Lights, Camera, Race: Racial Inequality in Hollywood Castings

by Waleska Suero

When The-Girl-Everyone-Can’t-Stop-Talking-About, Rooney Mara, was cast as Tiger Lily in the upcoming film, Pan, once again people couldn’t stop talking about her; only this time, talks turned sour. The casting decision sparked outrage all over the Internet, resulting in an online petition with over 7,000 signatures asking Warner Bros. to “stop casting white actors to play characters originally written as people of color!” and the hashtag “#NotYourTigerLily” trending on Twitter.

In the magical place of Neverland, Tiger Lily is the Native American princess who is a loyal friend of Peter Pan. It is her close friendship with Peter Pan that drives the evil Captain Hook to capture her in an effort to learn the whereabouts of Peter Pan. Therefore, critics wonder, why is Mara, who is white, starring as Tiger Lily in the 2015 remake of the classic?

It is not uncommon for Hollywood casting notices (or “breakdowns”) to include specific racial or ethnic demands that reflect writers’ and producers’ wishes for the personification of a particular role. Typically, breakdowns reserve leading roles for white actors, leaving only a small number of remaining roles for actors of color.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination “because of [an] individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (2012). While Title VII makes an exception for a “bona fide occupation qualification” if an employer can show that the classification is “reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business or enterprise,” the exception never applies to race or color. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(e). This is because race and color ought not to impact the operation of a business. What, then, is happening in Hollywood?

In 2006, a study of Hollywood breakdowns from June 1st to August 31st of that year revealed that only 0.5% to 8.1% of roles were available for actors of color, compared to 69% of roles “reserved” for white actors. Moreover, only 8.5% of roles did not designate race or ethnicity, pitting white actors against actors of color. These figures reveal an alarming disparity in equal employment opportunity that is unique to the film industry. Hollywood, it seems, defies Title VII in that not everyone can compete for the same available job.

Hollywood breakdowns also perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes. In 2011, casting notices from the HBO hit show Girls appeared outright racist: for example, seeking a “sexy” Salvadoran babysitter and an “overweight” African American one with a “good sense of humor.”    

Petitioners and other critics have ample reason to be furious about the Warner Bros. casting decision, including the stereotyping of racial and ethnic roles and the denial of equal employment opportunity to actors of color. Supporters of race-based breakdowns assert First Amendment (free speech protection) and market (increased box office revenues) defenses that make it increasingly difficult for claimants to bring Title VII suits.

Although people never age in Hollywood, it is a far less magical place than Neverland.

One thought on “Lights, Camera, Race: Racial Inequality in Hollywood Castings

  1. Pingback: P is for #PoliceLivesMatter and The Problem with Slogans | #AIsForAmplify

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