Meet Mark Dacascos. As of this writing he is 49 years old, and a reasonably successful actor/martial artist. He has also portrayed more ethnicities than you can find in the average neighbourhood in small-town Western New York.
The roles above are, as far as I can tell, as follows:
- Crying Freeman (1995): a skilled Japanese assassin
- China Strike Force (2005): a Chinese man (role unknown)
- Le Pacte des loups [Brotherhood of the Wolf] (2001): an Iroquois man
- Scorcher (2002): a colonel, presumably part Caucasian
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (S2E17, 2002): a monk, “nonnative, from Thailand.”
- Iron Chef America (2004-present): the nephew of the original Japanese chairman, Takeshi Kaga.
These do not include two other roles I could not find images/video for: Johnny Ramirez in the 1994 film Dragstrip Girl, presumably part Hispanic, and Moku, which is a Polynesian name, in an episode of the mid-90s TV show One West Wakiki.
Allow me to clear up the man’s ancestry. His mother is of Irish and Japanese descent, and his father is various parts Filipino, Spanish, and Chinese. That being said, his portraying both Iroquois and and Polynesian men is certainly a problem. What’s unbelievable, though, is that he’s got almost nothing on Sir Ben Kingsley.
Now I’m going to simply label the ethnicity of each role to the best of my knowledge, since this is an exhausting enough task as it is:
- Gandhi (1982): Indian
- Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1985): English
- Harem (1985): Arab
- Pascali’s Island (1988): unknown, possibly Turkish
- Testimony — The Story of Shostakovich (1988): Russian
- Bugsy (1991): Belarusian
- Schindler’s List (1993): Jewish
- Joseph (1995): Egyptian
- Sexy Beast (2000): unknown, British
- House of Sand and Fog (2003): Iranian
- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010): Persian (Iranian)
- Hugo (2011): French
Ben Kingsley is half-Indian and half-English, with his maternal grandmother maybe being of Russian or German Jewish descent. That being said, compared to Mark Dacascos this guy is like a freakin’ one-man United Nations.
The reason I’ve compiled both of these lists is hopefully clear. These are two men who have covered a very broad range of various ethnicities without being directly representative of many of them. To be fair to Dacascos, he is part Asian and has taken many Asian roles, whereas Kingsley shares no Middle Eastern blood and has portrayed many men who live in that region. To move this along, what is it that I’m I trying to say about casting?
I am clearly a person who supports the casting of more people of colour [POCs], and these men certainly fall under that category. I am also a fan of authenticity, however. Authenticity is what would have had half the cast of West Side Story as actual Puerto Ricans instead of slightly tanned Caucasians. The thing is that it also clashes with the idea that “whoever is best for the role should get it.”
Have you seen Ben Kingsley’s list of honours? The man is a knight. He’s also been nominated for and won countless of awards. Far be it from me to say that he is not an extremely talented man.
But is he an Arab?
Does it make sense to give the man a role that could have gone to a Syrian actor? He obviously has the acting ability to bring to the character, but isn’t he taking the place of any number of actual actors of Arab descent who have few enough major roles, villainous or otherwise, available as it is?
Later this fall Kingsley will be appearing in the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, playing the role of Mazer Rackham. Anyone who is familiar with the novel knows that the character is a New Zealander, and half-Maori. Below is a promo picture for the film.
As you can see, the filmmakers have given him Maori facial tattoos to key into that part of his heritage. As a little context as to what author Orson Scott Card originally envisioned for the character, he mentioned in a 1998 interview that he could see Will Smith or Andre Braugher in the role.
But it’s difficult, because on the other hand we have an example of a person who is actually a half-Maori New Zealander. On the left you can see one half of The Flight of the Conchords, Jermaine Clement, the exact same racial mix that Mazer Rackham is. Clearly there are certain expectations that audiences have, and on a number of levels the tattoos shown above pander to them. If you told people that Jermaine was half-Maori I am going to bet that most of them would not believe you; it simply doesn’t meet their preconceived notions of what that should look like. Heck, I wrote a whole article about what I expected from the portrayal of the superpowered king of a fictitious African nation.
What we need to understand, though, is that expectations are something that we can change using media. The most high-profile Arab character out there right now [and correct me if I’m wrong] is Abed of NBC’s Community. Abed is played by Danny Pudi, a man of Indian and Polish descent. Similarly, Sayid Jarrah of Lost was likewise portrayed by Indian actor Naveen Andrews. This is what makes people believe that that Arabs look like Indians, and if casting was done with authenticity and accuracy in mind people would know better. Expectations would change.
The thing is, as my infographics [if you want to call them that] of Dacascos and Kingsley’s film careers would suggest, Hollywood doesn’t care about that. It’s not even simply that Chinese and Japanese people look alike, it’s that an Asian man with slightly darker skin can play both races as well as Native American [or First Nations person, as we Canadians say]. On that same note we have a half-Indian actor who can portray arguably the most famous Indian to have ever lived and died, as well as an Egyptian and a Russian.
In a way this is colourblind casting, something that I ostensibly have no problem with. The thing is, it’s also just laziness. Dacascos is a pretty good mix of Asian ethnicities, so lets cast him as our new Chairman on Iron Chef America. Why? Is it because he’s a martial artist? Why not hire an actual Japanese person who, as an added bonus, actually knows something about food?
This isn’t a matter of filmmakers and television producers “not seeing colour,” it’s a matter of them sticking with what they know and opting for who’s available [Dacascos] and who’s well known [Kingsley]. POC are being passed over for actors who can portray a broad range of people groups, and there’s something wrong with that. I’m not saying every Korean role must always go to a Korean, but they could at least try looking a little harder.