Noah as a universal myth rather than be realistic, I think multicultural casting would have been a better choice.

  57. 57
    Abbe Faria says:

    Middle Easterners are caucasian/white.

  58. 58
    JutGory says:

    Ampersand:

    But I don’t think all movies have to be realistic. Particularly in this case, when the screen writer says they were trying to get at Noah as a universal myth rather than be realistic, I think multicultural casting would have been a better choice.

    I agree they could have easily made the Ark members diverse without it being the crew of the Enterprise. On the level of myth, they could have said that the people on the ark peopled the whole world. So, white Noah and his black wife had Asian, white and black children, who had Native American, Middle-Eastern, and Indian spouses.

    And, all the evil people could look like Orcs (or be visually evil-looking, in contrast to the righteous Noah).

    Sure these things are biologically, culturally, and historically unrealistic, but, on the level of myth, it could work.

    Having said that, I don’t have any big qualms with the way they did it (though I have not seen it and probably won’t any time soon). Both are defensible, and, as an artistic judgment, I don’t see either one as obviously “better.”

    -Jut

  59. 59
    brian says:

    Maybe we should all just thank our lucky stars that they didn’t work dinosaurs into the script? http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/1999/11/05/dinosaurs-and-the-bible

  60. 60
    Ampersand says:

    And, all the evil people could look like Orcs (or be visually evil-looking, in contrast to the righteous Noah).

    Or just be diverse. It’s actually a lot easier to do diversity with the evil people because there are so many more evil people in the Noah story, so you don’t have the same limitations on numbers.

  61. 61
    Ampersand says:

    Brian, actually, if they had done the “dinosaurs were accidentally left off the arc oh well” plotline, I’d be much more eager to see the movie, on the grounds of hilarious. :-)

  62. 62
    mythago says:

    I just think that when people ask “Why do Noah and Mrs. Noah have to be the same race… why does it have to be White?” There are sensible answers.

    Sure. The sensible, or at least honest, answer is “We are in this business to make money, and the studio’s estimation is that white audiences in the US prefer white actors in major roles, and especially superstar actors. We’d lose money if we cast Fares Fares as Noah.”

    As for Middle Easterners being “Caucasian/white”, the definition of who is and isn’t “white” has always been curiously flexible in the US.

  63. 63
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Ampersand says:
    April 25, 2014 at 8:13 am

    And, all the evil people could look like Orcs (or be visually evil-looking, in contrast to the righteous Noah).

    Or just be diverse. It’s actually a lot easier to do diversity with the evil people because there are so many more evil people in the Noah story, so you don’t have the same limitations on numbers.

    Do you think that would have gone over much better? “All the good guys are white,” well….

  64. 64
    Ampersand says:

    G&W, I was meaning to refer to a situation in which BOTH the heroes and the villains were cast diversely. Sorry that was unclear.