When race matters on the screen and stage

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-08-08 07:25:37

In recent decades, racially blind casting has been employed to send a political message or simply to jolt audiences out of complacency. In the 1997 TV version of the musical Cinderella, the prince was played by an Asian with a white father and a black mother. In the 2006 Chinese film Battle of Wits, a black actor makes an appearance in the China of 2,000 years ago.

African-Americans have been waging a long and gradually successful campaign in Hollywood for more opportunities in good roles. Asian-Americans have fared much worse. Ultimately it is the specific names, not necessarily their races, that determine the market scope of a film.

If you put Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman in the three principal roles, it will be accepted as a heavyweight global film; if you cast three unknown black actors instead, it would be perceived as a film that serves only the black community.

Political correctness will not change Hollywood's casting department, but those folks listen to the market.

When a film targets the US alone, there is little chance Asians will be given the lead. But when a movie makes half of its box office from Asian countries, it will bend to the forces of the market.

That's why more and more Chinese stars are making cameo appearances in big Hollywood pictures. Some of them may be elevated to meatier roles down the road.

And just as Hollywood favors certain Asian actors, Chinese audiences have also shown their own tastes in foreign stars that may not correspond to their status in their own countries. That's something Hollywood may need to scrutinize pretty soon.

And the equation may even be reversed when hinterland China becomes the tail that wags the dog of the world film business. For one thing, Chinese have shown a preference for movies with characters who look like them.

Hollywood needs a little push, but eventually it's the sound of the cash register that changes things.

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