Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you all had an incredible time with family and friends. I’m sure many of us are still in our food-induced comas, so I will do my best to keep this entry short 🙂
I was inspired to write today’s blog entry because of Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s the genius behind the Broadway smashes “In The Heights” and “Hamilton”. He wrote the lyrics and composed the music for both shows. “Hamilton”, which came out this year and is killing it at the box office, will inevitably dominate the 2016 Tony Awards. Make space on your mantle Mr. Miranda!
I found out about “Hamilton” through my good friend, Lindsay Hopper. She is obsessed with the show and she recently played a few songs for me during a class break. While the songs played, she also gave me a quick history of the show from conception to finished product. As the songs played, I immediately became intrigued by the premise of a hip-hop and R&B Broadway musical centered on the life and career of Alexander Hamilton. How the fuck do you make that work?! Who the fuck makes a musical about Alexander Hamilton?! She then told me about the race-blind casting in the show. That fucking blew me away!! How about that for radical?!
Lindsay, flipping out over the brilliance of “Hamilton”, said that she wanted us to do a song from it for scene study class. Not knowing anything about “Hamilton”, I still agreed to work with her. The tracks I heard resonated with me on an exciting, visceral level. Here was something radical and different. So, we are currently on the schedule to perform “That Would Be Enough” in scene study class. I am playing Alexander Hamilton and she is playing my wife, Eliza.
That weekend, I began researching the musical on Wikipedia. Interestingly enough, Lin-Manuel Miranda work-shopped “Hamilton” at my alma mater, Vassar College! I also listened to the soundtrack with lyrics in hand. As each song progressed, I began to realize the insane genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda and I quickly understood how he made Alexander Hamilton’s story work. His complex mastery of words was a beautiful assault on my senses. The intelligence, irony, humor and charm that he infused into the lyrics and music was thrilling. Again, this is a guy who created a HIP HOP MUSICAL ABOUT ALEXANDER HAMILTON AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!
I’m like, “This guy is fucking insane! He reminds me of Quentin Tarantino!” And I absolutely LOVE Quentin Tarantino. Both are masters of language and are wildly creative, ground-breaking, etc.
By the time I got to the last quarter of the soundtrack, I was balling my eyes out.
Oh shit! I promised to keep this entry short and I’m writing “War & Peace” again.
Okay, so today’s entry was inspired by the following explanation that Lin-Manuel Miranda gave regarding his race-blind casting of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Now, I know he’s not the only person who has ever practiced race-blind casting before, but it was great to see his take on it in this new unit of time. And it was great that he had a CONCEPT behind his race-blind casting. From Wikipedia:
“Miranda said that the portrayal of Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other Caucasian historical figures by black and Hispanic actors should not require any substantial suspension of disbelief by audience members. “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional,” he said. “It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” He noted "We’re telling the story of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”
Wow! How fucking cool is that?!
And…I will call myself out. I have been guilty of conceiving and writing things with Caucasian actors in mind. It’s conditioning from my entire life of witnessing and being inundated with media images and castings that favor Caucasian people in film, TV, magazine covers, product endorsements, etc.
So, from here on out, as a writer, I am making a commitment to race-blind writing and race-blind casting. If I want to see change, I need to be the change. With my commitment, I hope to open the door and the (Hollywood) camera aperture even wider to a more exciting and representative display of the human experience.
Now, will there sometimes be an exception to my commitment? Sure. For example:
1) If I create and write a role specifically for someone in mind. Where this particular person has to play the part. Now, if they turn down the offer, then I can say, “Looking for a John Doe type. Race not important.”
2) If the race of the character is integral to the story I’m writing about. For example, I’m currently writing a new provocative series set in NYC that centers around a Dominican/Puerto Rican family. Unfortunately, I’m not going to cast Irish or Asian actors for these roles. And there is one character outside of the family that I have made a specific race because it will create a particular conflict that I’m going for in the story. HOWEVER, I will apply race-blind casting to all the other characters in it. ADDITIONALLY, I am already taking these Latino characters a step further. These Latino characters, like I do with all of my Latino characters, are going to be layered, complex, three-dimensional, flawed, contradictory, forward and modern. I want these characters to continue defying the Latino stereotypes that Hollywood continues to project.
I have a responsibility as a writer to show Latino people in a different, more compelling light. I am so tired of seeing the endless, stereotypical, one-dimensional casting breakdowns for Latino characters: Maids, gang bangers, prisoners, troublemakers, thugs…and all of them with accents. I just saw breakdowns like these last week! That’s not my reality. I am a second-generation Latin American citizen and grew up with many other second-generation Latin American individuals. No one in my family has a “Latino” accent. Rather, they have accents based upon where they live: Brooklyn, Iowa, Florida, Maryland, etc. And many people in my family have careers. NO ONE IN MY FAMILY IS A MAID.
My youngest sister works in the ultrasound and sonogram department in a Manhattan hospital. My eldest brother is a police sergeant. I have a first cousin who works in media and television. I have another first cousin who is a high school math teacher and an accomplished, competitive salsa dancer. Another first cousin who is a private investigator for insurance companies.
And when I look at younger Latino generations–for example, my third-generation nephews, nieces and cousins–they are complex human beings chasing after important things in their lives. My nephew is 21 and went to school for animation. My first cousin–also in his early 20′s–is finishing medical school and taking his final exams in July 2016. My Latino friends are forward thinking, intelligent, driven, passionate, artistic, articulate, career-focused, etc. That’s the reality I know and the reality I want to include and share with others.
I’ve always wanted to defy stereotypes of what Latin people can do. And I’ve always wanted to defy stereotypes of what gay people can do. With the latter, I like to shake up expectations: The person you assume is the top is actually the bottom and the person you assume is the bottom is actually the top (literally and figuratively in many situations, not just sexual.) I like to shake up and challenge the notions of what being a man is and what being gay is. I am fascinated by taking the institution of Latino machismo and turning it upside down.
So, that being said, I am also including race-blind writing and casting into my mix and joining the growing list of people who do so as well.
Bravo to Lin-Manuel Miranda for thinking outside of the box and having a concept to back it up with. And bravo to the many others who do the same thing. More and more TV shows and films are having casts that reflect contemporary society. But we need more. Till it becomes the norm.
I’m about to start a third draft of my James Franco screenplay and I’m going to remove all mentions of race from the character breakdowns.
Will there be challenges to my commitment to race-blind casting? Yes, of course. I’m sure the same ones that others experience. Factors like the economics of casting; reaching and appealing to the largest audience possible; appealing to advertisers and sponsors; the story that is being told; etc. I’ll never forget a TV producer telling me to include as many Caucasian characters in my script as possible because it’ll make it more marketable and it’ll appeal to the largest audience possible. I said, “‘Largest audience possible’ as in a white audience?” And he said to me with a straight face, “Yes.”
What do you guys think about race-blind casting? What are your exceptions, if any, to race-blind casting?