Alex at Complications Ensue started it, Craig over at The Artful Writer picked it up, and now John August has weighed in (all guys I read and like a lot, by the way) , each with how they treat "racial diversity" in their script. Alex does a pass to correct what he feels is a "Whitey McWhite" vibe to his first draft, Craig thinks that's racist and John argues that diversity in names makes for a better read -- and it's worth spending the extra ten minutes in casting finding that person when the shoot day arrives.
I like all these guys, and I disagree with all of them, mostly with Craig. He kind of circles in on the point that making a character a specific ethnicity -- or NOT -- in order to promote positive or negate negative stereotypes is in itself racist. He makes a point that each character serves the story, so each detail about the person should serve the character. Anything else is axe-grinding -- and unless the point of your movie is axe-grinding, you're being hypocritical.
But in the same discussion, he mentions how he makes racial choices within a certain script for very specific purposes. Also, he discusses how many people ignore the variations whithin "white."
I don't know. Race as a tool for political correctness or for sheer storytelling both seem to strike me as two sides of the same coin.
I fall near August -- the read will be quick so you remember unique/ethnic names better -- theory, but not dead on it, with a pinch of Alex and Craig. If (see Craig) we are trying to be honest in our storytelling, then it does behoove us to (see Alex) poke around and vary things up in the script because (see me) the world I live in is multicultural. So an honest representation of it is multicutural.
I live in LA, I used to live in New York. I have lived in Boston, Ottawa and Montreal. Even in my limited circle of humans, I know a Phillipino state trooper, his Lebanese-Christian wife, a French-Candian physicist, two black science fiction writers, a Chinese-American Army reservist just back from Afghanistan, a Mormon real estate agent, a Korean comic-book shop owner, a Portugese lawyer, three Russian hairdressers, a lesbian film executive (well, more than a few of those...), a Samoan comic-book artist. and a couple Hispanic guys who run an import company for foreign video. And I'm a frikkin' writer shut-in.
I rarely make characters a certain race for any particular political point, but at the same time I very rarely make a character a certain race for a story point either. I have varied ethnic backgrounds for my characters when it makes sense that we'd be in situations where there would be a normal mix of varied ethnic backgrounds. Like, at least from my point of view, most of the world today.
Craig points out that the first person who wrote "Black female judge" was doing something interesting, while the fiftieth person was a racist hack. Or, in my case, I might make it a "black female judge" because there are decent odds that in the world we live in, call me nuts, there's no reason for it not to be a black female judge. Because there are a few. Or he might be Asian. Or Hispanic. Or white/Jewish/Catholic/Mormon whatever. Whatever strikes me at the moment, frankly.
In the first draft of The Core, DJ Qualls' character was an Indian kid, because at the time the hacker community was all abuzz with the new influx of Indian hackers with insane skills, and I thought that was pretty cool. DJ came in and nailed it, and so it became a skinny white kid. Delroy Lindo's character's race was never determined in the script (I just described a man of imposing physical presence) and Delroy got it. Alfre Woodard's character was based on this sort of ruthless Southern belle executive. But when somebody like Alfre Woodard comes along, pretty spiffy, you change it. At the same time, I made a point of one of Aaron's grad student's being foreign because, well, you go find me a physics postdoc program that's all Caucasian these days. I didn't make a point of her being a specific ethnicity (I think the actress was from Mumbai, actually) to make a statement, but to hew to reality, to make my movie world ring a little truer.
I think that Craig's putting too much weight on the race of a character. The race (or sex) doesn't matter in the story unless I say it matters. Mostly because, for many aspects of people's ordinary interaction, it isn't the end-all-and-be all. My Asian detective's an Asian detective because today's police forces are pretty multicutural, odds are one of the detectives is Asian, and that's not PC, it's more real.
Now, to be brutally honest, I rarely mention a character's race in a description. Not for any racial/PC reason, but due to a completely separate issue: I don't like character descriptions. If the reader can't figure out what this character is like from the dialogue and action, then you as the writer have failed. I actually make it a bit of a game with myself to only ever describe a character with one quick sentence, and never mention physicality. The reader will fill it in with whatever actor/persona makes the story work for them. (Allow me a sad moment of pride, but my favorite example, from Queen & Country: "MILLER enters the office. He does not make his living running about in hostile foreign countries." That's it. Everything else is the actor's job.)
