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Color-blind casting still doesn't get a pass

Updated 2:12 AM ET, Fri October 16, 2020

(CNN) - History has a way of repeating itself.

I've written about controversy surrounding White actors portraying characters of color -- a practice that has existed throughout Hollywood's history -- multiple times.

In the most recent iteration of this pattern, Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Cleopatra, ancient queen of Egypt, in an upcoming film that will reunite her with "Wonder Woman" director Patty Jenkins.

This is not a new story, but it is a complicated one.

Because while Cleopatra ruled over Egypt, there has long been debate over whether she had African ancestry, given that she hailed from a long line of Macedonian Greeks. (As a geography reminder, Egypt is located on the continent of Africa.)

The belief that Cleopatra was a woman of color also caused consternation in 2010, when Stacy Schiff, the author of the biography "Cleopatra: A Life," suggested Angelina Jolie would be the perfect choice to play the queen in a film adaptation of her book. (Jolie also caught flak for playing real-life French journalist Mariane Pearl, who is of Afro-Cuban-Chinese-Dutch descent, in the 2007 film "A Mighty Heart").

But the issue is bigger than just one role.

"Color-blind casting," as it has come to be known, has both its critics and its supporters for myriad fair and important reasons.

Blackface, the offensive portrayals of Asians and Latinos by White actors, and underrepresentation of people of color behind the scenes all point to the fact that the entertainment industry has long had a race problem. So, it rankles when people believe a character to be "whitewashed."

Here are a handful of casting choices that have inflamed public feeling against Hollywood.

Jake Gyllenhaal: Folks were none too happy when the actor played the lead role in the 2010 fantasy film "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Gyllenhaal didn't love it, either.

"I think I learned a lot from that movie in that I spend a lot of time trying to be very thoughtful about the roles that I pick and why I'm picking them," he told Yahoo Entertainment last year. "And you're bound to slip up and be like, 'That wasn't right for me,' or 'That didn't fit perfectly.' There have been a number of roles like that. And then a number of roles that do."

Scarlett Johansson: Johansson caused a huge uproar in 2015 when she agreed to play an Asian woman in the film "Ghost in the Shell." The live-action remake of the Japanese manga (a comic or graphic novel) did not do well at the box office.

Leonardo DiCaprio: All it took was for Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni to publicly express interest in DiCaprio playing 13th-century Persian poet and scholar of Islam Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi for people to be up in arms in 2016. For the record, DiCaprio has not been cast in the role.

Joseph Fiennes: Even Michael Jackson's daughter Paris expressed her displeasure when Fiennes was cast to play her father. A 2017 episode of the British TV series "Urban Myths" was pulled amid this controversy.

The list goes on and on. And it's not always White actors who are taken to task. Plenty has been written about complaints regarding "Hamilton" having a diverse cast playing real-life historical figures who were White.

The reality is that if Hollywood were a level playing field, we would be at a place where the argument could be made that all roles should be open to anyone and may the best person be cast.

But we aren't there yet.

And until we are, there will continue to be consternation -- especially from those craving better representation.

For your weekend

Three things to watch:

'A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote'

There is no way to escape politics this year, even if you wanted to.

For those who loved the TV series "The West Wing," Thursday is the day the reunion special airs on HBO Max (which is owned by CNN's parent company).

I, for one, will welcome the calming influence of Martin Sheen as President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet.

'Time'

Amazon bills this as an "intimate yet epic love story filmed over two decades," in which "indomitable matriarch Fox Rich strives to raise her six sons and keep her family together as she fights for her husband's release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola."

For anyone who wants to be reminded of the power of love, "Time" starts streaming on Amazon Prime Friday.

'Batman: Death in the Family'

We have a bit of a wait for "The Batman" film, which is currently in production, but Warner Bros. (also owned by CNN's parent company) has a little something to tide us over.

According to our favorite critic, Brian Lowry, the "latest choose-your-own-adventure exercise falls into the category of DC's edgy direct-to-Blu-ray movies (earning, and carrying, an R rating), so the target audience is grown fanboys, not kids.

"But unlike a lot of these exercises, the viewer's choices take the story in wildly different directions, to the point where it feels like a distinct experience watching each version and its various forks in the road," Lowry wrote.

Will Robin die or live another day to assist the Dark Knight?

You tell us, since the ending is up to you.

"Batman: Death in the Family" is available on Blu-ray or for digital download.

Two things to listen to:

Shout-out to my fellow Baltimore native Mario, whose new album, "Closer to Mars," drops on Friday.

I've been following his career since 2002, when as a teen he burst on the scene with the hit R&B single "Just a Friend." Just last week, I cued up his ballad "Let Me Love You" to test our new surround system.

Now 34 and an actor who appeared in the live TV production of the musical "Rent," Mario talked to Revolt about how different it is making music these days.

"People create from a different space today. A lot of our music is influenced by the culture, whereas before we're influencing the culture," he said.

"Now, we're influenced by what we hear. 'Okay, this is going to work for TikTok' or 'this is going to work for this or that playlist' -- in the mainstream. There are a lot of artists who make music they love to make and it lands wherever it lands. Whoever's supposed to receive it, receives it."

Tom Petty left us in 2017 at the age of 66, but his music lives on.

"Wildflowers & All the Rest" contains a remastered version of the original 1994 "Wildflowers" album, plus previously unreleased songs.

The multi-LP project drops Friday.

One thing to talk about:

Sia may have hidden her face for years, but we can see her heart.

InStyle on Tuesday published a piece in which the singer talked more in-depth about adopting a pair of teen boys who had aged out of the foster care system.

She said she had long wanted to be a mom and had tried for years to get pregnant via in vitro fertilization with her ex-husband, filmmaker Erik Anders Lang.

"I learned the story of a 16-year-old boy (whom Sia prefers to keep anonymous to protect his identity) and instantly fell in love with him," she said. "Older children have a really hard time getting adopted, and when I saw him, I said to myself, 'That's my son.' I knew I wanted to help him."

He was 18 by the time Sia found him. She opened up her heart and her home to both him and his 18-year-old cousin, who had lived in a group home with him. Weeks after adopting them, the 44-year-old announced she was a grandmother after one of the boys became a dad.

Brava to a star of her magnitude reminding us that all children, no matter their age, deserve a family.

Something to sip on

Megan Thee Stallion has had some major ups and downs this year, but she's owning all of them and walking in her influence.

The New York Times published an opinion piece this week where she both celebrated the power of Black women and called out the world for not protecting them.

While Thee Stallion has been topping the music charts, she has continued to pursue her bachelor's degree in health administration at Texas Southern University.

Plenty of women in the rap game spit lyrics about being a boss, but Megan Thee Stallion is actually living it.

And proudly.

"I will never stop using my voice," she tweeted on Tuesday.

We are all the better for her speaking up and out.

Pop back here next Thursday for all the latest entertainment happenings that matter.


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