“They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.”


noah still

Ari Handel, co-screenwriter of the movie “Noah,” on why the cast was all-white:

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.

And then:

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.

Because white people are “stand-ins for all people.” White people are “everyman.” Whereas people of color or a mixed-race cast “calls attention” to race.

He actually said this. In words.

Jesus. Fucking. Christ.

In case you were in any doubt about how whiteness is seen as normal and default, and non-whiteness is seen as other: This.

You know what? If the issue of race “doesn’t matter” and is “irrelevant,” then why not make a mixed-race cast? If it doesn’t matter, then how about not being a racist douchebag?

And the thing that really gets to me — well, a thing that really gets to me — is that they actually thought about this. This wasn’t just generic, unconscious, reflexive racism of thoughtless omission. They actually considered this question carefully — and after this careful consideration, decided to make white people the mythical, iconic stand-ins for all of humanity.

Oh, and for the record: There are, in fact, people who find mixed casts to be, you know, representative of humanity, and who find all-white casts distracting and weird.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    The white people are stand-ins for evil people who get killed in a flood. Besides, everyone (i.e., Ray Comfort, Ken Ham and Kent Hovind) knows that black people didn’t occur until after the flud when Ham’s (Noah’s son, not Ken) descendents were made black for reasons.

  2. NitricAcid says

    Then again, this isn’t supposed to take place in the modern world, after generations of trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific colonization. I don’t believe that there were many places a millennium or two ago that would have had the same ethnic diversity as a small North American city would today.

    That being said, if this is supposed to take place in the Middle East, shouldn’t they look more like Middle easterners than Vikings?

  3. Kevin Kehres says

    Or…alternative hypothesis: Since much of the location filming took place in Iceland, they used the local populace as the extras. Last I looked, not a lot of tan people in Iceland. In fact, they look pretty much like … Vikings.

    And then comes post hoc rationalization.

  4. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    Dollars to donuts that, when he said “You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it” what he meant by putting everything in there was tokenism. Which would draw attention to it. But then that just begs the question of why the solution to that problem is homogeneity and not actual diversity.

    But yeah it’s pretty amazing that someone could actually articulate the idea that they think white people are more representative of all people than, ya know…all people without realizing that they’ve actually, literally just said that, if you’re not white, you’re not a person.

  5. Loqi says

    Wow. Out of all the possible rationalizations, they picked this one? Not the whole curse of Ham thing that’s actually, you know, in the damn book? It’s still racist, but it at least lets them hide behind fidelity to the so-called original. How much more clueless can one be?

    “At first we thought we’d make all the bad guys black for diversity purposes, but our PR guy said that was a bad idea. So we made everyone white instead. I guess our PR guy must be racist or something, not wanting blacks in the movie.”

  6. says

    Throwing multiple races into it might be argued as not making sense- the core events of the myth all took place in one small area. There might be a handful of traders stopping in from distant lands, but I’d expect a largely monoracial cast.

    That said, could they not find a few people who could pass for coming from Mesopotamia? Or at least Southwest Asian? Even South Asia or North Africa? Could they really not find people who look like people from that part of the world? This isn’t some low budget project that has to take what they can get, this is a big budget film- they could scour the entire face of the Earth, and find people, and the money they spend on that they would get back in not having to pay Russel Crow and Emma Watson sized salaries.

  7. A. Noyd says

    In the Even More Blatantly Ridiculous Whitewashing Department: the cast of Gods of Egypt (due out in 2016) is all white except for one black guy. And people had to petition to get them to cast even that one.

    Egypt, for fuck’s sake.

    Here’s an especially ironic pic of one of the white actors, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, in front of an Egyptian painting that shows Horus and someone else with brown skin. (From here.)

    The justification for the whitewashing in Noah is absurd because this is a trend that has gone on forever.

  8. Greta Christina says

    The thing is: The filmmakers have made a pretty big point about how they’re not trying to be true to the original: either to the story as told in the Bible, or to the historical reality of the time and place that the Bible story supposedly took place in. It’s all mythic and and on a different plane and shit. And apparently, the mythical plane only has white people in it.

