Crazy Rich Asians star Gemma Chan sheds light on the importance of colourblind casting.
Gemma Chan is on a role when it comes to redefining representation in Hollywood. Aside from her participation in Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood picture telling a story about Asian-Americans with the first all-Asian ensemble cast in 25 years, Chan’s newest on-screen endeavour in Mary Queen of Scots is challenging the way history is told by playing Bess of Hardwick, a historically Caucasian female adviser to Queen Elizabeth I.
“Why are actors of colour, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race? And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race,” Chan said in her cover story for Allure. “In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”
Director Josie Rourke was the one who spearheaded the promise of delivering colourblind casting within Mary Queen of Scots. In an interview with Refinery29, Rourke divulged that her casting choices on the period film drew from her theatre experience, in which colourblind casting is more commonly seen, as opposed to in Hollywood. ”When I sat down with [the studio] early, before we got down to a lot of stuff, I said to them, ‘Just so you know, I’m not doing to direct an all-white period drama. That’s not something I’m going to do.’ And they were really hugely supportive of that,” Rourke said.
Rourke, known for previously directed an all-female production of Julius Caesar in London, isn’t the only one who has noticed the example that the theatre community has set. ”I feel like Hamilton opened minds a lot,” Chan explained. “We have a black man playing George Washington. They describe it as ‘America then, told by America now.’ And I think our art should reflect life now.”
Art reflecting life now, and allowing visibility and representation to triumph, is an important hurdle to overcome, but allowing the opportunity to have certain stories within life’s history told in the first place, is another issue in itself. When Chan worked on a documentary about the Chinese Labour Corps last year, she was introduced to a whole new layer of history she wouldn’t have even known existed without the film. “I studied the First World War three times at school. And I never heard that there were 140,000 Chinese in the Allied effort. We would not have won the war without them.” she said. “If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.”
While colourblind casting is a step in the right direction, it is just one piece of a very complex, and deep rooted puzzle. And in the words of Bernice King, “Being “colourblind” is not the solution to racism. See people fully. Love people deeply.”