You may or may not be aware that a new biopic about Jackie Robinson is in the works. Already Robert Redford has been cast in the pivotal role of Branch Rickey, the taciturn general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who chose Robinson as the perfect man to break baseball's long-standing color barrier. But the lead role has yet to be cast.
I have a great idea about the actor who could fill that part. He's versatile, he's athletic, he's an Oscar nominee. He'd be perfect for the role of Jackie Robinson.
I speak, of course, of Heath Ledger.
What's that? Ledger can't play Jackie Robinson? Why not? It's not because he's Australian, is it? What does that have to do with anything? Russell Crowe has played Americans before, as has many a foreign actor, and vice versa.
Oh, that's not it, you say. You say it's because Heath Ledger is ... white? Shame on you. How can you be so close-minded. Acting shouldn't be bound by race or color. Those days are over, right?
Absolutely right. But only to a point. A particular point, but a point nonetheless.
Of course it's ridiculous that Heath Ledger would be offered the part of Jackie Robinson. The first person to say that may very well be Ledger himself. The part of maybe the most important African American of the 20th century must be played by an actor of Negro persuasion. Just as, the next time someone does a movie on Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle or John F. Kennedy or Albert Einstein, those characters must be played by Caucasians. It's a simple equation, a reflection on the real lives those movies would depict.
So why is it OK for Halle Berry, an Academy Award winner of exception talent (Catwoman notwithstanding) has been chosen to play Tierney Cahill, a real-life elementary school teacher who ran for Congress in the year 2000 with the assistance of her young students? Cahill, in case you haven't guessed yet, is white. Berry, of course, is not, having made history as the first African American to win the Best Actress Oscar in 2002.
My political beliefs, which I try not to voice on this blog because I don't feel it's the proper place, are nevertheless decidedly left of center. And you can tell from the picture of myself on the right that I come to this from a certain perspective. But this isn't right. Berry should have never accepted this part, even though I wouldn't doubt that she campaigned for it. How would Berry have felt if, say, Angelina Jolie had played Dorothy Dandridge instead of her or any other qualified woman of color? How would any of us had felt? And the fact that Cahill is not a household name or face is irrelevant. She's a real person. She is not black. End of discussion. Either you tell her story the right way, or you don't tell it at all.
Beth asked me why I was not pleased about this announcement. This is what I told her:
Obviously I'm all for colorblind casting, but when it comes to actual people who actually lived, you're dealing with a different reality. Namely, reality itself. If Cahill is white, then something is lost from the equation of her true-life story by casting an actress of color, no matter how talented she is. To say you're looking for the best actor, period, isn't enough when you're telling the story of someone who actually lived. It would be like casting Kevin Spacey to play Colin Powell, or Antonio Banderas to play Bill Clinton. And if those are ridiculous examples, well, that kind of makes my point in a sense.
One more thing, and I say this as a proud liberal and a proud African American - if the roles were reversed, if a white actress was cast in the role of a real-life black woman, you know there would be hell to pay.
Variety (the article in the trade about this can be accessed - for now - by clicking the subject line) quoted a source close to the production as saying that the producers wanted to find the right actress as opposed the right white actress. That's a very noble sentiment - for a fictional role and/or a fictional story. When there are actual facts involved, though, new rules apply.
Oh, and if anyone can think of a good choice to play Jackie Robinson, let me know. Frankly, I'm stumped.
P.S.: This is the real Tierney Cahill. What, Julianne Moore wasn't available? Laura Linney? Helen Hunt?