The Token Black President

23 Feb

Hollywood’s notion of diversity in casting for film and television has become quite amusing to me.

True, we see a lot more minorities on both the big and small screen; however, they tend to be cast in supporting roles such as wacky neighbors, sage-like laborers, and, more recently, tough authorities.

In the last few years, characters such as presidents, police chiefs, and school principals are repeatedly cast with minority actors.  It’s as though Hollywood is saying, “See, we made the head honcho a minority.  We’re racially diverse!”

Unfortunately, this rarely happens when the head honcho is the main character.  Why?  Because the true head honcho is the main character, whether s/he is an army general or a lowly private.  Of course, there are exceptions to this trend; however, they are often given to a handful of A-list minorities.

Not only is this trend discriminatory, it is also predictable and boring.  And worse, it often seems gratuitous.  Diverse casting of secondary authoritative roles now lacks authenticity; I often feel embarrassed when I see it on-screen.

Some argue that minority actors are, nonetheless, appreciative that they have more opportunities.  That is true and it’s great to see them embrace their demand and make the most of it.  Don’t misunderstand: I am in no way suggesting that the trend be ended.  Rather, I am suggesting that it be balanced out.  Let’s have more black presidents as the main character.  After all, isn’t that a bit more believable these days?

Here’s the solution I propose: as much as possible, ignore restrictions like race, gender, and age when casting.  Unless the project absolutely necessitates that the character be of a certain orientation, ditch it during the casting process and see who captures the personality, energy and essence of the character best.  Again, unless absolutely necessary, don’t include race, gender, age, etc. in the casting breakdown.  See who shows up!  And if it means you have to go back to the script and make some changes accordingly, then so be it.  It’ll be worth knowing you have cast the best actor for the part.

***Addition to post: please check out this short video on, which perfectly captures the issue I mention in this post – the moment of silence toward the end is priceless (thank you to my friend KJ for initially sharing the video with me!)


6 Responses to “The Token Black President”

  1. Amir Teymouri February 26, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

    Amen!!!! You summarized what I have complained for years about to my wife. Then again one of the coolest characters ever, Token (from Southpark) was created to highlight this point with laughter.

  2. Jim February 23, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    I think this is an important issue, but it’s really easy to jump to [any] conclusion. I think that there’s no such thing as “Hollywood’s notion” or “filmmakers” as a meaningful collective. Producers and stories vary considerably. Is Tyler Perry Hollywood? I don’t know. As you note, there are A-list minorities, which is a welcome development. And more roles for actors of color creates the opportunity for the next A-list. TV advertising has done a decent job, I think, of representing diversity because it’s in their interest. And (sigh) that’s probably more formative for the culture than any one motion picture.

    As far as casting goes, I have exactly the opposite idea from what you wrote. First, I guess I don’t create characters whose gender, age and race are interchangeable. I’m not sure it’s a reasonable goal.

    My belief is that if I want to represent diversity (typical of Durham NC where I live) I have to make the choice that a given role should be an actor of color and then look for that person. Most of my work recently deals with families, so it’s not simple to ignore / bend racial lines without planning. I think casting by “who shows up” runs the risk of implicitly favoring the communication networks and social history of people I already know – which may not have the desired result. I think “filmmakers” (meaning you and me) have to commit to the world they want to portray and then make that happen.

    • Christopher February 23, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

      Good points all around, Jim – thanks. You’re absolutely right about advertisements being ahead of the times, regardless of their motive. It’s been great seeing a more diverse representation in commercials, including bi-racial couples/parents.

      When I speak of “Hollywood,” I must do what all cultural writers do: generalize. True, its boundaries are not clearly drawn and people go in and out of Hollywood all the time (Woody Allen?); however, there undoubtedly is a collective of movie makers working within the “Hollywood” system with latent values, beliefs and prejudices.

      And I admit that my solution is not always possible. However, I do believe that quite often casting can be done blindly and the results will often be beneficial, beyond what the creative team imagined. I totally agree that we need to commit to the world we want to portray; however, if that parts of that world are not tightly defined in terms of race, sex, age, etc., then why not think outside the demographic box? And if where it is tightly defined, then why not ask: does this character have to be White? Male? Young? Straight? Etc…

  3. KJ February 23, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Wow! You nailed this, Christopher. Filmmakers have got to step outside of their cozy comfort zone. Hollywood isn’t going to do it. Hollywood will continue to play the token game and ease by paying lip-service to an otherwise deplorable situation. Hollywood makes Exciting Stories Of The White Man movies and black actors are used to provide cred or some half-assed attempt at diversity.

    Check this out. Steve McQueen asks a compelling question and listen to the silence. No one accepts his challenge. A room full of successful white filmmakers hiding behind privilege. Every one of them, a coward.

    • Christopher February 23, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      Whoa, thanks for sharing the video, KJ – I absolutely LOVE that moment of silence, which ironically spoke volumes… Regardless of what the other directors think, it sure was a wasted opportunity to dialogue.

      Always great to hear from you…

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