Later this year, a new TV remake of the 80s cult classic “Heathers” is set to be released. The show includes a black lesbian and a genderqueer character playing two of the “Heathers”: respective leaders of the most popular clique in school and frequent tormentors of the “less cool” students.
This is an example of color-conscious casting; casting minorities into roles formerly played by white or cisgender actors.
In the case of the “Heathers” TV show, there are complications to this method of casting, namely that these new “Heathers” characters, being minorities by casting and bullies by plot function, disrupt the very purpose of color-conscious casting, which is to expand racial awareness on screen rather than throw “diversity” at the production.
“The danger of creating one hard-and-fast rule is that it diminishes the conversation,” Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes states.
“And, yes, it’s absolutely OK to say this role calls for a specific actor, and if you’re telling me you can’t find that actor, you’re not equipped to do the play.”
Needless to say, though, there are some concrete pros and cons of productions using color-conscious casting. There have been a lot of TV shows to demonstrate color-conscious casting in the past few years, but the most famous and successful example is probably the non-whites casting call for “Hamilton”.
In “Hamilton,” the parallel between immigrant’s rights during the founding of the U.S. and immigrant and minority rights today is what makes the choice to cast only racial minorities so powerful.
Since the audience knows Alexander Hamilton was historically white, seeing him cast otherwise is so deliberate that the casting speaks for itself.
The concern of writers and show-runners about color-conscious casting is that it will erase the history of the character as a member of a marginalized community.
That is, the change of a character’s race or gender identity can radically change the character’s past in a way that’s frequently ignored in color-conscious productions.
Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a TV adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood, chose to cast two black characters in leading roles. The story, which takes place in the near future dystopian society Gilead, is radically conservative and enslaves fertile women, yet the complexity of living as a person of color in this society has yet to be explored in the story.
“Colorblind casting doesn’t have to mean colorblind storytelling. What does Gilead — and its founding — mean for people who don’t resemble the majority of the ruling class?” Bethonie Butler argues.
The story is a shocking and revealing reflection of some of the most prominent social problems of society, so the absence of racial dialogue within the show feels like a gap in the logic of the fictional world.
Which is not to say that “The Handmaid’s Tale” lacks the potential to incorporate this dialogue. Now that the story has been retold with several main characters who are people of color, there’s an opportunity to give those characters space in the upcoming season to address how race has impacted their transition into living in the state of Gilead.
Color-conscious casting would be effective in the “The Handmaid’s Tale,” if only the production had allowed their casting choices to inform the characters’ development.
Another recent book to TV adaptation which embraced color-conscious casting is Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” where two central characters have been cast with black actors.
Although the show does not address race at all, the choice is natural in the fictional setting, where absurdity reigns supreme and logic is upended at every turn.
The inclusion of people of color fits seamlessly in the show and makes the world just a little more real and grounded, without their race needing to be justified or addressed.
Casting people of color and queer people into white cisgender roles can’t change Hollywood’s history of erasure and mockery. It does not serve as a substitute for rich stories from marginalized communities, but it can breathe some contemporary life into adaptations of older, creakier literary gems. Why can’t Hollywood let these characters’ racial identity take a more central role?