Can a White Actor Play a Black Historical Character?

I found this old interview of James Earl Jones by Dick Cavett. Anthony Quinn (a Mexican of Irish descent) had planned to make a film about the Haitian Emperor Henry Christophe.

It’s fairly clear that Jones doesn’t think Quinn should play Henry Christophe but he makes his point in a very nuanced, sophisticated way that’s far more convincing than the absolutist arguments you here on social media today.

I also think Jones would have made a great Beethoven(when he was in his 40s, although he’s probably a bit too old now at 88). For what it’s worth, Quinn was quite convincing as a Libyan in the film Lion of the Desert.

3 thoughts on “Can a White Actor Play a Black Historical Character?”

  1. Black face is black face is black face. James Earl Jones had to present a “nuanced” critique if he, a working black film actor in the 70’s, hoped to maintain gainful employment. He didn’t have the (white) privilege to say otherwise. I would love to ask him that same question now. I highly doubt he would hedge his true feelings about black face in a major Hollywood (or indy) production. And it’s not CAN Quinn, or any one else, pull off the role, but SHOULD they.

    1. And it’s not CAN Quinn, or any one else, pull off the role, but SHOULD they.

      In this particular case, in retrospect, it might have been better if Quinn had been able to make the movie. Very few Americans, black or white, have ever heard of the Haitian Revolution. It’s not taught in high school or even college history classes. As far as I know, there are no major Hollywood productions on Dessalines or Jean Christophe. Quinn’s film might have raised awareness about a country that American ignorance allows the American ruling class to exploit — Bush kidnapping the President of Haiti, the Clintons massively profiting off the country after the earthquake. I also think there’s a difference between the kind of demeaning portrayal of black people you saw in American minstrel shows and the idea of a Mexican actor playing a Haitian figure from history. Having seen excellent Quinn’s portrayal of Omar al-Mukhtar I’m pretty sure he would have played Jean Christophe in a respectful, even admiring manner. Quinn’s father was half Irish, so he was a quarter Irish and three quarters mixed race Latino. I’m not sure he would have much “white privilege” in the USA these days. He’s exactly the kind of person being demonized by Trump.

  2. Jones was in my mind making it clear that if Tony Quinn could play the role truthfully both in his appearance and in his essence, with absolutely no quality of a black-faced minstrel show, he would be alright with it. I have always felt actors should be able to play what they want if they can pull it off, the only condition to that idea is that just as many black actors should be given the opportunity to play white characters as white actors playing black roles.

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