The Aesthetics of Actor-Character Race Matching in Film Fictions

Philosophers' Imprint 12 (3) (2012)
Abstract
Marguerite Clark as Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1918). Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel Vargas in Touch of Evil (1958). Mizuo Peck as Sacagawea in Night at the Museum (2006). From the early days of cinema to its classic-era through to the contemporary Hollywood age, the history of cinema is replete with films in which the racial (or ethnic) background of a principal character does not match the background of the actor or actress portraying that character. I call this actor-character race-mismatching. In this paper, I mainly explore whether a coherent and plausible account can be given of race-matching in terms of purely aesthetic considerations, i.e., an account that absent moral considerations can nevertheless coherently and productively answer the following questions: can race-mismatching itself ever be an aesthetic defect of a film, and if so, under what conditions can race-mismatching be such an aesthetic defect. I claim that once we have in place a precise account of the nature of race-matching, it becomes clear that films for which race-mismatching appears to constitute an aesthetic defect are actually films with which properly engaging requires audiences to satisfy inconsistent epistemic conditions. In such cases, I claim, race mismatching constitutes an aesthetic defect for the film-fiction because—in virtue of the inconsistency underwritten by the race-mismatching—that film-fiction undermines the very uptake it prescribes. I then argue that if what’s defective about race-mismatching aesthetically is predicated on something being defective about race-mismatching epistemically, then if there is nothing in principle defective about race-mismatching epistemically, then so too for mismatching aesthetically (and so too for mismatching morally). From this I conclude that reasons stemming only from race-matching/mismatching itself lack the normative force sufficient to warrant the claim that film-fictions ought not race-mismatch.
Keywords Fiction  Race  Film
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