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A Part Colored By History
Choice of White Actress For Mixed-Race Role Stirs Debate on Insensitivity

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007

So, let's see. In "A Mighty Heart," we've got Angelina Jolie, American, pale of skin and plump of lip, playing the part of the real-life Mariane Pearl, a French-born, brown-skinned, kinky-curly-haired woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage. Ponder the societal implications of Jolie sporting a spray tan and a corkscrew wig. Discuss: Is this the latest entry in the American canon of blackface --21st-century style?

Or does Jolie's color-bending turn as the wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl herald a sea change in our racial consciousness? Is it a signal that, kumbaya, we really are the world, Hollywood truly is colorblind, may the best actress win? Does it matter if a visibly white actress plays a historical figure of (partial) African descent? If so, does it matter that Halle Berry is slated to play a real-life white politician?

Or is it all about the box office?

(Never mind. Of course it's all about the box office.)

In the blogosphere, photos and video clips of Jolie as Pearl serve as a sort of racial Rorschach test. There are those who use the B-word -- blackface -- in decrying Jolie's casting as the height of racial insensitivity.

"It irks me to see [Jolie] in the makeup and the hair," says Lauren Williams, who wrote about the controversy in her blog, Stereohyped.com. "Every fall, you hear about how on some college campus, white kids are having a pimps-and-hos party and painting their faces. People are ignoring that this is a very painful part of America's past."

Wrote another irked spectator on Imdb.com, a movie Web site: "I am screaming my head off about Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl, who is half-black."

But others argue that the Jolie naysayers are practicing reverse racism. Said a contributor on TheZeroBoss.com: "Mariane Pearl is mostly white . . . what are you practicing here, the one drop rule?"

(Jolie, it should be noted, claims some nonwhite ancestry. Her mother was reportedly part Iroquois.)

The debate is cast against the backdrop of the United States' troubled legacy of minstrel shows, where white actors slapped on burnt cork or shoe polish, the better to mock African Americans. Film stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor performed in blackface, as did actors in D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," using greasepaint and murderous stereotypes to reinforce America's worst fears about black men. Even as recently as 1993, actor Ted Danson donned blackface to roast then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg at the Friars Club.

Hollywood didn't confine this phenomenon to its depiction of African Americans. White actors including Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine have donned the brown-, red- and yellow-face, too, playing Native Americans, Latinos and Asians, usually to stereotypical effect. Then consider that Forest Whitaker darkened his skin to play Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," and the issue gets complicated: Does that count as blackface, or is it akin to Nicole Kidman's donning a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in "The Hours"? "Ultimately I believe this is about acting and finding the right person for the role, regardless of color," says Charles Michael Byrd, a multiracial rights activist and the author of "The Bhagavad-gita in Black and White: From Mulatto Pride to Krishna Consciousness."

"Could this be social engineering on the part of Hollywood? Perhaps. If, however, by doing so, the casting directors and the producers can nudge this nation's race-obsessed consciousness toward more of a colorblind consciousness, that's a good thing."

But others argue that this country is far from ready for the colorblind approach. There remains a real dearth of roles for women of color.

"This is bigger than Mariane Pearl," says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. "Let's say Queen Latifah had optioned a biopic on Princess Diana. Do we believe we'd ever see Queen Latifah playing Princess Diana? Absolutely not."

For her part, Pearl says it's is a non-issue. "This is the story of a group of individuals," she wrote in an e-mail, "and how they chose to behave as opposed to a group of people seen through the prism of race, color or religion.

"I chose Angie for who she is not what she looks like."

As a European, Pearl may well process race differently than an American woman of a similar mixed-race heritage, who historically in this country would have been deemed "black" and therefore subject to the peculiarities of American-style racism.

In the book upon which the film is based, Pearl writes that Daniel lovingly dubbed her "my mulatta." Of her Cuban-born mother, Marita Van Neyenhoff, she writes: "She was colored, and she had a Chinese grandfather. Clearly there was Spanish and African blood in her, and who knew what else. I felt like history had worked really hard for me to enjoy being a bit of everything." (Her father was Dutch.)

Says "A Mighty Heart" director Michael Winterbottom: "To try and find a French actress who's half-Cuban, quarter-Chinese, half-Dutch who speaks great English and could do that part better -- I mean, if there had been some more choices, I might have thought, 'Why don't we use that person?' . . . I don't think there would have been anyone better."

In the film, the only reference to Pearl's heritage is when she tells someone at a dinner party that her mother was Cuban. (Pearl's mother is played by a red-haired, white-skinned actress.)

In her book, Pearl writes about the racism that she, and particularly her brother Satchi, encountered growing up in Paris. Once, she recalls, Satchi came home bloodied by racists who had mistaken him for North African and hit him on the head with a crowbar. When she and Daniel showed up together for interviews in Pakistan, Pakistanis would stare at them.

"Danny was white," she writes, "I looked a bit like them. Nobody asked me about my origins or religion, but I appreciated once more the advantages of our being a mixed couple."

What a missed opportunity to explore -- or at least acknowledge with visual cues -- those complexities within the context of the movie. Daniel Pearl, after all, was murdered for being who he was: a Jewish American of Israeli and Iraqi Jewish descent. Why not, in telling this story, tell all of it? Images are powerful, possessing the potential to smash stereotypes. And reinforce them.

It will be interesting to see the reaction next year when we'll have the mixed-race Berry in "Class Act," playing the role of Tierney Cahill, a white schoolteacher whose sixth-grade class persuaded her to run for Congress in 2000. Still, we're not likely to see chocolate-hued Angela Bassett playing Hillary Rodham Clinton any time soon.

More often than not, we find whites taking on the roles of heroic people of color, and not the other way around. Consider Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," a retelling of how two Port Authority police officers were trapped under the rubble on 9/11 until they were rescued by Marine Sgt. Jason L. Thomas. Thomas is black; in the film, he is played by a white man. ("If you're going to tell a story, you should try to get it as accurate as possible," Thomas told reporters last year.)

But Hollywood has long been conflicted when it comes to telling the stories of mixed-race people. In 1949, Lena Horne was up for the title role in Elia Kazan's "Pinky," playing a light-skinned black woman who looked white. Jeanne Crain, who was white, got the part. In 1951, Horne was slated to play "Julie," the "tragic mulatto" in "Show Boat." But Hollywood wasn't too comfortable with interracial love scenes, so Ava Gardner ultimately got the part, and makeup artists used Horne's makeup (Max Factor's "Egyptian Tan") to give Gardner that cafe-au-lait look.

In the late 1920s, Fredi Washington was green-eyed, white-skinned, straight-haired -- and black. Studio suits reportedly gave her a choice: If you want to be a movie star, you've got to pass for white. Instead, Washington carved a career for herself acting in "race movies" with African American directors like Oscar Micheaux -- in brownface, lest anyone think that Paul Robeson was wooing a white girl.

It's ironic that Washington's one mainstream Hollywood role was her tragic turn as Peola in the Academy Award-nominated "Imitation of Life"(1934) -- playing a white-looking black girl who abandoned her dark-skinned mother in her quest to pass.

Hollywood, not to mention America, saw only trouble in shades of beige.

Staff writer Desson Thomson contributed to this report.

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