Four years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda portrayed Salman Rushdie, opposite F.Murray Abraham as Ayatollah Khomeini, in the hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm “Fatwa!” episode.
Sometimes life imitates art. The real Rushdie apologized in a futile effort to evade a death sentence. Last month, the real Miranda apologized to evade a cancellation decree.
In the Heights follows a group of residents of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, as they pursue their individual dreams. The story is uplifting, even patriotic. The central character, Usnavi, dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s bodega. But ultimately he chooses to remain in Washington Heights and remodel his local bodega there. His decision is based on the realization that his true home is America.
The highly successful stage musical established Miranda’s reputation, winning Tony Awards in 2008 for Best Musical, Original Score, Choreography, and Orchestrations. But the world changed between 2008 and 2021. When the movie version was released, Miranda was immediately condemned for “colorism;” namely, favoring light-skinned Hispanics over darker-skinned ones for the leading roles.
The legendary Rita Moreno, a woman of Puerto Rican heritage, rose to Miranda’s defense, telling Stephen Colbert: “You can never do right, it seems. This is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America.” She added: “We are all colors in Puerto Rico. This is how it is. It would be so nice if they hadn’t come up with that and left it alone, just for now. They’re really attacking the wrong person.”
But the defense didn’t last. Miranda himself apologized for the movie’s “shortcomings.” Adopting the air of abasement customary in these rituals, Miranda thanked his attackers for their “honest feedback,” and promised “to do better in [his] future projects.” His mea culpa was reminiscent of Rushdie’s apology: “I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam… This experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.”
But of course, Rushdie had an incentive to apologize. He faced execution. Miranda faced only cancellation.
In the wake of Miranda’s apology, Rita Moreno walked back her own defense, tweeting: “I’m incredibly disappointed with myself. While making a statement in defense of Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Colbert Show last night, I was clearly dismissive of black lives that matter in our Latin community. It is so easy to forget how celebration for some is lament for others.”
Should Miranda have apologized? Should Moreno have retreated?
Let’s start with a few self-evident points. First, it goes without saying that casting a wide net to include actors of different types and backgrounds is commendable. No one can be sure where new talent may be found, so it’s a good idea to look beyond the usual borders.
Second, the critics who accused Miranda of painting a distorted picture of Washington Heights had their facts wrong. Contrary to their claims, the neighborhood is not “predominantly Afro-Latino.” According to the Statistical Atlas, whose data comes from the US Census Bureau, only 15.6% of the neighborhood population self-identify as black; 17.4% identify as non-Hispanic white. By far the largest percentage, 62.3%, identify as “Hispanic”, a category defined to exclude black and Asian Hispanics.
But the numbers aren’t really the issue. In the Heights is not a documentary. It doesn’t purport to convey a demographically accurate picture of the neighborhood.
The real issue raised by the critics is the notion that characters on the screen should be portrayed only by those who share their skin color or ethnicity. This is what the “colorism” critics meant to say. Assuming (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the Washington Heights population is predominantly Afro-Latino, then, according to them, the cast should be predominantly Afro-Latino.
The critics might have thought that by insisting that roles of color be played by actors of the same color, they were supporting Afro-Latino actors. In fact, they were doing the opposite. If only dark-skinned Dominicans of African heritage are qualified to fill the roles of residents of Washington Heights, then, by the same “coloristic” logic, those are the only types of roles they are entitled to play. An Afro-Latino actor would have no right to play, for example, a Brazilian or an East African or a Pakistani, even if that actor were skilled enough to do so. For to take such a role would be to exhibit the same sort of colorism the modern critics condemn.
Fortunately, the movie industry has not subscribed to such a narrow concept. At least not yet.
Instead, for most of its history, the industry has recognized this simple truth: Acting is the art of pretending to be someone or something that one is not. That means that actors can play any type of character they can credibly pretend to be.
Rita Moreno, for example, achieved fame playing Anita, the Puerto Rican spitfire, in the 1961 film West Side Story. The movie won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. She has complained that she was required to wear darkening makeup. But the role called for a dark-skinned woman, which she was not. The makeup – combined with her prodigious talent — gave her the opportunity to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Under the regime of the modern critics, she would be guilty of colorism had she auditioned for the role of Anita.
George Chakiris, who played the role of Bernardo, gang leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks, was also guilty of colorism by the modern critics’ standards. Chakiris is neither a light-skinned Puerto Rican nor a dark-skinned Puerto Rican. He isn’t a Puerto Rican at all. He he is a Greek-American.
But that’s not the limit of his coloristic crimes. Chakiris got the movie role of Bernardo because he was starring in the very successful London stage production (which ran for 22 months) when casting for the movie began. He and other London cast members were invited to test for movie roles. Interestingly, Chakiris was not playing Bernardo in London. Instead, he had the role of Riff, leader of the Polish-American Jets. Thanks to casting directors who were not constrained by modern notions of equity, Chakiris, a Greek, had the chance to go from playing Riff, a Polish gang leader, to Bernardo, a Puerto Rican gang leader. Like Rita Moreno, George Chakiris won an Academy Award for his performance.
Playing the Puerto Rican heroine Maria in West Side Story was Natalie Wood, a woman of Ukranian heritage. This talented actress often wandered outside her ethnic/racial lane. For example, she achieved stardom portraying Marjorie Morgenstern in Majorie Morningstar, the classic coming of age tale of a Jewish girl.
