“The more things change, the more they stay the same”. I have been hearing this saying for as long as I have been on The Planet and to me it has always come across as a ‘Paradox’ and that was long before I had even heard the word, let alone gleaned its meaning. But let us look at this Paradoxical Saying a little deeper.
If things constantly change, then logic dictates, things must change surely? Well yes. Technology does change but we are still stuck with the Internal Combustion Engine in our cars. Despite the advances in motor technology and the additional comfort, gadgets and hybrid engines in some cars, the core technology that drives (no pun intended,) most cars is an Engine that has been obsolete for decades. This example proves the Paradox true, that while things do change, the core element of whatever is being changed will remain the same.
People and their perceptions of the world and others around them, is also a case in point. Despite the world changing people will cling to the past and do everything from the perspective of the past. One could argue that it took twenty years and a World War before Society began to enter the Twentieth Century. Despite a virtual stagnation in Technology, Society changed for a time during the 1920s and this was abruptly halted by a stock market crash and a Great Depression that lasted right throughout the 1930s ending with the advent of another World War. While American Society changed rapidly during the 1950s, global change would not happen until the 1960s onwards. It took Human Society fifty to sixty years to fully embrace and move with the Century they were in. Of course those who were governing and running things were doing so from a Nineteenth Century perspective, which was not at all helpful.
And so I see a similar situation – History if you will, repeating itself. The beginning of the 21st Century saw the United States elect a man as President who was inward-looking so backward–looking that he involved his Country in two wars based on a lie, the effect of which are still being felt to this day. We also have the Muslim fundamentalist that wants to bring about the Apocalypse based on nothing more than religious dogma that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim World, neither want nor care for. The one thread that both scenarios have is the thinking behind them are wildly out of date and has no place in an ever changing world and a society that is far more global and more closely connected than many think.
What ultimately changes the World and Society is the thinking and perceptions people hold. When a person is well-educated, well-informed and has a wider perception of the environment he lives in and the world he is a part of, only then will real change come about. One of the greatest image makers in World History has to be Hollywood and behind that, the whole media machine. This is where the real power lies and where I want to focus the rest of this article.
The Myths Perpetuated
Despite its invention and development in the late Nineteenth Century, the Motion Picture (or moving picture as it was initially known,) is one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest achievements (another Paradox,) and one many may argue against. Movies however, are still with us and the technology is ever expanding but some things still remain the same but more of that later. While movies like literature gives us an insight into the times they were writing or filmed in, many perpetuate myths and stereotypes that are anything but short of disgusting. In some cases truly disgusting. One of the films from the silent era that has received so much praise over the years is D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’. This Film while showing the technology of Film during ‘The Silent Era’ also perpetrated myths and stereotypes that are plainly racist and offensive. Scenes such as Black Senators in Congress being drunk, another of a white woman about to be raped by a black man (a white man painted up as all the other black characters in the film are,) who is saved by the Ku Klux Klan riding to her rescue to save day. This tarnishes the image or any kind of respect I have for D.W. Griffith as a Film Maker. Birth of a Nation is actually on YouTube so you can watch it for yourself.
The above aside, what Hollywood and the Film Industry it spawned has done over much of its hundred year plus history is to give a stilted view of Human Society in some cases ignoring totally the ethnicity of an ever expanding society. One could well ask the question, why is it that for most of that history, Hollywood Film Stars were mainly white?
The Heroes We Worship
As I have mentioned above, for much of its hundred year history, Hollywood (and the British Film Industry,) promoted mainly white actors, elevating them to almost God-like Status. When one looks at ‘The Golden Age of Hollywood’ there is not one single Black, Latin, Chinese, Native American or any actor of colour and ethnicity amongst the ranks. MGM once boasted as having more stars than the heavens but not one of them was ethnic. The only standout star from the norm was Lassie! A dog had more star billing than an actor of colour. Despite Hattie McDaniel winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role in ‘Gone with the Wind’, nothing really changed (In fact no other black actress would win an Oscar in that category until Whoopi Goldberg did in 1991, for her role in the movie ‘Ghost’). Sure Sidney Poitier rose in the mid-late-1950s and became probably Hollywood’s first major ‘Black Hollywood Film Star’ (winning an Oscar in the process). There were many other equally talented black actors out there of course but Hollywood only had space for one major black film star. Poitier was succeeded by Richard Pryor in the Seventies, who in turn was succeeded by Eddie Murphy in Eighties. It was after this that the floodgates opened and we started to see the Likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L Jackson and Will Smith making their presence felt. The door, the quota, the colour bar had finally been kick down and now instead of the token ‘Black Hollywood Film Star’ we now had Film Stars whose ethnicity just happened to be Black/African American. This all happened in America. No such luck of the same thing happening in Britain or Europe.
