Tomorrow, Disney+ subscribers will tune in to watch the movie version of the Broadway musical Hamilton — a June 2016 performance of the celebrated cast of almost entirely minority actors playing, as far as I can recall, entirely white historical figures.
As many articles have noted over the years, many white actors have played characters that were of different ethnic groups in the source material — sometimes in performances that became iconic, like Italian Al Pacino playing Cuban Tony Montana or Ben Kingsley as Ghandi, and sometimes in examples of awful miscasting, like Johnny Depp as Tonto or John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. (“We’re gonna take over all of Asia there, pilgrim.”)
No one complains that the white historical figures are somehow poorly served by the performers in Hamilton — not out of some sort of sense that the cast balances out past historical injustices in casting, but because they’re good performances.
Imagine how many good performances we would have missed if casting directors believed that actors had to match the ethnicity of their characters precisely. In any historical drama, the actors will be older, younger, taller, shorter, fatter, skinner, or somehow different from the characters they play. All acting is an exercise in pretending to be someone that you aren’t. The late Leonard Nimoy was not an actual Vulcan.
Can a film or television show or play miscast a role, putting in an actor who simply isn’t plausible or compelling or entertaining, because they are of a different race? Absolutely. A film trailer announcer declaring “Tom Hanks is . . . Malcolm X” is probably not going to work. The diminutive and hilarious Kevin Hart would probably not make a great Abraham Lincoln in a drama.
But it’s not hard to picture actors of different races offering terrific and surprising performances. Imagine James Earl Jones playing Winston Churchill. Casting directors need the freedom to cast a wide net and look for the best performance they can find — unafraid of stirring up angry social-media mobs.