Her casting in that role illustrates a strange Hollywood rule. Call it the “Jews Must Not Play Jews” Rule. Jewish actors may play just about any role in cinema except for Jewish roles. Thus, the Jewish Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) could play the Italian gangster Johnny Rocco in Key Largo, a film in which he manhandles the Jewish Lauren Bacall (born Betty Joan Perske), cast as the WASP-y beauty Nora Temple.
While these Jews played non-Jewish roles, Jewish roles were played by non-Jewish performers. Charlton Heston was cast as Moses in The Ten Commandments and as Ben Hur in the film of that name. Gregory Peck played King David in David and Bathsheba.
Moving forward in history, Elizabeth Taylor played Rebecca, the daughter of the Jewish financier Isaac of York, in Ivanhoe. Seven years later, Taylor converted and actually became a Jew. After that, she was no longer cast in Jewish roles.
The now Jewish Elizabeth Taylor, however, was cast as Cleopatra. But turnabout is fair play. If a nice Jewish girl like Elizabeth Taylor could be cast as an Egyptian, why not cast a nice Egyptian boy as a Jew? That is exactly what happened in Funny Girl, where Omar Sharif was cast as Nicky Arnstein, the Jewish gambler.
There are of course exceptions to the Jews Do Not Play Jews Rule. Paul Newman, the son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, was cast as Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, but only because the director Otto Preminger wanted a star of Jewish descent “who didn’t look Jewish.” And in keeping with Rule, Preminger cast the non-Jewish Italian Sal Mineo and the non-Jewish Greek (another Greek!) George Maharis as Jewish Irgun fighters.
In addition to playing the Jewish Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl, the ethnically versatile Omar Sharif played a Spanish priest in Behold a Pale Horse, and the Russian Dr. Zhivago in the movie of that name. Of course he was also cast as an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia. But he played a Bedouin sheik, not an Egyptian. Arguably, the two are as different as light-skinned and dark-skinned Latinos. Had Miranda’s critics been around, they surely would have accused director David Lean of colorism for his selection of Sharif to play a Bedouin.
Some might say that casting one type of Arab as another type of Arab was the least of the sins committed by the producers. Auda abu Tayi, a Bedouin warrior, is played by Anthony Quinn, the son of an Irish father and a Mexican mother, best known for his role as a Greek (in the aptly named Zorba the Greek). Prince Faisal, later King of Syria and Iraq, is played by Alec Guinness, the quintessential Englishman. Yet somehow all this colorism did not detract from the movie’s appeal. It won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The movie’s colorism even touched the Latino community. One of the most compelling performances in the epic is that of the Turkish Bey, who tortures Lawrence. This role of Ottoman malevolence was played by Jose Ferrer, a Puerto Rican. Though his screen time is short, Ferrer once said: “If I was to be judged by any one film performance, it would be my five minutes in Lawrence.” It did not occur to Ferrer to apologize for spending those five minutes outside his ethnic/racial lane.
The Godfather, nominated for 11 Academy Awards and winner of Best Picture and Best Actor, is widely recognized as one of the greatest movies ever made. It is a story of an Italian crime family. It is also a grand illustration of ethnic/racial lane trespassing. Vito Corleone, the godfather, is played by Marlon Brando, born of German, Dutch, English, and Irish stock. Sonny Corleone, the eldest son, was played by James Caan, a Jew, and Salvatore Tessio, Vito Corleone’s caporegime, was played by Abe Vigoda, another Jew.
The Godfather’s youngest son and heir, Michael Corleone, was played by Al Pacino, a genuine Italian. But Pacino never learned to confine himself to heterosexual Italian Catholic roles. He played a gay bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, a Cuban gangster in Scarface – and, inevitably, a Jew in Merchant of Venice. In fact, he played this Jewish role three different times: in film, in Central Park, and on Broadway.
Speaking of Merchant of Venice, we may count ourselves fortunate that the enemies of colorism have played no role in casting Shakespeare, nearly all of whose characters are white Europeans. If they had, we might never have seen James Earl Jones play King Lear, or Denzel Washington play Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing. For that matter, under those critics’ standards, Paul Robeson should not have played Othello. For Robeson was an American, the son of an escaped slave, who could trace his roots traced back to West Africa. Shakespeare’s Othello, on the other hand, was a Moor, a term broadly used in his day to refer to the Muslim inhabitants of Spain, Portugal, and Northern Africa. For strict anti-colorists, the African-American Robeson had no business playing the Moorish Othello. The role should have gone to a Moroccan, Tunisian, or Algerian.
Countless additional examples could be cited showing actors straying outside their ethnic/racial lanes, and enriching the culture by doing so. But one requires special mentioning, and it involves the same Lin-Manuel Miranda who has faced criticism over In the Heights. That one work is of course Hamilton, the rap musical featuring black, Latino, and Asian actors portraying the Founding Fathers. Every role, with the exception of King George, is played by someone who looks different than the man or woman portrayed. The casting sends a message: the ideals of the Revolution were universal, transcending race and color.
Hamilton won eleven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and it changed the way we look at our national history. Its creator need not by lectured by, and certainly need not apologize to, those simple-minded critics obsessed with the newly minted, meaningless sin of “colorism.”