I don’t want Woody Allen to make films about black people.
Lately, blogs have gone crazy in response to Woody Allen’s latest interview in the New York Observer.
The author, Roger Friedman writes:
“We talk about the new generation of wonderful black authors like Viola Davis and wonder if they’ll ever be cast in a Woody Allen film. He doesn’t hesitate to respond: ‘Not unless I write a story that requires it. You don’t hire people based on race. You hire people based on who is correct for the part. The implication is that I’m deliberately not hiring black actors, which is stupid. I cast only what’s right for the part. Race, friendship means nothing to me except who is right for the part.”
I understand the criticisms levied at Woody Allen. With Manhattan (and other cities which are racially and culturally diverse) as the backdrop for many of his films, it seems preposterous that people of color do not figure more prominently in his work. Furthermore, as Prachi Gupta argues in Salon, Allen’s casting decisions has the “power to make trends in Hollywood.” She asks: “If you are casting an upper middle class family, can’t that family be black? Can’t a movie include an interracial relationship without that being “a thing”?”
Color-blind casting can be effective, as we saw with Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, but it also can be dangerous. As a writer, I pay close attention to the characters I construct. An upper middle class family of Caribbean immigrants who ‘made it in America’ is very different from an upper middle class family of African Americans who have been in the U.S. for generations. And for Woody Allen, a man who re-wrote a Midnight in Paris just so Owen Wilson could play the lead part, it would be preposterous and disastrous for him to write a role where he did not consider the race, gender, socioeconomic class, and the geographic locations.
So I do not want Woody Allen to make films about black people. I don’t think he knows enough to create complicated roles for black people. I trust him to construct a narrative with a critical lens on upper class white people. For years, his films have been my insiders’ view into the world of self-centered, neurotic, overly-privileged people. I enjoy escaping to that world, but do not wish to live in it. Blue Jasmine, for example, was about the demise of a New York housewife who faces financial ruin. The role was well-written and Cate Blanchett offered an Academy Award winning performance. I cannot imagine Woody Allen writing such a complex role about a black woman’s rise and fall from wealth.
Tonight, I introduced my 15 year old brother to parts of The Original Kings of Comedy. Although it is 13 years old, the jokes still held up; we laughed until I had a coughing fit and tears in my eyes. We talked a little bit about Steve Harvey’s bit about music. “It’s so true, what he says!” Michael said, between fits of laughter.
Michael’s statement reminded me that we have always had our own storytellers, in the form of stand up comedians, writers, and filmmakers, and artists. We have observed the nuances of our own culture. We have the power to create stories, to create complicated roles. I am excited to see more from Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, Sanaa Hamri, Issa Rae, Tim Story and other talented filmmakers of color. We ought to lobby for more diverse roles for black actors, and financially support independent films by filmmakers who want to tell our stories.
I will end with playwright August Wilson’s powerful statement on colorblind casting:
“To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigation from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our present, our difficult but honorable history in America; is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.” “We do not need colorblind casting,” he wrote, “we need some theatres to develop our playwrights.”
I don’t want to see anything about black people from Woody Allen. And thankfully, he’s old enough (and knows enough) to stay in his lane.