Black villains and stereotypes

In a comment on my post about the TV series Les Misérables and colorblind casting, commenter Raging Bee made two points that are worth further discussion.

The first point is one of terminology:

First, how can casting be “color-blind?” Are people really pretending they don’t, or can’t, see the visible characteristics of the actors they hire? Whatever they’re trying to say, that’s a terrible and stupid-sounding word to use.

Of course, casting directors see the color of the actors. Choosing people for roles without seeing them cannot be done for actors the way that it can be done for (say) music auditions. ‘Color-blind’ in this context simply means that they do not rule out an actor for a part because of that person’s color. Silentbob suggested that the term ‘color conscious’ better represents the process that they describe as ‘deliberately inclusive casting’. But I do not know about that either since it seems to suggest that filmmakers actively sought out people of color for roles in order to be inclusive. There is no evidence that they did that.

What I would like to see is, as I said, for actors to be chosen for what they bring to the characters they are playing. This raises Raging Bee’s second point about the role of inspector Javert.

[H]aving a Black man portray the rigid, relentless, petty, evil Javert, against the wise, good-hearted, self-redeeming White hero, doesn’t seem to me the best optics.

There was a time when people of color played somewhat stereotypical roles, with Black people playing servants and members of the working class, Middle Easterners playing terrorists, Asians as shopkeepers, and so on while the members of the western bourgeoisie were almost exclusively white. That has changed. I posted about the evolution of the long-running British TV series Midsomer Murders that began in 1998 and still continues.

It was observed in 2011 that there was almost a total absence of people of color in the shows. When the show’s producer Brian True-May was asked about it, he replied that he did it deliberately because he wanted to show the villages as the ‘bastion of Englishness’ and that that was a major part of the show’s appeal. When asked if he meant the show should exclude ethnic minorities, he replied, “Well, it should do, and maybe I’m not politically correct.” Needless to say, this did not go down well and he was suspended, then apologized, then re-instated, but later left the show for good.

Starting in 2012, actors of color started showing up on the show and as time went on the numbers increased markedly. In fact, I noticed that in the latest season just ended some shows had almost every couple be of mixed ethnicity. It does not seem to have affected the series’s popularity as far as I can tell.

But there was another thing that I noticed and that is that after people of color started appearing, for the longest time, the murderer was never one of them. In fact, as a viewer pf police procedurals who likes to figure out who the murderer is, I would immediately rule out all persons of color as culprits, however suspiciously they behaved. I felt that the producers would be sensitive to the charge that once they introduced people of color, they then made them the villains. It was only much later that the first murderer of color was introduced, breaking new ground and providing a much wider variety of roles for those actors.

I felt that was progress. Ruling out some roles because of an actor’s color deprives them of a range of acting possibilities. Furthermore, quite often the role of a villain is a very meaty part, a role that an actor would love to play.

In the case of Les Misérables, the role of Javert is a very rich one, on a par with that of Jean Valjean. Javert is not evil, he is just rigid in his belief that people are either good or evil without any possibility of growth and that causes him to act in an intolerant way, refusing to see the good deeds of someone he thinks of as evil and anything but a subterfuge. The behavior of Valjean is inexplicable to him because he thinks him to be evil yet Valjean keeps doing selfless things with no apparent evil motive. Javert struggles to understand this affront to his belief structure and in the end does evolve in his thinking and experiences a form of conversion. Any actor would love to play the complexity exhibited by Javert and David Oyelowo does an excellent job. To have ruled him out because of his color would have been to do him a disservice.

Way back in 2005, I wrote about how constrained fine Black actors like Ossie David and Sidney Poitier must have felt to work at a time when Black characters had to be portrayed in a positive light to overcome negative stereotypes. As Davis said when he accepted the Kennedy Center awards:

“We knew that every time we got a job and every time we were on a stage, America was looking to make judgments about all black folks on the basis on how you looked, how you sounded, how you carried yourself. So, any role you had was a role that was involved in the struggle for black identification. You couldn’t escape it.”

As I wrote then:

I wonder how much Davis and Poitier regret that, even at the height of their powers, they were not able to expand their skills and improve their craft by playing unflattering, evil, sinister, or criminal characters, the way white actors like Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro do. Perhaps they take comfort in knowing that their sacrifices enabled later generations of black actors to do so.

Those negative stereotypes have not gone completely away but they have diminished to the extent that having a Black actor play a villain is no longer seen as a betrayal of the Black community. Oyelowo is a beneficiary of the new way of seeing this. Having him being chosen to play Javert and him accepting the role I see as progress, rather than regress.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    /cough/ Kang /cough.

