Over at Vulture, Kyle Buchanan asks an interesting question: “Why Won’t Hollywood Let Us See Our Best Black Actors?” Buchanan argues that the few black actors that are cast in big summer movies—namely science fiction and action franchises—are hidden from sight, either lending their voice or hidden beneath layers of makeup and prosthetics:
Idris Elba is in four major studio films this year, but you won’t see his face in any of them. Three of those high-profile jobs are voice roles: In addition to playing Chief Bogo in Zootopia and Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, Elba has a supporting part in Pixar’s upcoming Finding Dory. His only live-action role in the lot is playing the villainous Krall in Star Trek Beyond, where he’s buried under so many facial prosthetics that he’s more than unrecognizable — he’s a different color entirely.
[...] And now that Elba has become something of a sci-fi staple in films like Prometheus and Pacific Rim, perhaps it was inevitable that he’d don makeup for a franchise like Star Trek. But as one of the few black leading men in Hollywood, Elba means something. So what does it say when we see so little of him?
Buchanan notes that Lupita Nyong’o’s major roles post-Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave have followed a similar pattern. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata was a CGI character and, like Elba, she also lends her voice to The Jungle Book. Zoe Saldana, one of sci-fi’s current golden girls, has had a bit more luck, landing the role of Uhura in the Star Trek reboots. But even Saldana has worn quite a bit of skin-covering makeup, from her turn as a blue Na’vi in Avatar to her starring role as the green-skinned Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy (and even, uh, Nina).
In comparison, Buchanan argues that white actors are far less likely to completely alter their appearance to land a role, “but this color-changing gambit has practically become required of black dramatic actors who want to appear in big-budget movies.”
This seems largely true when taking a cursory glance at major franchises. There’s Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in X-Men—though, as the piece notes, Lawrence’s iteration of Mystique spends less on-screen time in full blue body paint and more time looking like, well, Jennifer Lawrence. And there’s Paul Bettany’s Vision, too. But, with a few exceptions, like Halle Berry’s Storm, Buchanan’s observation holds true. He writes:
And yet, when these are the only big roles available, who can blame these actors for taking them? When black actors want to play human beings or lead a film themselves, they’re continually forced to work outside the major studio system or in independent film.
There is, perhaps, a glimmer of hope in the future. Will Smith and Viola Davis will helm this summer’s Suicide Squad and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther will finally make his appearance in the upcoming Civil War, with his own film scheduled for release in 2018.
But certainly it speaks to a perception of actors and actresses of color that still underpins major studio films; namely, that despite their critical successes, black actors are still treated as a liability. This conservative approach to casting is a recurring problem in these major films—certainly the recent casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton was a stark reminder of that—and it would be nice to see these franchises make bolder decisions.
It’s worth reading Buchanan’s piece in full.