  9. says

    Kenneth Branagh casts black actors in many Shakespearean roles, and I don’t mean Othello, but in roles where the characters are natives of England, France, or Italy, without calling attention to it. Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves even play brothers in Much Ado About Nothing.

    The right way to not make race a factor is to not make it a factor, and just cast the best actor for each role, though I doubt the character development in Noah is anywhere near as three-dimensional as Shakespeare’s.

  10. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    On the subject of similar whitewashing: Johnny Depp’s costume for the character of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. He’d spoken in an interview about how he planned to challenge stereotypes with the design of his costume. So what does his costume end up being? It’s lifted directly from a Kirby Sattler painting. Kirby Sattler is a white dude who describes his own work basically as riffing on white stereotypes about native Americans. He’s deliberately historically inaccurate and never includes any indication of tribal affiliation for the express purpose of producing a result which doesn’t challenge white preconceptions.

  11. Jenny Fulk says

    Jennifer Connelly’s mother is Jewish and Logan Lerman is 100% Jewish. Surely they can play Old Testament characters.

  12. says

    Jenny, if half-Jewish parentage qualifies an actor to play OT characters, then Rashida Jones, Lisa Bonet, and Lenny Kravitz all qualify. Which makes the next logical step, ANY black actor can play them.

  13. antaresrichard says

    Ham’s curse? What about Cain’s “mark”?

    Anyway, I’m so weary of white in major films. My eyes are brown and not blue. The underlying condescension has, by and large, driven me away from the movie houses.

    -sigh-

  14. Greta Christina says

    Jennifer Connelly’s mother is Jewish and Logan Lerman is 100% Jewish. Surely they can play Old Testament characters.

    Jenny Fulk @ #12: We’re not just talking about a couple of the stars. We’re talking about the entire cast of thousands. Including extras. I would have no problem with some of the actors being white, Jewish or otherwise. My problem is with every. Single. Actor. In. This. Film. being white. And I’m talking about the unbelievably racist bullshit that was given as a rationalization.

  15. The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical says

    NitricAcid:

    Then again, this isn’t supposed to take place in the modern world, after generations of trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific colonization. I don’t believe that there were many places a millennium or two ago that would have had the same ethnic diversity as a small North American city would today.

    This is the “things were just like that back then” explanation–one that seems natural to most anyone with a standard western education–and it’s wrong.

    I’d invite anyone who has that wobbling about in the back of their heads (which is almost all of us, because we’ve grown up with our history distorted by colonialist viewpoints) to peruse People of Color in European Art History. Most of it doesn’t go as far back as this myth, but there’s a tag for pre-1000s and there are some examples from antiquity in there. More importantly, it shows that there has been diversity for a long, long, long time and there are a number of blog posts (mostly in reference to Game of Thrones, but they touch on other fiction as well) that directly tackle the “things were just like that back then” idea.

    The tl;dr version of the many brilliant things that have been said in response to that statement:

    1. No, they weren’t like that. This is actually projecting a relatively modern racist idea onto history.

    2. When dealing with mythology and fantasy, there’s no reason to choose such a restriction to only cast white people except because of the influence of racism.

    When adapting the myth of people who were not northern European, the racism in this choice is all the more apparent.

  16. Ahmad Qadafi says

    Oh dear, have people really used the “Ham myth” as a rationale for why the people look northern European?
    First, the Ham myth had nothing to with race or skin color. Second, it is his son Canaan who is cursed and his punishment is to serve his brothers in their tents not get “black” skin.
    Third, the Noah story has origins in the Mesopotamia and the people there do not look European.
    Fourth, Dark brown skin is a precursor to pale skin. Genetics has pretty much proven that.
    So, if there was in fact a Noah he’d be dark brown. Of course we know that because the OT says God made Adam from the soil of the ground, which is black and brown.
    Finally, focus on what Mr. Handel said. His rationale is so full of fail it is very sad and gives a straight look into how many whites view race. They can’t look past the race of non-whites. Many people like Mr. Handel see non-whites for their race first and everything else second( or third, fourth, fifth, etc.)
    It’s so very sad.