All this, of course, layered atop the very practical fact that Alex is dead right in one sense -- execs assume "white" when they read any role. There's a different post in this, and the assumptions many execs make that a "black" show can only be about "being black" or whatever and "liberal Hollywood" be damned, but we'll get back to that some other time. Let's just be honest in that when you're casting -- and the writer only gets to cast in television -- if you want your show to look anything vaguely like the real world, you have to dig in pretty deep.
When I exec produce, I have to be ruthlessly serious about "all ethnicities" when I say to the casting director "all ethnicities". The voice I had in my head for Jenni's character when I wrote the script in Global Frequency was a black actress, Rachel Crawford, who played the geeky new FBI agent in my USA pilot. Her being black wasn't my PC point -- she gives great geek-girl. Come to think of it, the role in the pilot was for a Midwesterner, based on a naive assistant I once had (who herself was a Jew from Montana. Chew on that). In that same USA pilot, Kadeem Hardison came in and stole the role of the Irish New York gunslinger cop. Kadeem's "Irish gunslinger" was my take on a New York hard-ass, but the story is served just as well by a black New York hard-ass. The character and his story-telling freight -- his bastard-y and violence -- stayed intact.
One of the execs bitched that we'd wound up with the "stereotypical" white cop/black cop partnership -- so what, I'm supposed to not use the best actor because it'll be "perceived" as PC? Fuck and Off.
(Horrible-and-not-uncommon Hollywood story: when we cast Kadeem as "Riley" and Rachel as "Nicole Ferguson", one of the execs pitched that we should change the names, to something, well, "you know ..." I cannot do justice to the withering sarcasm with which Kadeem and Rachel forced him back into his hole.)
At the same time, I specifically wrote a role for a Hawaiian cop in there, because I wanted to explore some of the native rights/separatism issues in that state. A cool little storyline about issues that most Americans have no idea exist.
And this is not to say I don't have some agenda -- not to bring racial equality to the screen for it's own sake, but at least a little frikkin' reality. Let's face it -- if television showed real life, then 25% of Christian characters would be what we typically class as evangelicals, 15% would be atheists, one out of ten characters would be black, one out of ten would be Hispanic, and the same number would be completely foreign born. Only one out of four would have graduated from college with a bachelor's degree. Or to make a point which I hope won't piss off too many of my screenwriting/executive friends, if television even vaguely resembled reality there would be ten times as many visible minority characters as there are Jewish characters on television.
Yeah, tell that to every NBC Thursday night comedy lineup for the last ten years.
And what does TV give us instead? Smart white folk in cities, or redneck white folk in the country. Or, occasionally, twee smart white folk in rural settings. (This may be one of the reasons I like My Name is Earl so much -- the make-up of that town is the closest I've seen to what, from my travels as a stand-up showed me, would be the actual make-up if that town.) I'm not carrying a banner for color-blind casting or writing for politic's sake; I'd like to see more of it because what we have now is just shitty writing.
So where do we land? Every screenwriter has a cardinal rule for their work: be true, have a moral, etc. etc. Not that I ever put an enormous amount of thought into it, but my North Star is be interesting. You can have the most wonderful, sincere story in the world, but if nobody's turning pages, you haven't done your job. Conflicts should be interesting, people should do interesting things, and the world should be interesting -- which sometimes means making sure it's specifically reflective of the real world in cultural make-up, and sometimes even means making an odd choice, not for PC reasons but because it helps the script-world stay vibrant -- stay real. Because the most interesting choice is the real world.
The one thing I love about this world is that it is weird, it is wonderful, and the unexpected happens every day, enacted by a cast you never could have consciously dreamed up. We should be so lucky as screenwriters to barely touch the divine manic diversity of the playground around us. To pander to it is wrong, but so is to deny it. Just try to listen to it, and live in it, and bring that to the page. You can't go wrong with honesty.