When a white actor plays a non-white character in a present politically charged atmosphere with movements such as Black Lives Matter, the public is made conscious of the actor’s race more than ever before. Not surprisingly the social media was not receptive to the idea of DiCaprio playing the 13th century mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi for a biopic still in the birthing stage.
The portrayal of some of the black men by white actors in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1916) conforms to stereotypes associated with black men in general. Contrarily, the complex portrayal of Othello by Orson Welles in the 1952 film that was produced and directed by him was profoundly moving. Being an original actor, Welles can make you feel with the character like few others can do.
As a prominent black actor and civil rights campaigner, Paul Robeson endowed a certain pride and dignity to the character of Othello that would’ve pleased Shakespeare himself. There is however no historical reason to believe that Shakespeare did not envision a white actor, such as Orson Welles, playing Othello. Not only is Shakespeare, in a manner of speaking, a “white” man, but also, in his day, the boy-actors played the roles of women and so much of the language in the plays is interspersed with puns on gender and sexuality.
I am not opposed to finding non-white actors for the roles of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz rather than white Hollywood actors. My argument is with the rationale behind the proposition that non-white roles should be given to non-whites only. This is a flawed political argument because it is searching for the same day-to-day “reality” with its countless prejudices to be mirrored on the screen. A spectator to a movie is not looking for the world as it is in reality. The spectator is there to view a performance which attempts to be as real as possible. The goal of the performance is entertainment and not reality.
If it is for a glimpse of reality that one goes to the movies, why bother at all! Reality is what our quotidian lives are about unless you think that there are many realities and what we aspire to witness on the screen is of a different kind from the one we are used to. This brings us back to the central point, which is that art does not exist in the service of discovering life but of inventing it. Oscar Wilde is never tired of pointing out that, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”
The world of art and entertainment is not about life in the simplistic usage of the term. Artists reconfigure the materials supplied by the world to provide an alternative framework to look at people. That is something even a mediocre artist would do. There is no compelling reason why a black man from Little Rock, Arkansas, should not play Gandhi. Likewise, there is no divine sanction against a South African white playing Malcolm X. Performance is the measure and not politics, at least not in the narrow sense of the term.
In Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, in a sardonically humorous scene, the Manager tells the Father, who happens to be one of the “characters,” that, “the characters don’t act. Here the actors do the acting.” It is hard not to be sympathetic to the Father to whom life has happened. The Father, however, is not an actor. It is only an actor who could do justice to the role of the Father, however unfair that may sound to the person who has experienced life as a father. The Manager will add to the distress of the Father when he says: “Your soul or whatever you like to call it takes shape here. The actors give body and form to it, voice and gesture. And my actors—I may tell you—have given expression to much more lofty material than this little drama of yours, which may or may not hold up on the stage. But if it does, the merit of it, believe me, will be due to my actors.” The spectator is bound to identify with the performer playing the role of the Father, who responds by saying, “I don’t dare contradict you, sir; but, believe me, it is a terrible suffering for us who are as we are, with these bodies of ours, these features to see.”
Pirandello’s play accomplishes the point it sets out to make that the world of art is an autonomous one and reality or the real world stands sadly isolated watching itself being dramatized by someone who is able to perform the experience better than the one to whom things have happened. Everyone who has been to prison is not endowed with the gift of performing the boredom and loneliness of prison life.
Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are the work of a political genius. But a biopic on Gramsci would have to be played by someone other than Gramsci himself. To extend the point, the “real” Gandhi, not unlike the Father in Pirandello’s play, would be gravely ill-suited to play his own self. Only Ben Kingsley, having internalized the body language and gestures peculiar to the historical figure, could do justice to the character of Gandhi.
This does not mean political questions cannot be posed. The politics surrounding the movie industry which is controlled by big business is ultimately about wealth and power. In order to create a more inclusive order, talented men and women from marginal groups ought to be given an opportunity to make a mark. That is a different kind of politics which is connected to questions related to social and economic justice. It should not be confused with politics in a work of art as in a film which is about how social relations operate as power relations.
The politics is a dangerously flawed one if we have to look for an Afghan actor to play Rumi simply because that’s where the great poet comes from. The more we try to look for reality in the outside world and try to reproduce it on screen, the more the injustice we do to the reality itself. Art will not reproduce reality but recreate it through the eyes of its creator. Reality as reality is elusive as a game of dice played in the dark. The moves that are made are unforeseeable which makes the outcome of the game improbable.
If D. W. Griffith’s portrayal of black men in The Birth of a Nation is a flawed one despite the film being extraordinary in terms of the techniques it employs, it is because he allows the narrow racial divisions of the real world to contaminate his vision as a film maker. That’s not how Luis Bunuel portrays race relations in his 1960 movie La Joven (The Young One). Bunuel shows both the black and white characters as ordinary people caught in their private struggles with human effort ultimately prevailing over the racial divisions. That’s what art and artists do, which is to show how individuals transcend the situations, they are born into. If DiCaprio or any actor irrespective of race is able to bring out the poetry and madness of the lover in Rumi, it is something I genuinely look forward to watching.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.