Artistic License & Racial Representation in Hollywood

The Concept of Artistic License in Film

In the intricate world of storytelling, artistic licensing – the practice of deviating from historical or factual accuracy for the sake of narrative – has often been used to bring life to some of the most memorable characters in film history. Tom Cruise’s role as an American military advisor in Japan in “The Last Samurai” is a notable example. Despite Cruise not being Japanese, his portrayal was widely accepted, and the film enjoyed substantial success. However, this leniency towards artistic license often gets complicated when it intersects with issues of race and representation, as exemplified by debates around casting black actors in historically white roles, like the case of a Black actress playing Cleopatra or a Black actor playing Hannibal Barca.

Cleopatra: A Historical Perspective

Cleopatra, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, is widely believed to have been of mixed Greek and Persian ancestry. Historically, she has been predominantly portrayed by white actresses in film and television, from Claudette Colbert to Elizabeth Taylor. The decision to cast a black actress, in the role of Cleopatra in a recent Netflix Series, has sparked heated discussions about artistic license, racial representation, and the importance of historical accuracy.

Queen Cleopatra. Cr. Netflix © 2023

Hollywood’s Legacy of Whitewashing

One of the central issues lies in the historical context. For decades, Hollywood has been criticized for whitewashing – the practice of casting white actors in non-white character roles. This criticism is not without merit, as there is a long history of films where white actors have been cast in roles of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. From the casting of Mickey Rooney as a Japanese man in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character in “Ghost in the Shell,” these decisions have perpetuated stereotypes and deprived actors of colour of significant roles.

The Rise of Diversity and Representation in Hollywood

In response to this criticism, there has been a significant push for more diversity and representation in Hollywood. The casting of a black actress as Cleopatra can be seen as part of this larger movement. However, this decision has also faced backlash, mainly from individuals who believe it is an instance of ‘blackwashing’ – a term used to describe casting black actors in roles traditionally or historically white.

This backlash highlights the complex relationship between race and representation in film. While it’s important to recognize the historical accuracy of Cleopatra’s ethnicity, it’s equally crucial to understand the broader implications of Hollywood’s history of racial representation. The backlash against casting a black actress as Cleopatra could be interpreted as a reaction against changing norms in Hollywood and society at large. Some argue that the pushback is less about historical accuracy and more about an unwillingness to accept changes in traditional racial hierarchies in film.

The Complex Relationship between Race and Representation in Film

On the other hand, proponents of diverse casting decisions argue that artistic license is vital for creative expression and storytelling. They claim that actors should be chosen for their ability to embody a character and tell a compelling story, rather than for their racial or ethnic background. Moreover, the argument of historical accuracy can be tricky. If adhered to strictly, it would rule out many beloved performances, such as Tom Cruise’s in “The Last Samurai”.

The casting of a Black actress as Cleopatra is a pertinent reminder of the ongoing debates around artistic license, racial representation, and historical accuracy in Hollywood. It invites us to consider the importance of diversity and representation in storytelling, and the need for a balanced approach that respects both historical context and the necessity for increased representation.

Conclusion: The Complexity of Artistic License and Race in Hollywood

In conclusion, while artistic license allows for flexibility in casting, the issue becomes contentious when it comes to race, primarily due to Hollywood’s historical practices.

The pushback against a black actress playing Cleopatra is a reflection of these complexities.