Race and Screenwriting
This is commentary to my White writer colleagues who may want to write an African American character into their work, but are confused as to whether they need to infuse an African American perspective into the story. First off; I wish more writers, of all ethnicities, would have the wherewithal to have this conversation. It’s much needed in our industry and very long overdue.
There is a mode of thinking that if you change a character from one ethnicity to another that you must alter the story to address race in some perspective. That by imposing an African American character into the story without addressing race, in some fashion, would strike the audience as odd or unrealistic. That somehow the audience may suspect that the character was changed from one ethnicity to another by the actor taking on the distinctions of the White character. Thereby making the role inauthentic and somewhat uncomfortable.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you are writing a screenplay and you want to change a character from White to African American, you don't have to change the story to reflect that the character is now African American so that the actor won't act, “White." It's all in the casting. If you want the character to have what is called, “SWAG,” hire an African American actor who can do that. If you want him to have more of an "edge," hire one who can do that. If you want him exhibit a more "proper," demeanor or even one who may have grown up in the White community, then hire one who can do that. Much the same way you would hire any other actor. What you don't have to do is add a storyline about "race," into your script because the character "happens," to be African American.
We are not a walking billboard of the downtrodden and oppressed. In addition, we're not always addressing race in every scenario of our lives. Do you know how extremely exhausting that would be? We go through life experiencing the same things as any other human being until race becomes an issue. If it's not an issue in your script, don't make it one. Think of some of the African Americans you have met or may have had an acquaintance with. They are not leading the conversation with, “My name is, So and So, and I support Black Lives Matter because…” They’re saying, “Hey did you see that game last night?” or “Where can I get a good pizza in California?!”
Sylvester Stallone was originally set to star in Beverly Hills Cop, but was replaced by Eddie Murphy. The script wasn’t changed because Eddie Murphy was African American. Mr. Murphy just brought along his own comedic nuances and points of view to the part. Some lines or two may have been changed, (I suspecting more because of improvisation) but the story remained the same. (Incidentally, Sylvester Stallone wanted to change the story and make it a full-on action film.)
Denzel Washington, who played, Robert “Bob” McCall in The Equalizer, is another example of an actor who played a character originally written for a White actor. The story wasn’t changed to reflect the very obvious fact that the very fine actor/director, Mr. Washington, is African American. Mr. Washington reflected who he was within the established story.
There are many fine African American actors who are very skilled at their crafts. Yahya Abdul Mateen, Mahersahala Ali, Aaron Braxton, Aldrige Hodge and Edwin Hodge who will know how to insert the necessary nuances into dialogue and story without a writer having to change a thing. Remember, you have not written an African American story. You've written a story that happens to have an African American character in it.
There's a difference.
Aaron Braxton is an award winning writer/actor living in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at email@example.com.