Monday, 21 May 2012

King Lear and Musings on Race

I’ve been doing some more thinking about the all aboriginal production of King Lear which I saw.  Specifically about how some people insist all Shakespeare should be performed in Elizabethan dress and  by British actors since to do otherwise misses the context.

I disagree with that statement.

Context is important.  No question, but I’ve been wondering if race is as contextually important as society presents it.

I was stymied in a debate a few years ago when Samuel L. Jackson took on the role of Nick Fury for Marvel movies.  One of my friends was upset about the decision, claiming it “completely changed” the character.  I was surprised at the vehemence and insisted it wasn’t a critical change, to which I received the incredulous “You don’t think race is a critical factor?”

I didn’t have a good answer then and so it’s floated in and out of my thoughts since, getting put through the gristmill of my mind.  Was I insisting race wasn’t important out of a liberal politically-correct blindness?  After all, we all know racism is still a problem and there have been numerous experiments where people reported very different experiences after being made up to look like different races.

Yet it’s still stuck in my mind that casting Samuel L. Jackson as opposed to say … Anthony Hopkins wasn’t a big deal.  (And by the way, I love Mr. Jackson’s Nick Fury.)  Same as I don’t see a problem with casting Shakespeare with different ethnicities. 

Here’s my attempt to justify my instinctual position:  I don’t think race matters as much as background and experience.  If you’ve lived in a suburb with a fairly comfortable financial status throughout your life, then it shapes your view of the world.  Your view will probably be close to another lifetime suburbanite even if the two of you are of different races.  If you’ve grown up poor in a gang-controlled area, your view is going to be different than the suburbanite, even if you share a race.

Thus I don’t have a problem believing in Jackson’s portrayal.  I know Nick Fury’s backstory (mostly) and the performance is consistent with it.  The skin colour is incidental.

I’ve been challenged to see if I’d say the same if one of my favourite characters were changed.  Say if Batman was played by Chow Yung Fat, or Wolverine by Will.i.am.  I’ll be honest and say I probably wouldn’t be an initial fan of the casting choice.  But then I’d want to see how they did with the role.  People can surprise you and sometimes you can find amazing insight through unexpected changes.  And sometimes the changes don’t work and it’s crap.  But I’m more inclined to blame the performer and director than the concept.

So maybe once Christian Bale is done with the cape and cowl, they can call Mr. Fat’s agent.

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