Even with the history and the changes mentioned above, things have remained pretty much the same despite the changes I have chronicled. Let’s look at a recent development in Hollywood. The rise of the Superhero Movie not only as a franchise but a genre in its own right. Superheroes have from time to time been lifted out of comic books and placed on the silver screen throughout the latter Century. The most famous Film based on comic book superhero has to be Superman: The Movie (1978). Now Superman has appeared as a cartoon series, radio serials, on film, and as a TV Series throughout the 1940s and 50s. What Richard Donner’s film did was not only re-introduce the character to a cinema audience but update him for a modern cinema audience, as well as also laying down the blueprint for the modern Superhero Movie in much the same way Stanley Kubrick did for the Modern Science Fiction Movie with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately the Superman sequels and subsequent Batman Movies of the 80s and 90s didn’t follow Donner’s Blueprint, which probably wasn’t realised until Marvel Comics via its Studio arm ‘Marvel Studios’ started co-producing Superhero films based on their own superhero characters. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy also showed how a film of the Genre can achieve critical acclaim with a strong story and radically different take on the character. This leads me to another point about the paradox and how people’s perceptions can be changed.
Do all heroes have to be Caucasian (white)? Let me rephrase the question with variations of that same question: Do all established and well known heroes have to be white characters? Why can’t Superman, James Bond, Spider-Man, and Green Lantern be characters of colour? I was going to throw Iron Man/Tony Stark into the mix but Robert Downey Jr., has done such an amazing job of becoming symbiotic with that particular character, I am not sure anyone could prise him away from the character. But let us look at the examples I have given as a way of changing people’s perceptions of what a hero is.
Superman: He’s an Alien. He could look like anyone. Be any ethnicity. He is the last of his race. His parents sent him here in a spaceship just prior to the Planet Krypton’s destruction. The ship lands somewhere in Kansas and he is found by a childless couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raise him as their own, instilling him with the values that will make him the hero he is. That’s the basic outline of the story. With that outline, one could do many things. Richard Donner did just that with his Film, Zack Snyder did that with the recent ‘Man of Steel’. Both films were the first of a franchise, each takes the basic story and pushes the boundaries. Donner did it fantastically. Snyder I think could have gone further, a lot further.
Superman was created in the Depression of the 1930s. The World and Society has moved on so much since then. Does Superman have to be Caucasian? His adoptive parents could still be a Caucasian couple or an interracial couple. One will see I am sticking with the basic principle of the origin story but making it more interesting and less predictable. What worked for Richard Donner in the 1970s, doesn’t necessarily work in the 21st Century. What works for me in ‘Man of Steel’ is the character is essentially an outcast in Kryptonian Society because he parents opt for natural childbirth (which is forbidden on Krypton,) as well infusing his cells with the genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian Race. He is essentially the only hope for recreating his race and restoring it on another planet somewhere. How much better if Zack Snyder had cast an African-American or some other black actor in the title role. What a great story that would have been about racism and the outcast in modern society. Oddly enough, DC Comics published a comic book called President Superman. Calvis Ellis, was the Superman of Earth-23, who just happened to be President of the United States also. Topical as Barack Obama is in his Second Term and has made history not once but twice in becoming the first Black Man to be elected to the Oval Office and also the first Black Man to be re-elected to the Office of President of the United States.
Would people lose their heads if Man of Steel had a black actor in the title role? Of course they would. But rather than thinking of the character as now being black and adding to the mythos, it would be seen as changing the character. DC Comics might pull it off if they changed the ethnicity of the character but Movies and TV are more high-profile. My argument still stands. It was a different time when Superman made his first comic book appearance in 1938. The world has moved on significantly since then. If America can elect an African-American to the highest office in the land, there is no reason why the greatest Superhero ever created cannot share the same skin colour as America’s Commander-in-Chief. Superman is an Extraterrestrial. Anything is possible and should be possible.
