Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Akira, Shakespeare, Whitewashing, and Racebending

The triannual threat from Hollywood to make a live-action Akira movie has once again reared its ugly head. In years past, it's always been made very clear that they intend to make an "American" version with an entirely white cast. This is, of course, horrible. Akira is a deeply Japanese manga. The culture described is based very firmly in Japanese youth culture of the era in which it was written. The plot is a reflection of cultural memory of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Translating it into American culture is deeply problematic and difficult, and that's even assuming anyone involved gives even the slightest shit about doing any more than saying "It's set in Manhattan now, and everyone's white." Which is what's going to happen if this abomination ever gets made (it won't.)

But one of the arguments I see people make in favor of that treatment (and, horrifically, they exist) is that cultures all over the world get to do their own version of Shakespeare! That's something that's ours, as white people, dammit, why do they get to do it?

Oh my goodness, what an argument. Let's put aside the issue of cultural appropriation and its intrinsic ties to power differentials and colonialism- that colonialism impresses its own culture on other people's by choice and then steals from them by force and hegemonic pressure. I mean, that's a really big elephant to put aside, but I'm not the best at discussing that and it's not a topic people who would be making the Shakespeare argument would even believe in anyway.

I am, however, pretty good at discussing history, and motherfucker you just put Shakespeare and race in the same discussion so yes, let's discuss that.

There's two Shakespearean plays where a person of color is a prominent, even titular, protagonist: Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello. Of the two, Othello is the more interesting and is widely celebrated as one of his best tragedies. The 1965 film version is the single most critically rewarded film adaptation of a Shakespearean play. It's survived largely unchanged for over 400 years.

In it, Othello is a Moorish captain in Venice, in love with an Italian woman, while forces conspire to keep them apart, succeeding in tragic fashion (spoiler alert). Themes of racial and cultural divides are central to the story. Othello's actual racial identity is much debated, as the Moors were a very cosmopolitan people in Elizabethean times. Some contend he was of Arabic descent, others say he was of sub-Saharan descent- in any case he was certainly a person of color.

It probably goes without saying that Shakespeare did not actually cast a Moor as Othello. His players were 100% white English dudes, including the women (basically, they were Monty Python.) There's some debate as to whether Shakespeare had ever even met a Moor. So, naturally it was played in blackface. In fact, an actor of color did not play Othello until 1826- 261 years after it was written. Richard Burbage took the stage to play the Moor in London and his presence was about as well received as you can imagine:
Unsurprisingly given the times, there was considerable resistance to the presence of the world's first black Othello. Eighteenth century London was the epicentre of Britain's pro-slavery lobby, and the press conducted a campaign of blatant racism against him. In one of his two Othello performances at the Covent Garden theatre in 1833, The Atheneum objected to actress Ellen Tree as Desdemona, being "pawed about on the stage by a black man." The Times newspaper had been just as scathing eight years prior, when it commented that, "Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English."
Of course, this was England, where racial issues were certainly present, but not quite a fraught as in America.  In fact, in America, a racially correct Othello wasn't seen until 100 years later in 1943, when Paul Robeson played the character.

And then, we come to Hollywood. You'd think, okay, the first black film actor to play Othello couldn't have come too long after the first American stage actor. Oh, gosh, you would think huh?

1995. Laurence Fishburne. That wildly celebrated 1965 version I mentioned earlier? Sir Lawrence Olivier in blackface. In Nineteen. Sixty. Goddamn. Five. That's only 50 years ago and he was nominated for an Oscar for his blackface.

So yeah. Let's goddamn bring Shakespeare into the race conversation, because it's not really helping the "WOO WHITE PEOPLE" side over here.

In more positive news, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is being adapted for TV by Bryan Fuller (creator of Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal). Production is starting as soon as they cast the protagonist- Shadow.

Like Othello, Shadow is described as having dark skin- certainly a person of color. He is however, left very racially ambiguous. Many people assume he's black, other people picture a more Hispanic character- I feel like he probably looks racially ambiguous, owing to the themes of America's role in taking the cultures and gods of immigrants and stripping them away into nothingness, forcing them to leave behind their identity.

At any rate, Fuller had this to say about casting him:
I think if we cast a white man to play Shadow we would be the biggest assholes on television...
One of the things I’m most excited about for American Gods is the diversity in the cast because there’s such a wide range of ethnic Gods in the world. Right now, we’re imagining two white roles and everybody else is non-white, so my goal, Michael’s goal, certainly Neil’s goal has been to have a very ethnically diverse cast. That’s important to all of us.
Right. On.

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