By Washington Post |

‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Big Mouth’ are recasting nonwhite roles. But it’s about more than finding the right voices. - The Washington Post


Jenny Slate recently stepped down from voicing Missy Foreman-Greenwald, the biracial “Big Mouth” character pictured at right. (Netflix)

By Sonia Rao

Sonia Rao

Pop culture reporter

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July 2 at 6:00 AM

“Big Mouth” star Jenny Slate was the first white actor to publicly announce she would no longer voice a mixed-race character, followed shortly by Kristen Bell of “Central Park.” Mike Henry soon after tweeted that he would stop voicing Cleveland, a black character who has long existed in the “Family Guy” universe. Months after Hank Azaria stepped down from voicing Indian store clerk Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on “The Simpsons,” producers said white actors would refrain from voicing nonwhite characters across the board.

The cascade of regrets flowed out over the course of a few days — a tight time frame, taking into account the years of skepticism directed toward this casting dynamic. As protests in support of black lives continue to spark conversations about how black people are treated in professional spaces, there’s a sense of urgency driving attempts at solidarity. “I can’t change the past,” Slate wrote on Instagram, “but I can take accountability for my choices. I will continue to engage in meaningful anti-racist action.”

These white actors have been commended by many for doing their part to create space for black artists. The landscape is different for voice actors, who work in what actress Joan Baker refers to as a “behind-the-scenes industry.” Actors who don’t appear on-screen are technically able to play characters of any race. For this reason, cross-racial casting hasn’t always been frowned upon; the attention paid to persisting imbalances in opportunity for artists of color, however, increasingly makes it so.

Equitable casting “is being demanded to the point where people are giving up their jobs they’ve had for 20 years,” Baker says. “In a sense, I think it’s a great thing to have opportunity for diversity to come into place and be the norm. Why? Because it reflects the world. The world isn’t just one-sided.”

Baker co-founded the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences as a means of training, mentoring and advocating for her peers. Diversity and inclusion, mentioned in the organization’s mission statement, are central to what Baker refers to as her “journey of a lifetime.” White people continue to run the industry, she says. It’s always been cost-effective to hire actors like Mel Blanc, nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” to play multiple characters. The overarching goal isn’t to take away from these talented white actors, but to ensure that equally equipped people of color have a substantial “piece of the pie.”

Animation, of course, is a fantastical medium. Anyone can voice inanimate objects or animals, neither of which inherently carry discernible traits of race. The conversation is more nuanced with human characters (or animals in a clear racial allegory like 2016′s “Zootopia,” notes animation history expert Kara Andersen). As a black woman, Baker continues, she can bring a certain authenticity to black characters.

“A white person might not be able to bring that,” she says. “That just comes naturally with who I am. That doesn’t have to be coaxed out of me, directed out of me or suggested.”

[Black TV writers have often felt like ‘diversity decoration.’ Now they’re braced for another round of promises.]

Jorge Gutierrez, a director who has worked in animation for 20 years, says race-based casting in animation can be a sensitive subject because many beloved performances, including Robin Williams’s Genie in “Aladdin” and Eddie Murphy’s Mushu in “Mulan,” haven’t been culturally specific to the actors. Starting out, Gutierrez says he was also guilty of turning a blind eye to race and ethnicity. But in recent years, and especially after the past few weeks, he has come to see that as a position of privilege. In casting projects later in his career, such as with 2014′s “The Book of Life,” he selected actors with more intention.

“We’re missing a huge opportunity and a huge in for a lot of minority actors — and especially in voice acting, which is really competitive,” Gutierrez says. “If you look at the numbers, the amount of white characters in animation is overwhelmingly huge. These minority characters, if we don’t give those opportunities to actors of those ethnicities, they’re getting even less of a chance.”

As with many conversations that gain traction on social media, that of racial representation in animation is easily derailed. Phil LaMarr, a prolific actor known for his voice roles in series such as “Futurama” and “Samurai Jack,” cautions against “microfocusing” on recent instances of white actors stepping down from nonwhite roles. These were cases of individuals “recognizing a historic imbalance and trying to do something on their personal side to move the meter in the other direction,” he says.

In a perfect world, actors should be able to be cast in any role they can believably play, according to LaMarr, who is black; his lead role in “Samurai Jack,” set in feudal Japan, is a prominent example of cross-racial casting. But in a reality where white, male actors dominate the field, industry figures should direct their energy toward correcting that structural imbalance. LaMarr emphasizes that actors don’t hire themselves. Casting directors facilitate the process, he says, but they’re only the doormen. Change needs to come from the people who own the building: showrunners, producers and studio executives.

“One part of that is general artistic principle, and the other part of it is about practicality and people trying to make a living,” LaMarr says. “Animation had people opening up their minds before, in terms of the audience, but there were a lot of people in the decision-making process whose minds weren’t as open. When I started out in this business, there were a very, very small percentage of shows with leads of color. You know? They just weren’t telling the stories of people of color. Now that has changed.”

In the case of “The Simpsons,” producers were the ones who made the decision not to have white actors voice nonwhite characters. (Azaria, who announced in January that he would no longer voice Apu, did so after facing years of criticism, including a documentary on the subject.) Though Alison Brie only recently expressed regret over voicing the Vietnamese American character Diane Nguyen in “BoJack Horseman,” series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg tweeted two years ago that he had “soured on the idea of ‘color-blind’ casting” and wouldn’t assemble an all-white cast if he were to do it again.

Andersen, the animation history expert, challenges the existence of colorblind casting altogether. While producers have believably cast actors of different races than their characters — LaMarr mentions Broadway’s “Hamilton” as a successful live-action instance of this — they are still looking into those actors’ resumes, their backgrounds and, even if in headshot form, their physical appearances. They may not believe themselves to be consciously thinking about race, she adds, “but that doesn’t mean you’re actually colorblind. You’re probably just blind to your biases about such things.”

Baker goes a step further by challenging the industry to think about race even more, especially when it comes to hiring up the ladder. She recalls the time a producer warned her of a white director’s inability to work with black people. She couldn’t tell what that meant until she overheard the director say, “She’s great and all, but can you have her add a little more cotton to her voice?”

“Although this was a while ago, it still shows up in its shape today because there’s not a lot of people behind the scenes who are black or of color, who are directing, casting, agenting, managing,” Baker says. “Now, I think these decisions are going to be challenged. The more you hire black [people] and people of color in these positions, then you’re going to see different casting.”

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