James Bond: This would probably cause a race war in Britain if the producers bit the bullet and cast a black British Actor as Ian Fleming’s most famous creation and I can see why. But I would bite the bullet to prove a point but I don’t own the film rights to the character. Ian Fleming gave a clear description of what Bond looked liked but it is hardly a description the producers followed when casting the role over the years. He was of Scottish and Swiss-French parentage, which is interesting but the world is very different now than it was when Ian Fleming created the character. The parentage thing still works and could be multi-ethnic.
I still recall the furore that occurred when Daniel Craig was cast as Bond. The nonsense that was reported about him not being James Bond because he was blonde caused me some serious concerns and I wasn’t hired to play the part! I will admit that Daniel Craig would not have been in the frame if I was looking to replace Pierce Brosnan so when his name initially came up, I was intrigued because he was an unusual choice but assumed the producers wanted to take the character back to his roots and be much closer to what Fleming had envisaged. And I was right and when Casino Royale hit cinemas, it was a success. The highest grossing Bond Film at the time. Inspired casting and taking a chance does work and eventually pays off.
Even though James Bond is a global film brand, it is possible that a global audience will buy into James Bond as a black character, after all Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend from the CIA has been played by two black actors thus far and the world didn’t go up in flames. The problem I think would be with British cinema audiences. As an Actor of Colour based in the UK, I could tell many stories about how difficult it is to get past casting stereotypes as well as trying to convince people that not every character has to be ‘Caucasian’. This goes for Film School Students, as well as seasoned film makers.
While Britain is not the only Country that needs to learn lessons from our North American Cousins, we have always been in a far better position to set an example on the issue of race but have continually failed to do so. One could be forgiven for thinking Britain had no part in the Slave Trade as very few films or TV dramas have ever addressed that particular part of British History. Black characters very seldom appear in British Period Drama. It almost as if we are erased from History. The rest of the world may be ready for a James Bond of Colour but the paradox is alive and well in Britain on this particular subject.
Spider-Man: If Tobey Maguire can play Spider-Man, anyone can and has. Someone wrote an article not too long ago entitled: “The Last Thing Spider-Man Should Be Is a White Guy” and I agree. There is nothing in the canon of Spider-Man that says he has to be Caucasian. In fact when you strip the origin story down to its core elements (the name of Peter Parker aside,) the character could easily have been Black, Latino or any ethnicity (we are talking New York, the original melting pot here). As the Article stressed whiteness is not an essential part of Spider-Man’s character at all. It is not for the X-Men, Batman nor Iron Man (even if Robert Downey Jr., has made that much harder). The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, was essentially a remake of Sam Raimi’s original film, which was essentially pointless unless Peter Parker was going to be of a different ethnicity. And given the original was ten years old, this again made the Reboot unnecessary. The Paradox was not challenged enough on this one. In fact it stayed rigidly in place.
Green Lantern: Now here’s a Hero that has managed to defy the Paradox while keeping the main character Caucasian but moving with the times. And how do you do this? You introduce an African-American Green Lantern. The Silver and Modern Age Green Lantern is one Hal Jordan and if you saw the Film ‘Green Lantern’ you will know that he is a Test Pilot, who becomes essentially an Intergalactic Policeman, one of the Green Lantern Corps. In the comic book, Hal had someone (Guy Gardener,) as a backup Green Lantern but when Guy was injured and unable to continue, the Guardians of the Universe who created the Corps, chose John Stewart an African-American over Hal’s objections. John didn’t seem to be as dependable and steady as Guy and a great story of preconceived notions and stereotypes were played out until Hal learned why John was chosen. It wasn’t because of his skin colour but because he saw and approached things from an entirely different angle and perspective. But was no less dedicated than Hal. Even though the story came out in 1971, it was about the 1960s and about the changes that was going on back then. So the story perfectly illustrates the Paradox, how it works and how it can be overcome.
The Green Lantern Corps is a multi-ethnic force made up of beings from right across the Universe which works to maintain order throughout known cosmos. John Stewart has played a significant role in the Corps. Oddly enough the animated series Justice League used the John Stewart character as Green Lantern instead of Hal Jordan so that is some progress.
Racism, Prejudice, Preconceptions, Stereotypes – Past and Present
The Paradox of: “The more things change, the more they stay the same” prevails where people and a society hold on to beliefs and prejudices that no longer have any relevance in a forward thinking society. I was reading an excellent Essay by David Herman in a recent edition of the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ where he casts a critical eye over the Baz Luhrmann’s recent film version of that great F. Scott Fitzgerald classic ‘The Great Gatsby’. Mr. Herman makes some interesting observations about this new movie version that has two other film versions precede it over the past sixty years.
