Beyond political correctness, though, there are legal issues to consider when you’re an industry that regularly makes race a factor in hiring decisions. To stay on the right side of antidiscrimination laws—not to mention the collective bargaining agreements between SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, and TV and film producers—breakdowns have to be careful to focus not on who the actor is, but who the character is. (Typically, a breakdown begins with the character’s name and then lists any age, gender, or ethnic designations before filling in more details about the character’s personality or plotlines. See some examples here.)
But what about the decision to make a character white, black, or Asian? Is that a discriminatory act?
Possibly. In a 2006 study on casting notices and Title VII (the federal antidiscrimination employment statute), Berkeley Law professor Russell Robinson argues that the First Amendment likely protects the rights of directors and producers to take race into consideration when it’s integral to the narrative—say, if you’re casting a real-life historical figure. However, the decision to make a character one ethnicity or another is often based on less clearly protected factors—like a fear that “mainstream” audiences won’t buy tickets to a film starring actors of color or the belief that only white characters can serve as audience stand-ins. (Robinson’s theories about how Title VII applies to ethnically specific casting notices have yet to be tested in the courts; the recent high-profile lawsuit against the producers of The Bachelor is based on a different law, one having to do with discrimination in contracts.)
Robinson’s analysis of three months’ worth of film breakdowns found that Caucasian roles made up 22.5 percent of advertised openings. The next largest category of ethnic-specific roles was designated African-American (8.1 percent). The smallest category was made up of Native American characters (0.5 percent).
The largest group of roles in Robinson’s sample—46.5 percent—included no ethnic designation at all. According to most of his sources, a role with no ethnic designation would be implicitly understood by talent agents and actors to be Caucasian—meaning that, in Robinson’s final tally, 69 percent of open film roles were presumed to be reserved for white actors. (Breakdown Services has rejected Robinson’s analysis, saying they don’t know where he got the breakdowns he was reading.)
Larry Williams, founder of Williams Talent Agency, which specializes in representing African-American and minority performers, says Robinson’s interpretation tracks with his experience: Usually, he finds that a role with no ethnic designation ultimately goes to a Caucasian actor. (Meanwhile, he’s found that roles bearing a disclaimer like “submit all ethnicities” go to Caucasian actors about 60 percent of the time.)
But others in the industry dispute the claim that a breakdown with no racial designation is tacitly seeking Caucasian actors. According to Adam Moore, diversity director of SAG-AFTRA, it was “absolutely” the case in the past that a role description that gave a character type without an ethnic designation “meant Caucasian for sure, and unless it said ‘African-American judge’ or whatever, you wouldn’t apply for that,” he says. “But I think we’ve moved away from that. It feels unfortunate that actors and agents still feel that way, because from the casting community, that is not what they mean. They are looking for that diversity; they are actively seeking it out more and more, because that’s what employers want.”
Helen Geier, a casting director who has worked on both films and television shows, adds another wrinkle. Sometimes, she says, the producers on a project will specify that a role should be Caucasian—but the casting director will deliberately stay mum on the ethnicity question in the breakdown just to see who comes in. Maybe there’ll be a chance to show the producers and director something they didn’t know they wanted.
Geier also says that, while there’s really no set way to write a breakdown—and thus no “code” to crack—if she wants to see actors from all across the spectrum, including white performers, she’ll usually forgo any ethnic designation. If she wants to see actors of color, specifically, she’ll add a tag line like “Open to all ethnicities.”
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