Should actors bear the burden of cultural responsibility?

I keep coming back to this question:  as an actor and a person of color, are you responsible for the images that you put out into the world?  It’s not the same for white actors because there is more balance between the positive and the negative in portrayals of white characters.  However, every time a Black, Asian, or Latino actor plays a gang member, a drug dealer, pimp, rapist, murder, or wife beater that image just sits there virtually uncontested.  Also, there are  stereotypes that aren’t necessarily negative but still represent a narrow way of thinking: the wise old man/ woman of color who may not be able to read or write but is there to teach the white central character some valuable life lessons or the highly intelligent Asian character who is fixated on getting into an Ivy League school.   Actors of color are often cast as saints or sinners, but its rare to see layered, multi-dimensional portrayals of contemporary people of color in mainstream cinema.  So my question for actors of color: do you feel culturally responsible for the roles you take?  Do you debate whether to play a stereotypical character or do you just figure that if you turn it down, someone else will take it?  Does cultural responsibility factor into your thinking at all or do you just see it as a job?

For myself, I shy away from casting projects that feature a lot of negative or stereotypical roles for people of color, and I try to encourage directors to look at people of color for roles that don’t have a specific race.  One of the reasons I started working in casting was to increase opportunities for people of color to find good roles.  I hope in the long run, there will be more multi-dimensional roles out there, so people of color don’t have to think about whether to take roles based on cultural responsibility.  One day, I hope there will be so many diverse roles for people of color that playing a gang banger or drug dealer will be seen as a refreshing change.

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2 thoughts on “Should actors bear the burden of cultural responsibility?

  1. DK Uzoukwu (@DKuzNY) says:

    Appreciate this post. Its a tough bull to straddle, choosing between taking a role that seems to perpetuate nothing more than the same stereotypes or walking away from it altogether. It’s interesting, I’ve come up on some ‘street’, ‘gangmember’ or ‘drug dealer’ roles that just didn’t feel right FOR ME, but I knew someone else could pull it off because of the way it was written. I guess you have to know what your type is, and if that character seems believable, and goes beyond the surface image of stereotyped black person, than its something you should go for. If not, then why put yourself through the torture of trying to emulate something you know you wouldn’t be right for anyway? But I’m glad there are casting directors like yourself who try to bend the rules.

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