Colorblind casting may be a sign of change, but is it really blind to race?
By ERIN TEXEIRA
NEW YORK -- When Jackie Gleason was growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the 1930s, many of his neighbors resembled his family, Irish and working-class. Today, the residents remain mostly working-class, but almost all are black.
Perhaps, then, it makes sense that a film remake of Gleason's classic TV comedy "The Honeymooners" would feature a mostly black cast, with Cedric the Entertainer as the new face of loudmouthed Ralph Kramden.
The film, which opens in theaters Friday, reflects a growing trend in recent years called cross-casting -- casting minorities in roles originally played by whites. Halle Berry starred in "Catwoman," Lucy Liu was one of "Charlie's Angels" and Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac recently starred in "Guess Who," which inverted the racial casting in the 1967 classic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
Colorblind casting in remakes, some say, is a hopeful sign that Hollywood executives are increasingly understanding that talented actors of color can fill prominent roles -- and drive ticket sales.
"It's the last three or four years that we've seen this, and I think it's financially advantageous and culturally responsible," said Delia Salvi, a film professor at UCLA. "It's a recognition of the fact that whatever went on in 'The Honeymooners' went on in every family, whether blue-collar or white or black."
Getting the part
Cross-casting along gender and racial lines has been used in the theater for years, starting with productions of Shakespeare. On Broadway now, Denzel Washington is playing Brutus in "Julius Caesar" and James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams headline "On Golden Pond." In 2001, a film version of "Hamlet" set in the post-Civil War South included a black Polonius played by Roscoe Lee Browne.
Such casting does not always go smoothly. In Glenelg, Md., last month, a high school production of "Huckleberry Finn" had a black Huck Finn and a white Jim, but the copyright holder objected to the cross-casting and the performances were edited out of a C-SPAN talent show. And when Ving Rhames took the title role in the new "Kojak" on USA Network, critics brought him to tears during a promotional event in Los Angeles when they pummeled him with questions about how he could be believable in a role originally played by a Greek-American.
Still, many say cross-casting is positive.
"I do think this is what America would call progress from the civil rights movement," said Jesse A. Rhines, a screenwriter and author of "Black Film/White Money." "'The Honeymooners' is a staple of American television tradition. Does the audience accept (the new casting)? Maybe it doesn't make a difference anymore. I have a feeling it doesn't."
The trend, he said, compares to the casting of minorities in commercials, a common practice fueled by market research showing that whites are no less likely to buy a product if a person of color pitches it -- but that minorities are much more likely to use it.
Hollywood, he said, has also found a way to attract new customers, particularly young adults who are frequent filmgoers and a sought-after demographic.
But when it comes to ethnic diversity, most studio heads "think like their grandfathers," said Gabrielle Union, who plays Alice Kramden in "The Honeymooners."
"The younger demographic wants diversity," she said. "Give them what they want."
Critics say it's no coincidence that much of the colorblind casting in Hollywood comes in remakes, which are less risky and typically less imaginative.
"It shows they couldn't come up with something fresh," said Vic Skolnick, co-director of the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, N.Y., which highlights international and independent films. Though he had not yet seen the new "The Honeymooners," and he acknowledged there are relatively few roles for minority actors overall, he said actors of color need to be cast in more thoughtful films that tell culturally specific stories.
"There's enough real stuff in African American life that it shouldn't have to be some sort of copycat kind of thing," he said.
Though not all films with largely black casts are lucrative, there have been notable successes.
Going back to the '80s, Eddie Murphy has scored with such box-office hits as "Coming to America" and "The Nutty Professor."
Just this year, Ice Cube -- whose "Friday" and "Barbershop" franchises have done quite well -- led the cast of "Are We There Yet?" which took in nearly $83 million domestically, and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" stunned many when it was the nation's top movie the weekend it opened. It eventually made $50 million.
A survey by the Motion Picture Association of America showed that 42 percent of blacks, 45 percent of Latinos and 33 percent of whites were frequent moviegoers (seeing more than one movie a month).
David Friendly, who produced "Big Momma's House" in 2000 and is also the producer for "The Honeymooners," stressed that his new production was not conceived as a black film.
The screenplay was completed before any roles had been cast, he said. He and other producers thought perhaps James Gandolfini or John Goodman might play Ralph Kramden, but when Cedric's name came up in a meeting, Friendly said: "That was like a eureka moment. They said, 'THAT'S a fresh idea.'
"It wasn't calculated enough to say, 'Let's do "The Honeymooners" black and let's write it for African Americans.' If that had been the case, the dialogue would have been blacker."
As it happened, Cedric signed on and minimally tweaked the dialogue and other nuances to make the film culturally appropriate. But the plot centers wholly on Kramden and his upstairs buddy, Ed Norton, played by Mike Epps, as they scramble for the cash to move from their cramped apartments into a nearby home.
There are generous nods to the TV show. The film is set in working-class Brooklyn and Kramden drives a bus, plays pool and often loses money in a string of simpleminded get-rich-quick schemes.
And, in a less menacing version of Gleason's perennial threats to his wife, Cedric tells Union with a flirty smirk, "I'll take you to the moon, Alice."