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More Than Skin Deep

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More Than Skin Deep

A plea to let actors act, and let racial and cultural lines continue to blur July 23, 2021
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

In a recent podcast appearance, Sean Penn lamented cultural trends in Hollywood, referencing his 2008 film Milk, where he played the late San Francisco supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk. “Today, almost certainly, I would not be permitted to be cast in that role,” Penn said. “We’re living in a time where if you’re playing a gay lead character, you would have to be a gay man. And there have been these casting issues.”

He conceded that certain groups have had fewer opportunities to play major roles in Hollywood, but he worried that “in this pendulum-swinging society that we’re in, you wonder at some point if only Danish princes can play Hamlet. It is, I believe, too restrictive. People are looking for ‘gotcha’ moments and to criticize.”

It would be a shame if Penn is right that Hollywood studios wouldn’t allow someone like him to play Milk today. I recall watching the film as a college student and being moved by its themes of empowerment and the importance of being unashamed of who you are. I was not gay, let alone gay in the relatively repressive 1970s, but I didn’t need to be. The message that Penn imparted through his role as Milk crossed social and cultural lines.

Over the past few decades, America’s melting pot appeared to be dissolving those lines, as cultures mixed freely, and we learned to embrace and share one another’s experiences. But the Great Awokening—the rapid re-ordering of social values that has been promoted by America’s elite progressive class—threatens to resurrect them.

We witnessed this last year, when white voice actors decided to quit their long-time roles playing minority characters in prominent animated shows. Jenny Slate, a comedian who ended her role playing the biracial kid Missy on the show Big Mouth, was resolute: “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.”

This is absurd. One of my favorite cartoons as a kid was Rugrats. The protagonist, a baby boy named Tommy Pickles, was voiced by E. G. Daily, an adult woman. She did a great job giving voice to young Tommy. Sure, she wasn’t actually a “male person playing a male character,” to borrow Slate’s construct, but she also wasn’t actually an ingenious baby.

An actor’s job is to act. That’s what separates fiction from documentaries. Everyone is playing a role. The reason actors like Penn can do their jobs so capably is that human beings have boundless imagination; our skin color no more limits our ability to lend voice to a character than the fact that Anthony Hopkins wasn’t actually a serial killer when he played Hannibal Lecter.

But the Lecter example is too easily dismissed because the current cultural zeitgeist is above all about “race,” the social category that has long tormented American society (though, as Penn points out, sexuality is sometimes an issue, too). It’s unlikely that we would have seen an armada of voice actors step down from their positions last year because they didn’t share the same age or social class as the characters they voiced. No one was outraged that multimillionaire Hollywood elite Frances McDormand played a homeless woman in Nomadland. Wokeness’s hemming in of human imagination is centered on skin color.

Here’s a recent example from the New York publishing world. Justin Lee, an associate editor at the online publication Arc Digital, noted that a friend of his, of minority background, was told by his agent that New York “won’t touch his novel—a gritty, urban coming-of-age story informed by personal experience—unless he rewrites the protagonist to match his own ethnicity.”

If this segregation of the human mind were happening in another country, we would refer to it by its proper name: sectarianism. As someone born to Pakistani immigrants, I appreciate this country’s relatively low level of sectarianism. Yes, America had many flaws, and discrimination continues in the present day. But within these borders, I know that I am fairly free to be who I want to be, at least compared with many other societies. I’m lucky to live in a country where my ancestral roots don’t define everything about me, the way they would in much of Pakistan. America is a great place.

Perhaps those who want America to return to the days when the color of your skin dictated your culture, outlook, and even the stories you can imagine could learn something from Pakistan. In 1998, the film Jinnah chronicled the life of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The movie won praise from Pakistanis, who beamed with pride that their founder was finally being portrayed in a big-budget production.

I remember watching the movie here in the United States on video cassette. I enjoyed it, though perhaps I’m being a bad Pakistani to admit that I found Gandhi, which portrayed Jinnah’s Indian friend and ally in the struggle for independence, more compelling.

You might be wondering what Pakistani actor was responsible for portraying the country’s most revered figure. It was no Pakistani, but Christopher Lee, who had also starred in The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and a James Bond film. Not only did the film’s producers, who were mostly Pakistanis, pick a white man to portray Jinnah; they picked a white man from the United Kingdom—you know, the country that colonized Pakistan for several centuries and subjected its people to all sorts of torment.

No, Lee was not a Pakistani man. He didn’t know exactly what it was like to be in Jinnah’s shoes. But I am a Pakistani man, and I don’t know, either. Both Lee and I would have to do what every actor does: utilize the power of human imagination. And Lee did so wonderfully.

Lee’s ethnic and national origin didn’t bother Pakistanis. (The only controversy was that Lee had famously portrayed Dracula, and Pakistanis are generally culturally conservative.) Bina Shah, one of the Pakistani writers who worked on the film, was amazed at how well Lee had captured Jinnah’s physique.

“It spoke to his versatility as an actor and his talent,” she said. “When he got into costume, he put on the famous Jinnah cap—he was Jinnah. There was no question. . . . He came to life for us, it was superb.”

Years later, Lee was asked about his favorite role. “That’s easy for me,” he replied. “The most important film I made, in terms of its subject and the great responsibility I had as an actor was a film I did about the founder of Pakistan, called Jinnah. It had the best reviews I’ve ever had in my entire career—as a film and as a performance.”

If Pakistanis can allow a British man to portray the founder of their country, Americans shouldn’t expect voice actors to match the skin tone of cartoon characters. We should let actors act and let social and cultural lines continue to blur. As Christopher Lee showed, the essence of people is in their minds, not their melanin.

Actor Christopher Lee (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

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