  17. cressida says

    This is so unbelievably depressing. Thanks to Greta for calling it out.

    That said, I was encouraged that I saw outside links to FtB twice today: to this post by Greta from Jezebel, and to Stephanie Z’s post about MRA demographics from our local alt weekly (Seattle’s The Stranger). You all are doing great work, not that you need me to say so.

  18. Greta Christina says

    Logan Lerman is fully Jewish, like I said. Connelly is half. And they look like they could be related.

    Jennifer Salk @ #17: How is that relevant?

  19. Irreverend Bastard says

    This is a movie produced in the West, for a Western audience. Seeing how Jesus is not only usually depicted as a pure-blooded European, but were apparently also speaking King James English perfectly, I don’t see a big problem with this. It’s a silly fantasy based on a silly myth. They’d have to throw in UFO’s to make it any more unrealistic.

    Besides, having non-whites in the drowning “sinners” group would really just bunch the underwear of political correctness in a country obsessed with race and racism. Yes, I’m looking at you, USA.

    I think this is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. Better to use all whites than to be criticized for depicting dark-skinned people as unredeemable sinners condemned by God.

    Noah is a fantastic movie. It pisses off everyone.

  20. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    @ Irreverend Bastard

    Dunning and Kruger called. They want their effect back.

  21. Greta Christina says

    This is a movie produced in the West, for a Western audience.

    Irreverend Bastard @ #21: Do you think all people in the West are white?

    It’s a silly fantasy based on a silly myth.

    Do you think silly fantasies based on silly myths are only about white people, and are only of interest to them? And do you think coming out and saying that only white people can be “stand-ins for all people” doesn’t matter when it’s about a silly fantasy?

    political correctness

    And that’s the place where I stopped listening to you. Complaints about “political correctness” = “I don’t want to have to think about whether my words and actions hurt people and perpetuate bigotry, so I’m going to mock and dismiss the whole idea.” And I’ll warn you now that I have very little patience for them in my blog. Your concerns are noted. Thank you for sharing.

  22. rilian says

    If they wanted all one race, why not all a race that isn’t white? Maybe they think that white isn’t a race and therefore they were leaving race out of the movie. same bullshit happens with male being the lack of sex.

  23. tungl says

    “they actually thought about this. This wasn’t just generic, unconscious, reflexive racism of thoughtless omission. They actually considered this question carefully — and after this careful consideration, decided to make white people the mythical, iconic stand-ins for all of humanity.”

    Or they just made up some vaguely thinky-sounding rationalization about their casting decisions after the fact, to shield themselves from accusations against “generic, unconscious, reflexive racism of thoughtless omission”. Which wouldn’t make anything better, because it still means that at some point they sat down to think about it and all they came up with is this default-white bullshit.

    I read a nice summary of Handel’s reasoning on tumblr : “Hey lets make this middle eastern myth into a movie but I don’t wanna be racist so only hire white people.”

  24. Morgan says

    Late to the party, but:

    Then again, this isn’t supposed to take place in the modern world, after generations of trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific colonization.

    You don’t need trans-oceanic colonization to get a diverse mix of races from across Eurasia and Africa into the Middle East. All the relevant regions are connected by land, which is how all those races separated enough to become distinct in the first place. Others have pointed out that the past was in fact more diverse than many people’s image of it, but I just want to flag how odd this objection actually is.

    Racial casting for Noah could be fraught, sure, given the baggage of the Curse of Ham and where we get the word “Semitic”, but either a) everyone looking roughly Mesopotamian or b) a thoroughly mixed cast on both the pro- and antagonist sides would have been a lot better than “all humanity was primordially and archetypally white”.

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