This week a British film opens in which a white actor plays Othello under a layer of boot-blacking. Didn't think that kind of thing happened any more, did you?
This week a British film opens in which a white actor plays Othello under a layer of boot-blacking. Didn't think that kind of thing happened any more, did you? Depending on your sensitivity to such matters you may even find the idea a little shocking. But there won't be protests outside screenings of Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty, or letters to the papers, because the film has an alibi for its flagrant breach of contemporary manners. Stage Beauty is a historical drama about the restoration theatre, and the blacked-up Othello is just another grace note to the film's main theme - that of the nature of theatrical truth.
In the 21st century it remains close to inconceivable that a director would dare to give one of the few black classical roles to a white actor - and if he or she did they would know that they'd better have a damn good justification in place.But this broadly unquestioned assumption that black actors should always play black characters is, as Stage Beauty reminds us, a relatively recent development - and I would guess that it is temporary too, a bit of corrective bending over backwards which will one day give way to a more relaxed posture. After all, if a black actor can play Henry V - as Adrian Lester triumphantly did at the National recently - why shouldn't a white actor play Othello, all things being equal?
For the moment, of course, all things aren't - but it isn't unimaginable that the day will come when the issue is sufficiently defused to allow for two-way traffic.
If you really want a scuffle over political correctness and casting, though, it was reported this week that some disability activists are unhappy about the fact that Working Title's film Inside I'm Dancing has cast two able-bodied actors as the disabled lead characters. One reportedly promised them that they "could expect some flak" when the film opens - the implication being that disabled actors have a prior claim to roles involving disability. There were similar objections when Gina McKee played a woman in a wheelchair in Notting Hill, the suggestion being that she'd swiped a meaty role from actresses otherwise restricted to mere wheel-on parts.
There is a ruthless response to such complaints, which is that art is ruthless and so are audiences. They only care if actors can plausibly represent a character restricted to a wheelchair. Talent comes first and competing claims for authenticity - however pressing - a poor second. (The producers of Inside I'm Dancing effectively deployed this argument when they said they couldn't find disabled actors "who met our casting needs" - a diplomatic euphemism for "who were good enough".)
But there are also subtler arguments against what you might call "affirmative typecasting". The first would be that it isn't easy to say where the principle stops. Does the sanction apply to specific types of ability - so that only actors who suffer from cerebral palsy can play sufferers of cerebral palsy? If not, why not? Exactly the same arguments about opportunity and visibility and personal experience can be applied within subsections of the disabled community as on the larger scale - imagine the feelings of an actress with motor neurone disease who sees the part of a sufferer handed over to someone who has no direct knowledge of the disease. If so, on the other hand, how do you prevent this claim to privileged access applying to ever narrower slices of life, with casting eventually becoming a search for mere identity?
Of course, not many disability activists would argue that the disabled have a right to get the roles - just that they should always have the right to audition for them. The Screen Actors Guild contract in America, for instance, requires that disabled actors should have the chance to audition when disability is represented. But this, too, could lead to problems. The last thing disabled actors need is the unpaid task of covering the consciences of theatre and film companies by establishing that they've performed due diligence while casting.
And if increasing the cultural visibility of the disabled is what's at stake, then surely the goal should be the right to audition for any role - parts in which the disability would be a mere detail of character rather than a defining characteristic. For that to happen there would have to be more producers, writers and directors who casually consider including disabled characters in their fictions and get the best available actors to play them - an insouciance and open-mindedness that seems unlikely to be promoted by the knowledge that any reference to the subject is likely to lead to heavy flak.