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Into the White White Woods

Let's Talk About Race at the Movies

Illustration by Chris Clarke

I can’t wait to see Into the Woods with my family on Christmas Day. I’ve loved this Stephen Sondheim musical since I was twelve. And yet something about the lavish-looking film adaptation gives me pause: the all-star cast is all white. All. White.

Half of my family members with whom I’ll be watching the movie have brown skin, and though they are all eager to see fairy tale characters who are familiar to them, played by sparkly actors who are also familiar to them, no one on the big screen will look like them. This is something they are used to and have always been. And that is too bad.

Also too bad is the feeling that I’m not sure I’ll be brave enough to bring this up during our holiday movie night. I mean, who wants to risk being “Debbie Downer” on Christmas?

I'm sure I'm not alone here--in my ambivalence about the film, or in my hesitation to bring it up.

But what better time to address racism, and the ill-effects of unchecked systems of power and privilege, than when we are seated comfortably in our bubbles of power and privilege? A time during which we celebrate fantastic images of who we are--or at least who we dream ourselves to be--projected onto an enormous screen? Yes, we risk sobering up the party for a sec, but we just might also inspire each other to think. To discuss. And to become aware of how even the most subtle forms of bias get absorbed into all of our heads and impact all of our behaviors--behaviors that range from telling jokes based on prejudice, to more explicit forms of discrimination, to horrific acts of violence.

Following the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we as a country have expressed more reactions, opinions, theories, and curiosities about race, injustice, and our systemic failures to protect all of our people, than perhaps ever before. Dialogue of this kind is crucial to foster necessary changes to our systems, but by the time our people are murdered unjustly it is too late to make effective changes. There is little we can do at that point but grieve, mourn, be outraged, and cast blame. Our observations about racial inequality might be more effective when we are not in states of trauma and grief, and instead when we are celebrating our powers and privileges with our families--especially those members of our families who are white, or have an abundance of social advantages, or for whom social injustice may not blip on the radar until someone is brutally, unjustifiably murdered.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that problems of systemic racism can be solved in a movie theater. But I do think that sharing observations about the casting of our movies is a great place to start. Especially for those of us who want to stop contributing to the problem and instead take a meaningful step toward healing and change.

After all, movies are our dreams, and the images we see on screen impact how we think and how we behave. According to SAG AFTRA, the union representing all on-screen performers in America, "There is no other medium as capable of affecting human behavior and thought as films." We as audiences can be more aware of the faces we see on screen and demand to see more faces that reflect us, our families and friends, and the American scene as it truly is, and as we dream it to be.

This is especially true of our fantasy films, like Into the Woods, which represent the farthest reaches of our dreamiest dreams and have more room than most for diverse casting possibilities. Let’s ask ourselves: would it really damage the story if the Witch or Cinderella was a person of color? The talent certainly exists. We could all benefit from seeing the magnificent performances of six-time Tony award-winner Audra MacDonald or Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson on our big screens. (Of course, some people would inevitably disagree with this observation. I wrote about this topic two years ago when the first Hobbit film came out, featuring an entirely white cast, and I received angry emails from Tolkein “experts” for weeks. These self-styled fantasy wonks ranged from those of the white supremacist variety to liberal-minded friends of mine -- all of whom were white, and male -- who shared elaborate explanations for why all of the cast members “needed” to be white, and why such a need was absolutely not racist logic. I wonder now if the Cinderella “experts” will react to this post with thorough explanations of the casting choices made for Into the Woods.)

But I digress. The point is that, in most cases, casting with diversity in mind does not compromise storytelling. In many cases it enhances it. It also provides audiences opportunities for identifying and empathizing with a greater variety of people, with a greater variety of faces and histories, than we are currently allowed. We can demand more of this in our entertainment. Fairy tales are not the only opportunities to cast actors of color, as Sony Studios is currently proving with their remake of Annie. Apparently producers can cast a black actor in the role of an iconic white comic book character -- when they are not sitting around sending reductive emails about whether Obama likes “black”movies -- and it can work. (I have not yet heard the Annie “experts” threaten to picket screenings of the film.) Think of the great effect such a casting choice will have on all the girls and boys across America who will see a character on screen who looks like them.

And while we’re on the subject of movie producers, they could all benefit by taking a page from the great American theater director Liesl Tommy, who constantly finds innovative ways to put actors of all shapes, colors, and sizes on stage to great effect. Her inspired casting choices serve the stories she tells, emphasizing their relevance to modern audiences and expanding everyone's palette of people with whom to identify. Her contemporized production of Les Miserables at the Dallas Theater Center, for example, featured a diverse cast and garnered rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.

But let’s get back to the children. The musical Into the Woods leaves its audience with a song called Children Will Listen. Here are some of the lyrics:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn

The children I will watch the movie with this week will see a fairy tale about white people. What will they learn? I suppose that depends on whether or not people like me choose to say something about it.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW

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