Is it too soon to worry about going too far?
Despite Broadway being known as “the great white way,” Hollywood has always been pretty pale; and pretty tone-deaf when it comes to pushing white actors and actresses into roles that were originally written as something other than white. Remember, Tom Cruise was The Last Samurai. Yep, that happened.
When Doctor Strange came out, people lost their mind because Tilda Swinton was cast as the The Ancient One. Similarly, when The Mandarin debuted in Iron Man 3, everyone screamed: Ben Kingsley??! But wait, (SPOILER) he’s not the real Mandarin, he’s a down-on-his-luck actor hired to PLAY the Mandarin. So that’s OK. Whew, dodged a bullet.
I was not a comic book guy growing up, though I very much like the MCU, and so these slights didn’t bother me at all. I also was not a person of color growing up, but I nonetheless understand the pent up anger and frustration surrounding the number and quality of black roles – any ethnic roles, really – outside of content that is completely dedicated that race. I’m thinking of every Tyler Perry movie, Crazy Rich Asians, etc.
So now we are being asked to reconsider everything we thought we knew growing up. White people (guilty as charged) are being asked to reflect on the idea that we have seen the world through fun house glasses our entire lives – that we have grown up inside the Matrix, really. A world where it’s impossible to make decisions about what’s right and wrong, good and bad, because the rules and roles have been set up, predetermined, to be unfair and punitive to anyone who doesn’t look like me. It’s horrifying. I can tell you from experience just considering the possibility of this, let alone the de facto truth, is acutely troubling.
But it’s troubling with a purpose. People are taking notice, people are talking. Some people are reading or at least listening to reasonable, articulate individuals describe the situation instead of dismissing them as activists, terrorists, criminals or the like. And that, indeed, is good.
But then there’s something called cancel culture. I didn’t know what that meant until I’d described it in an earlier piece and my 23-year-old daughter said, not unkindly, “You know there’s a whole thing, right? You’re describing something that is an actual thing, it has a name.”
I have a huge problem with cancel culture, as do all reasonable people, because it overlays these new, hyper-sensitized perspectives and metrics onto people’s words and behaviors – in some cases from decades earlier – and seeks to hold them accountable for being horrible people.
To be fair, there are horrible people. But a lot of these people, I believe most of them, are not horrible people but rather people who tried to live good, reasonable lives the way their mothers taught them, and they made mistakes. Maybe they were mistakes that were a bad idea then, and today they are COMPLETELY INAPPROPRIATE. Or maybe they didn’t know they were a bad idea because enough people seemed OK with it. Doesn’t matter. You can’t change the rules in the middle of a game of Monopoly and retroactively send someone directly to Jail, no $200. That’s not how life works. You can determine new rules going forward and insist that we all play by those – fine. But not ex post facto.
Let’s get back to Hollywood: They are finally starting to see the light, and various studios and entities are making proclamations about what, specifically, they will do differently going forward. I think this is mostly good. But I wonder about unintended consequences.
On the same day last week, the two most successful adult animated series in history, The Simpsons and Family Guy, made similar proclamations in the press. The Simpsons announced they would no longer have white voice actors playing non-white characters on the show. And Family Guy’s Mike Henry, a staple since the show’s inception who voices a ton of favorite characters, announced he would no longer voice Cleveland Brown, the titular character’s black neighbor.
Unlikely as it seems, I feel like perhaps we have already crossed the Rubicon.
I am going to give The Simpsons a pass, and here’s why:
- Hank Azaria, one of the most talented comic actors in Hollywood, had already said he would not continue to voice Apu, the Indian (Pakistani?) convenience store owner anymore. He didn’t consult anyone, he just decided.
- The Simpsons’ legacy is already set in stone. Thirty-one seasons, 639 episodes in the can and still going; it’s not just the longest-running show of its kind in history, it’s one of the most beloved series of all time.
But Family Guy.
My wife hates Family Guy. It’s one the things, like her affinity for beets, that I tolerate in order to keep marital harmony. I love Family Guy. It is hysterical and wrong. It is universally offensive and written so well you are forced to say, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” Seth McFarlane, the show’s creator and alter ego of several lead characters, is a renaissance talent and a visionary.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, satire "has been used to lampoon the comfortable, the rich, the famous and, most important from a constitutional standpoint, the powerful. Satire is implicitly protected by the free expression clause of the First Amendment," says James Walker of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
Family Guy is satire. I shouldn’t have to mention that. It features a fat, drunk, stupid, misogynistic hero; his pervy, sex-addicted neighbor; his paraplegic policeman other neighbor; his evil genius, curiously British toddler; and his womanizing, liberal douchebag talking dog. A documentary, it ain’t.
You can argue whether or not you think Family Guy is funny – trust me, in my house we do. But can you hold it to standards of racial hyper-vigilance, circa 2020?
I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s right.
Mike Henry made his announcement and it was retweeted, without comment, by Seth McFarlane. This is perhaps the most disturbing information to me. One gets the impression Henry is bowing to pressure from the left and McFarlane, himself a liberal, has literally nothing he can say, nothing he can do. The entire show is based on raucous social commentary; what do we gain by having a black voice actor play a black caricature? Is it the money? Is Henry taking food out of a black actor’s children’s mouths? Would a black actor even play Cleveland as scripted? Is it the material that is no longer defensible, and Mike Henry and Hank Azaria want to exit the splash zone before the whole ship goes under?
Comedy is important; I’m sorry, but it is. Comedy gives us common ground. Comedy allows us to connect and admit our own foibles and the tropes and failings we see around us. And crossing racial lines – both the material and those performing it – has to be protected. When Chris Rock talks about white people, it’s searing and it’s funny. When he talks about the difference between black people and the N-word, that's funny, too. Look it up on YouTube.
When Eddy Murphy plays an old Jewish man in the barber shop in Coming to America, it’s funny. Should they have told him, “No, Ed, that’s not cool. We have to pay Jackie Mason to do that, he’s the old Jewish guy.” What about deaf people? Does Marlee Matlin have to play every deaf female part in every movie until she's dead and gone? It's called acting, remember. Dustin Hoffman isn't autistic.
The next time Tom Cruise wants to play a samurai, you have my vote: Just say no. But please, for the love of God, don’t let our desire to be better human beings extinguish good comedy. Once we can’t laugh at anything anymore, there are only a limited number of things we as humans can do to survive each passing day.
And I'm afraid we will not like any of them.