    Famously Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave Star Trek after the first season, but was persuaded to stay on because she was a role model to Black people, and Black women in particular. I think it was Whoopi Goldberg, later of that parish, who as a child saw Ms. Nichols on the show and ran to her mother shouting “there’s a black lady on the TV and she ain’t no maid!”.

  2. says

    Back in the mid ’90s when I was between editor gigs, I decided to take a year off and write an apprentice novel. “Cold Silence,” a thriller set in Cleveland, Ohio, dealt with child abduction, multiple personality disorder, power, pedophilia, murder and revenge. As I wrote the story I came to make all the major characters, including my villains, Jewish. I did so, I believe, because I was not yet ready for the race/class/gender/&c. minefield that a writer must cross when choosing who the characters are.

    I’ve gotten better and my current project (an American Reconstruction tale set in post-civil war Charleston, South Carolina) has plenty of mines in the field.

    In the early days I went to one of my mentors, a Black poet and performance artist, to get his views. As I explained the project he stopped me and said that I was looking at the challenge in the wrong way. He said that Black people are people first. They are as good, bad, exciting or boring as anyone else. Pay attention to their experiences and motivations and let them be how those influences have shaped them. Just make sure the story is good.

    That was all good advice, but I still struggle. Struggle, however is how we create story and art.

  3. says

    I wonder if “color-indifference” or “race-indifference” might be what you are looking for. If the race of the character does not matter to the story, they should be indifferent to the race of the actor.

    (That is said with the caveat that one should be cognizant that such “indifference” does not always “accidentally” lead to a stereotype).

  4. Silentbob says

    To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the term “colorblind” and I understand what it is meant to convey -- that the “color” of an actor need not be a consideration in casting a role.

    What I was getting at was that I think the term is misleading in the sense that it suggests we have gone from caring about color, to not caring about color, whereas I think it’s the opposite. I know Mano doesn’t like Marvel movies, but I do so I’ll use that as my point of reference. 🙂

    When I was growing up -- a comics reading nerd -- all the characters were white. Unless it was part of their character not to be. Like Black Panther was black -- but that’s because he’s an African prince -- Black is right there in his name. Shang-Chi was Asian but that’s because he’s the master of kung-fu -- Asian-ness is part of his character. There wasn’t anyone who was incidentally a person a color. The default was always white.

    Including the Eternals. Here a contrast of the comic Eternals, and the cast of the recent Marvel movie based on the comics:

    In the comics, they’re all white. Here’s how one source described the movie cast:

    The diversity of the movie gives a chance for many generations to be inspired and proud of who they are with the characters that show up on screen. The actors that were representing diversity were Salma Hayek who is a Mexican-American actress, Gemma Chan who is identified as British Asian, Kumail Nanjiani who is Pakistani-American, and South Korean American actor Don Lee. The actors who makes an impact in some ways with their diversity were Lauren Ridloff who is a deaf Mexican-American that shines representation for deafness in the movie, and Brian Tyree Henry who is a black american actor that played as Marvel’s first gay character. Salma Hayek cried when she put her costume on for the movie, “The image of it did something to me and I said, ‘Why?’. I saw my brown face. I saw my brown face in a superhero suit. And in seeing my face, I saw your face. I saw my face as a little girl, who had to have a lot of courage to dream big. I saw the faces of all the little girls and I realized that a door had opened where I didn’t enter alone -- but inside that suit were all the Latinos who waited so long for this moment.” This inspires and makes many people proud when they are watching this movie through the diversity shown.

    Now the Eternals are a mix of Asian, Black, Indigenous, Gay, disabled -- and I like it much better! It’s more interesting. I want a diverse cast.

    So did I go from a racist kid who insisted everyone be white, to a colorblind person? No, the exact opposite. I went from a white kid in a white world who never even noticed all the characters were to white, to an adult who consciously wants to see far more diversity.

    That’s what I mean when I say “colorblind” is inaccurate. White people didn’t dominate because of explicit acts of racism (necessarily), but because in a society where white people get all the breaks, all the casting department are white, and all the actors with good CVs are white -- white people keep landing the roles because bias is built into the system.

    The way the industry is addressing that is not to be “colorblind” -- it’s to consciously say, “Let’s have more people of color in our cast, and gay people, and disabled people, and other minorities, because all those people deserve representation too”.

  5. Mano Singham says

    ahcuah @#4 and Silentbob @#5,

    I like ahcuah’s ‘color-indifferent’ because it captures the sense that I was seeking in this particular context.

    What Silentbob describes is what they said earlier in response to another post as ‘color-inclusive’ casting, where there is a deliberate attempt to diversify.

    Each has its place and serves a different need.

  6. kyuss says

    Lol. Raging bee and fools of the same ilk concern themselves with nothing BUT ‘optics’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *