The hero with a brown face.Posted: March 28, 2013
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?
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.