Herman opens his ‘JC Essay with this interesting observation:-
Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby has divided critics. Some have hated the fast cutting, noisy frenzy of it all. Others have attacked the strange conceit of setting the opening in a mental institution (a complete fabrication by Luhrmann). But surely the strangest aspect of Lurhmann’s Gatsby is the way he tiptoed around the Jewish question in the novel.
David Herman has made a very strong point in his opening observations about this new film version of the novel. It is indeed a great work of fiction but the book does have a dark side, when it comes to race and to Jews in particular. The novel from the start takes on a racial dimension. The first time Tom Buchannan is introduced he goes on about the decline of civilisation and how:-
It is up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.
I was hearing similar arguments whilst growing up in Birmingham during the 1970s so the Paradox was well intact many decades after Tom Buchannan made that speech. For me David Herman makes two points that struck me immediately. The first is as he states is how Baz Luhrmann deals with the Jewish question in the story. The Jew in question is one Meyer Wolfshiem. When Wolfshiem first appears in the novel, he described as:
A small flat-nosed Jew [who] raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness.
Wolfshiem is a friend and business associate of Gatsby. He seems to embody the dark, shady world that Gatsby is involved in. The great thing about the central character is that we really don’t know who he really is. We only know that his wealth has something to do with Wolfshiem. The way in which Wolfshiem is described is highly offensive but is a reflection of the time the novel is set and written in. Fitzgerald was addressing a real problem in ‘20s America: Racism, Anti-semitism and Immigration. Jews were breaking through the glass ceiling at that time. Jews in freshman classes had risen significant at Harvard, and everywhere else Jews were breaking into the mainstream. This surely would have caused the WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) concerns. Racial tensions were high during this decade. Think ‘Birth of a Nation’ mentioned earlier.
Herman in his Essay, turns things on its head by coming back to Luhrmann’s film making a fantastic observation . Luhrmann in trying to deal with the Jewish question, attempts to smooth out history by casting an Indian actor (Amitabh Bachchan,) in the role while keeping Wolfshiem as the character’s name. Luhrmann does what I have been advocating about making a character more interesting by changing the ethnicity of character. The problem here is that Wolfshiem is clearly Jewish, he is described and mentioned (offensively in my view,) as being Jewish. It doesn’t work and is out sync with the actual times and historical fact. This is where the Paradox reverse engineers itself to attain its continued survival: ‘By Smoothing Out History’.
‘By Smoothing Out History’ in Western Culture is not about giving credit where credit is due. If this were true, history books would be full of the great achievements and strides made by Black, Chinese, Muslim/Arabic nations, their scholars, mathematicians and philosophers in the development of civilisation. Instead ‘By Smoothing Out History’ we try to make everything politically correct. This goes all the way to the classics. We try to airbrush out how depictions and stereotypes of the period were made. For example we now try to dictate how Shylock and Fagin should now be. Less Jewishness now, rather than how it (Jewishness,) was depicted in the literature of the time.
An important way of learning the history of any particular period is to read the literature written at the time. Charles Dickens was born poor, raised poor became rich and celebrated through his writing. His novels tell you everything you need to know about Victorian Society – From the slums right up to the mansions and town houses. When that Virus that is Political Correctness enters the literary bloodstream, it kills off those things that made great works of literature great, irrespective of how offensive some things that work or its depictions and descriptions of some characters may be. We see the same thing with children’s literature. Enid Blyton is seen as old hat and offensive, the illustrations of Herge’s Tintin, particular the depictions of black people are seen as offensive (and they are,) and even the children in C.S. Lewis Narnia novels are seen as overly privileged and irritating. Newflash! That is because they are. They were children of their time as were the stories of Enid Blyton and Herge. Those works tells us far more about Society back then than any programme presented by Niall Ferguson, Simon Schama and David Starkey ever could. No offence to those Eminent Historians but a piece of work written at a certain time about a certain time in a certain society is far too important to be attacked ‘By Smoothing Out History. Baz Luhrmann’s handling of the Jewish question in his version of ‘The Great Gatsby’ is symptomatic of modern culture. We try to airbrush out of history that which we deem to be offensive but by doing so we fail to educate future generations of what life during a certain period of Society and Civilisation was actually like. The Great Gatsby is a great movie and a brilliant piece of film making but airbrushing out elements of the novel that are key to what is giving us an insight into the period the novel is set in, does none of us any favours. It only to give us a warped view of History.
