racechanging makeups

Racechanging makeups

Racechange: ‘the term is meant to suggest the traversing of race boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black or black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality’. (Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, Susan Gubar, 1997)

Hollywood has a fairly abysmal record on the portrayal of transethnic roles: both the characters and the makeups have more than tended to the stereotypical. I don’t see anything wrong in and of itself in an actress playing a character whose ethnic origin is other than her own (anymore than I objected to Rock Hudson playing all those straight roles): but the whole issue is entangled (possibly inseparably) with the issues of how non-whites have been portrayed in films and, for decades, the practical exclusion of non-white actors and actresses from the Hollywood system. Moreover, filmmakers do seem to have treated – and still do – non-WASP ethnicity as pretty interchangeable so that Latinos have frequently played Middle-Eastern roles (eg Maria Montez in Arabian Nights) as have Indian actresses (eg Freida Pinto in Black Gold).

I do get a bit confused at the apparent inconsisency of outrage. I recall no fuss when Jessica Alba (Mexican–French–Danish descent) played a Dayak girl in The Sleeping Dictionary or when Gemma Arterton got browned-up for Prince of Persia; so why the outrage when Angelina Jolie (Czech–American–French–Haudenosaunee descent) played Mariane Pearl?

Not all the actresses here are ‘white’ – besides Halle Berry playing a white character in Cloud Atlas there are examples of Asian actresses playing Latino and Chinese characters. But generally the actresses are portraying an ethnicity which has a darker skin tone than their own. In the event of either Thandiwe Newton or Halle Berry being cast as a Zulu or Masai woman, that character would fit into this section.

One example of the shifting sands of opinion in this controversial area is that, quite possibly, one or more of the white actresses featured here playing a black role might in the past have found themselves open to accusations of passing.