Craig Mazin and Alex Epstein both recently tackled a topic that was on my to-blog list. Yes, I keep a list of things I intend to blog. And yes, I tend to just write whatever strikes me at the moment anyway. But since Alex and Craig got to it first, I might as well say what I was going to say.
At issue is whether it’s a good idea for the screenwriter to specify ethnicities for various characters. Alex believes in doing the “diversity pass” to keep his script from being lily-white. Craig feels this is absurd and racist.
Craig is wrong.
But not for the reasons you’d expect. While Craig and I tend to be on different wavelengths politically, he tends to come down on the side of common sense. And I think there’s a very practical matter that’s being overlooked.
Unless it’s important for understanding a story point, I rarely specify a race for a character. But that’s not to say I won’t give some strong hints. I will often make the lieutenant GONZALEZ rather than GOODMAN. The internist is more likely to end up DR. CHO than DR. CHASE. The schoolteacher will be PATEL rather than PETERS.
Is it liberal guilt? No. It’s readability.
Screenplays are read quickly. Unlike a novel, you don’t linger for a few paragraphs getting to know minor characters, setting up their memorable quirks. Rather, you meet them on page 20, then see them again on page 64. As a screenwriter, you want the reader to instantly recall that they’ve encountered a certain character before.
A reader is much more likely to remember an international banker named Abebayehu Tegene than Abe Thompson.
You can debate why this is. Maybe it’s just that the name is more interesting. But in most cases, I think it’s because we’re hard-wired to match race to surnames. We see Abebayehu Tegene and we think, “This character is black. Not only that, he’s probably African.” We form a mental picture of “African banker,” then move on.
With Abe Thompson, the reader has nothing to latch onto. Abe Thompson is just a name.
Note that giving a character an African surname doesn’t remove the burden of actually making this character interesting. If he says more than a few lines, there better be something notable about him independent of race. Both Tegene and Thompson might be condescending snobs who openly mock our hero.
But come page 64, you’ll still remember Tegene over Thompson.
In the real world, what are the implications of implying ethnicities for these characters? As I’ve noted earlier, when casting, the assumption tends to be “white unless otherwise specified.” But if you write “Judge Fujimoro” rather than “Judge Foster,” there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up with a Japanese judge.
You might find that stereotypical, or an example of blatant tokenism, such as the “black lieutenant syndrome” which hit cop shows in the ’90’s. After all, shouldn’t the part go to the best actor, regardless of race?
Yes, in theory. In reality, for a small supporting role, it’s a binary decision. Either the actor is Good Enough or Not Good Enough. If you’re casting a judge in Los Angeles, there’s no question you’ll find plenty of Good Enoughs. It might take an extra 20 minutes to find Japanese Good Enough. To me, it’s time well spent.
Obviously, there’s a lot more that can be written about race and screenwriting. As I noted in an earlier post, the role of Ronna in Go was written as African-American. We ended up casting Sarah Polley, perhaps the whitest Canadian you could find. So was I right to write “Black” in the script? Was I wrong to take it out?
Just as it’s naive to think that making a minor-but-likable character Iraqi will better the world, it’s foolish to assume that leaving a character “race-less” lets the screenwriter off the hook. Readers, including directors, studio executives, and casting directors, will assume that European names belong with white people, and that surgeons are white men in the early 50’s, unless you tell them otherwise.
So I say, make the geophysicist Abdul Kalam. Don’t do it for diversity. Do it for your script.