How Do We Overcome?
Film Director Quentin Tarantino was asked recently in a television interview whether he felt the violence in his films had an adverse effect on society. He shut the question down without giving an answer. If anyone wants to know what has an adverse effect on Society then just watch any news programme, documentary or news channel. The reality that comes into our homes has a far more adverse effect than anything thing a Quentin Tarantino film could muster. I have seen much through my life watching films on Television and I am sure that the body count racked up in a John Ford western was far higher in one film than in all the films Quentin Tarantino has made to date. But I don’t recall the world falling apart because of anything John Wayne or Clint Eastwood did on the big screen.
That Paradox: ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ rings true evermore. The question posed to Quentin Tarantino is a false economy. Television is indeed a powerful medium (as is Film). People are not brainwashed when they see the bodies being racked up by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, or Statham – They know that is a fantasy. People are more inveigled and brainwashed by the ordinary things and people they see on Television. People are far more likely to believe the stories in daytime soap and night time drama than they would anything else. Simply because the people in those dramas appear real and to many are real.
I began a Facebook debate detailing my concerns about my agents not representing me properly. Many comments and advice was given but one lady who lost her legs three years ago came into the debate and took it to another place. Even though we talked about her disability (and I have a disability also,) we began talking about how people with disabilities are represented on Television (this is the same for Film and Stage). The discussion led into an ongoing debate about how actors of colour are not always cast in generic roles but ones that may be stereotypical or pander to a certain type. Also how disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. This led right back to the Paradox and this time the rationale, thinking and attitude of those who write, cast and produce these dramas.
I have heard much mentioned about ‘Colour Blind Casting’ over the years but see so little of it where I am based (which is London,) but the same could be said of the rest of the UK. We still have a situation here where the overwhelming majority of internationally known actors are Caucasian. Only a few British actors of colour enjoy that kind of recognition. That has not changed in years and seems highly unlikely to change for many years to come.
‘Colour Blind Casting’ has to be much wider than just ethnicity. It has to include everyone and that includes people with disabilities. For example, in the Bond movies, does M have to be able-bodied? M could just as well be a wheelchair-bound Director of MI6/SIS. He or She doesn’t work in the field but runs an intelligence service. The same question applies to Q. I have met technicians who had missing limbs and repaired machines or were engineers. I remember an engineer with one arm and a prosthetic hook for the other, arrive at the office one afternoon to repair the photocopier/scanner. And he did with no help from anyone. Simply put, it was his job and that was why he was there and he was good a what he did.
Since the inception of Television into the corner of the living room, a whole world was open up to its audience in their homes. A significant element was society – the real world, somewhat slightly altered was reflected back to them via the television in their homes.
Drama, great drama, when done well can inform, educate and entertain an audience sometimes all at once. But it has to reflect Society. I got tired of watching ongoing drama series, that do little if anything to accurately reflect society as it is. BBC’s Eastenders is one I love to hate. East London is not my favourite hang out destination but having worked for many years in East London, I cannot recall any area quite like ‘Walford’ or people being like that. The hospital dramas ‘Holby City and ‘Casualty’ had me running away from my TV for years and still does. Whenever I have attended hospitals, the first thing that strikes me is the diversity when I walk in through the doors. There are more multi-ethnic professionals and staff throughout the UK’s National Health Service (NHS,) than any other sector but to watch either of those dramas, one would be forgiven for not knowing this because that kind of reality does not exist in those dramas.
This is why the Paradox continues to survive. Those who write, green light, cast and produce these shows, I believe don’t look around them. I mean actually go out and look around them. They write in isolation, they (I imagine,) produce and cast in the same way. What a big, big difference it would make to walk into a casting director’s office and see a diversity of people of different ethnic backgrounds, genders and differing physical abilities some or all going for the same jobs because they were all considered good enough to be there. The same applies to other areas of work also and there are laws in place to make it happen. The Media seems to be a Law onto itself and exempt from the laws that governs other sectors. The problem is the Media is far more powerful and does influence what people think and see of Society.
Colour blind and inspired casting, not to mention good writing, is how you cancel out fear, stereotypes and the kind of perceptions that distorts the view of what kind of society we actually live in. We live a diverse, multi-ethnic society, with people of various abilities and gender. That deserves to be reflected and written about accurately and truthfully. Until that happens, it will always be the case that:-
The more things change, the more they stay the same.