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Why are Lupita Nyong'o and Idris Elba being cast in non-human roles?

Lupita Nyong'o accepts the Oscar for actress in a supporting role for
Lupita Nyong'o accepts the Oscar for actress in a supporting role for "12 Years a Slave," which was released in 2013. She's only been seen in one live action film since.
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Why Won’t Hollywood Let Us See Our Best Black Actors?

That's the question Kyle Buchanan, senior editor at, asks in an essay published on New York Magazine's culture website.

Buchanan joins John Horn to discuss the trend of Hollywood studios casting black actors such as Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Zoe Saldana and Paula Patton in roles for which their actual faces are not seen. Instead they're playing animated animals, motion-capture characters or painted aliens.

"It seems to me that our black actors just aren't being allowed to be black on screen," Buchanan says. Since winning the Oscar for "12 Years a Slave," Nyong'o's face has only been seen in one live action movie — "Non-Stop." But she was the voice of the orange alien Maz Kanata in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and a wolf in "The Jungle Book." Notably, she's currently performing in the play "Eclipsed" on Broadway. (Later this year, she'll be seen in Mira Nair's "Queen of Katwe.")

Meanwhile, already this year Elba has been a water buffalo in "Zootopia" and a tiger in "The Jungle Book." This summer he'll be the voice of a sea lion in "Finding Dory" and an alien in "Star Trek" who's "slathered in white prosthetics," Buchanan says.

And Elba and  Nyong’o aren't alone. In his Vulture story, Buchanan writes: "In this summer’s video-game adaptation 'Warcraft,' Paula Patton is slathered in green paint as the half-human, half-orc Garona, which makes me wonder if she consulted Zoe Saldana for advice before taking the role: After all, Saldana has already played green in 'Guardians of the Galaxy' and blue in 'Avatar.'" 

Buchanan said on The Frame: "There's this fear that black actors in particular won't travel well overseas. That's been disproven, I feel, again and again. 'Furious 7' is only the most recent example."

Buchanan and Horn also discussed the other side of what they call a fear-based mentality on the part of Hollywood — the casting of white actors to play Asian parts. This was a phenomenon recently noted in The New York Times.

Horn cited three incidents in upcoming movies in which Asian characters are being played by white actresses: Tilda Swinton will play a Tibetan mystic named The Ancient One in "Dr. Strange"; Scarlett Johansson will play the Japanese cyborg "The Ghost in the Shell"; and Elizabeth Banks will play the Asian character Rita Repulsa in the "Power Rangers" movie.

Buchanan and Horn talked about how this is another aspect to what's afoot in Hollywood studio thinking.

Buchanan: I think it's part of the fear impulse that's restricting black actors. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most bankable stars, but when I hear a counter-argument that there's just not enough Asian movie stars to cast in these films, I think, Well, was Chris Hemsworth a star before "Thor"? Was Daisy Ridley a star before she was cast in "Star Wars"? You can make these people into stars.

Horn: It is a self-perpetuating myth. If you say there are no black stars or Asian-American stars and then you don't cast black actors in leading roles or Asians or Hispanics in any of the leading roles, it is going to be the same story over and over again, right?

Buchanan: So what we have here is the case of Hollywood doing the easiest and, therefore, the most pernicious thing ... just casting white actors whenever they've got a live action role to fill. And they can pat themselves on the back for casting black actors in these voice or motion-capture roles or in these alien roles where you're painting them blue or green. But there's something really weird about that fact that it's almost like erasure, you know? If we see black actors so rarely in dramatic films and big budget studio films, then it's almost as though they're treated as exotic, and so it's not that far of a leap to then brand them as aliens with just a little bit of a skin paint job.




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