(Background: actor Jim Sturgess Tweeted something childish related to his “yellowface” character in Cloud Atlas, which sparked more of the ongoing discussion around casting white actors for PoC characters.)
I can’t speak from exact personal experience on this, being a white chick who’s never had to face racism, but I have faced similar issues, and from an outsider’s perspective, I think this practice is wretched. Not just because it contributes to the lack of diversity in entertainment, and not just because it makes it harder for actors who don’t fit the A-list mold to get work, but also because it’s character assassination. While not all PoC, queer, etc. characters are written well, and many are just tokens or stereotypes, many more have the vital statistics they do for a reason: it’s part of who they are. As a writer, I’d be intensely offended if someone changed an essential part of who my characters are for no better reason than pandering to audience prejudice.
I think there are rare cases in which an appropriate actor simply can’t be found for a given role, but those are few and far between. They’re usually things like a rare disability, or one that would limit the ability to perform, or a specific mix of race, gender, age, etc. that’s simply impossible to find in the wild.
For instance, one of my novels has a character who’s a short, 60something, Tibetan-American transwoman. If it were ever turned into a movie, I’m sure the casting director would have difficulty finding a trained, character-appropriate actor who hit all of those things, so she’d probably look further afield, and consider actors who are cisgendered and of other Asian ethnicities, while still holding out hope for a perfect match (a trans, Tibetan Linda Hunt, anyone?)
But another character in the same novel, a mid-30s Romanian/Brazilian-American woman who practices capoeira? That shouldn’t be hard to find at all. The Romanian part might be fudged, and Latinas with heritage outside of Brazil might be considered, but I’m sure there are plenty of actors out there who could fake the capoeira well enough for the screen. (Whether she’d be down with the role’s romantic elements—the character is in a m/m/f triad marriage–is a different story!)
Of course, the chances of any of my three novels getting published, much less being turned into a movie, are slim, but if that did ever happen, I’d insist that my PoC characters (20+ of them) remain as they are and be played by actors whose racial background is at least from the same general region of the world. Hell, I know many are out there to begin with: I already have some actors I keep in mind as mental avatars for the characters (Estella Daniels for an Eritrean-American computer genius; Amrita Acharya for a British-Indian ornithologist who’s also a transwoman; Avan Jogia for a bisexual, Scots/Egyptian-American college kid.) Finding actors whose orientation and gender identity match my GLBT characters might be more difficult—Avan is straight, and Amrita isn’t trans, as far as I’m aware—but I’d of course insist that the characters themselves remain so (hell, they’d have to, in many cases, because it’s important to the story.)
It’s true that most roles are written for white, traditionally attractive, etc., people, and that means most people who go into acting fit those requirements. Many people who don’t might well start acting, but then drop out when they can’t get work. (Hi! Stopped performing because there just ain’t many roles for a short, fat, butch chick.) But that’s not an excuse to fill roles meant for other people with inappropriate actors when there are, actually, plenty of available actors who are appropriate.
Likewise, I know that showbiz is more biz than show, and that market research does bear out the conventional wisdom that a majority of straight, white guys can’t relate to lead characters who aren’t like them (hence why my novels aren’t likely to hit the larger market.) But that’s absolutely not an excuse to change the race, orientation, body size, gender presentation, etc., of existing characters (especially real people!) to fit those prejudices. There’s absolutely no excuse for what they did to 21 and The Last Airbender because there are plenty of Asian actors who would’ve been perfectly good in those roles. Likewise, casting Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone was a mistake, because there are plenty of darker-skinned women who should’ve been considered. (Though I admit that some of the backlash I’ve seen aimed at Saldana for this is irritating—she hasn’t ceased being a woman of color just because she was given a role that’s not right for her.)
And don’t get me started on the grossness of Cloud Atlas. Ugh. Just … ugh.
The world is not made up solely of straight, white dudes, and thus the characters we see in our entertainment should reflect who we really are, not just who’s managed to claw their way to the top of the power structure. The patchwork quilt of who a character is DOES involve race, gender, language, ability, orientation, etc, because those things matter to us as people (especially if we face oppression for those things.) They do not define us in toto, because none of us are just one thing, but they do still matter, and that means that they matter for fictional characters, too.
Disregarding race and other vital statistics in casting as a way to create more opportunities for actors who otherwise aren’t getting a lot of work is a good thing, but it should never go the other way. Yes, acting is cutthroat, and getting any job at all is a challenge unless you’re an A-lister, but I’d hesitate to say that Jim Sturgess really needed that 21 gig more than, say, Archie Kao, who would’ve been brilliant in the role.
The world is a colorful place, though you’d never know it if all you ever saw of it was the stuff produced by the mainstream entertainment industry in the Western world, and speaking as a writer who’s trying to reflect the reality of humanity, I’d be absolutely furious if someone else tried to stop me from doing that.