Questions about Race and Casting

I made this movie that was released in 2015. We made it for very little money and because we couldn’t afford a casting director, I took that on. We held open calls, I never specified race, and we auditioned actors of color for pretty much all roles.

As we approached shooting dates, we ended up with an entirely caucasian cast of 8 characters.

I never caught wind of any criticism, but I’ve always been highly critical of myself for contributing to a landscape that needs more diversity on screen.

I did try to emphasize diversity in other ways. I made sure to emphasize female crew members in the hiring of our team. The film pushes the boundaries of onscreen female sexuality. I also focused more on diversity of body image. Still, in spite of all these attempts at innovation, at the end of the day, I felt like I was just throwing another all white cast into the marketplace of lower budget indie dramedies with a folk indie score (no joke, that’s a pretty apt description of my labor of love). However, I got to work with a cast of incredibly talented actors and we put together a film that I am proud of. 

Fast forward 2 years later — now. I’m in preproduction for my second film and I specifically went to agents and managers with a request for recommendations of actors of color. I’ve felt weird about this from day one but the response to it has been equally awkward.

I’d get back lists of white actors. I get responses from my network asking 'why?' No one truly seems supportive and when I talk about my desire to cast actors of color in this film — I always felt like there’s something hanging in the air that I’m missing. I was right because something was. 

Yesterday I had a conversation with a respected peer. I told him how awkward it was to do this kind of outreach. How I felt weird asking specifically for a diverse cast as a white director and how to better handle this. His response  hit me hard. It's now impacting how we will proceed to cast the rest of the project.

He asked me how, in writing the project, I imagined the characters racially. For two characters, I had pictured them as black. For everyone else, I had imagined them as white. He then said, that I should be true to the artistic vision of how I pictured the film rather than my own idealistic goals to ‘right wrongs’ in the casting of my film.

He explained to me  that looking generally for actors of color was a form of tokenism that I was participating in. 

I believe that everyone has the right to tell the story they feel compelled to tell. However, every movie is a business venture. Casting is hiring, bringing on crew is hiring. Substantial money is being spent and the work will eventually get to the public. Every decision contributes to the economy and so every decision should be weighed as a business decision. But it's also vital to retain the integrity of creating a work of art and to be careful to protect that.  

Casts should reflect the world as we see it — but the people on screen have an opportunity to influence an audience by their sheer presence. When I see a curvy woman on camera, I immediately feel less alone in the world because I’m looking at a depiction of someone like me on screen. 

In an effort to contribute to a world that should have more on screen diversity, am I actually contributing to tokenism? Is a white director asking vaguely for "actors of color" actually a racist action? When identity is so intertwined with race and culture, is it actually taking a step backwards to fight for just non-white talent on screen? And by assigning each role a race in casting, what am I saying then? At what point in putting together art should politics influence decisions?