The hero with a brown face.


In my last conversation with my agent, Sam, he brought up a topic that may be important in the near future: selling the film rights to my novel The Girl in the Road. He asked if I had strong feelings about that. I said I did, but on only one aspect: race-appropriate casting.

One of my greatest ambitions for the novel is to redefine Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces—the default human—as a brown woman. (It’s also to shift the central narrative of 21st-century world literature to the Eastern Hemisphere, but I’m getting ahead of myself.). There are no white people in my novel. Meena is Malayalee. Mariama is Haratin. Francis is Amhara. Mohini is Tamil. Yemaya is Wolof (though why she has a Yoruba deity’s name is another story). So in selling film rights, all I would ask is that characters with South Asian backgrounds be cast with actors of South Asian descent who have brown skin, and characters with African backgrounds be cast with actors of African descent who have brown skin. Not rocket science, right?

And yet.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s foundational Earthsea series was whitewashed by the SciFi channel. Argo‘s main character, Tony Mendez, was played by Ben Affleck. Nina Simone will be played by Zoe Saldana in an upcoming biopic. M. Night Shyamalan cast four white actors as the four brown characters in The Last Airbender. TheaterWorks in Hartford cast white men as Puerto Ricans in The Motherfucker with the Hat. A movie set at my college, Mona Lisa Smile, sent out a now-notorious casting call coded for white women, protesting that they merely wanted to “reflect the time period,” ignoring the fact that there were women of color on campus in 1953. There weren’t many. But erasing them from the film was tantamount to erasing their existence. It hurt my classmates; it hurt all of us.

Whitewashing hurts people of color for reasons that should be obvious. Representation is power. The vast majority of the human population is brown, and whites are a small minority; their overrepresentation in art and media, especially in heroic roles, reinforces a collective perception that lighter skin signals a more valuable human. That sounds theoretical, but it hurts people I love on a daily basis. Including me. Whitewashing hurts white people for the exact same reasons: it subtly reinforces our sense of privilege, which we then have to work that much harder to dismantle in ourselves. It’s one more barrier to love.

I will not sell the film rights to my book without these stipulations. I’m sympathetic to every other concession needed to adapt a novel to film, but I will not make concessions to racism. Sam and my editor Zack at Crown/Random House both support me on this, even knowing it’ll make the film rights much harder to sell. I’m thankful for them. I’m thankful for other movements, like Racebending and Colorlines. I honestly don’t know how production studios can afford to continue to be racist when the world is shifting as it is; but for now, I don’t know how the world will change other than if people take a stand. I just feel lucky to be in a possible position to do so.

10 Comments on “The hero with a brown face.”

  1. yetanothersinglegal says:

    Good for you! I hope you are able to stick to your guns as the possibility of selling the rights becomes more of a reality. People of color can not eradicate racism and underrepresentation for the reasons you succintly present here in this post. I applaud you for standing up for what’s right even though it would be easier not to.

  2. orangemike says:

    I’m pretty pasty (even though there’s a smidgen of Native American in my lineage); but I’m delighted to say how proud I am of you for taking this stance firmly!

  3. mikebeaz says:

    Excellent post and what you state is right on. What you describe exists on college campuses – and that’s part of what I see in my research. The “micro-aggression,” in this case lack of representation of people of color (my research examines Black populations specifically) in the campus environment, has a detrimental impact on a person’s development. Like you say, it should be obvious, but it is a problem on nearly all campuses. It is our obligation to make others aware of these gross oversights – be it in film, theatre, art, on campuses, or otherwise – and remedy them with accurate representations.

  4. […] over their work. People don’t believe him when he says all financiers want final cut, or casting control, or any other concessions to cynicism. But, though I’m nowhere near Zach Braff’s level […]

  5. […] some exciting news about The Girl in the Road. NO, it is not a movie option. Yet. (I’ve stated publicly I won’t sell rights without clauses for race-appropriate casting, so that alone […]

  6. PF Cruz says:

    Zoe Saldana is a black latina woman.

    • Monica Byrne says:

      I’m aware. The criticism I read focused on colorism, the casting of a light-skinned actor to play a dark-skinned woman, especially when that woman had to deal with the effects of colorism all her life.

  7. […] anti-résumé, posts on self-care in social media, gender in theatre, data in theatre, diversity in literature, my travels in Iran, how to travel to Iran, non-monogamy, finding an agent, parental death, […]

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