Oped: Race, gender cause artistic divide

Don Rose
Tribune News Service

Took my nose out of the political news to find an interesting clash of principles dividing the theater and music worlds. To wit: What is more important, the issue of artistic freedom or sociopolitical fairness? Does one override the other, or is it situational?

In one of two current cases, the actor Scarlett Johansson decided, under heavy pressure, not to play the role of a transgender man in a forthcoming film called "Rub & Tug," about a transgender crook who ran a string of massage parlors that fronted brothels. The transgender community and its supporters protested a cisgender actor playing the role of a transgender person. (Cisgender is the term used for those of us who identify with the gender assigned at birth.)

The argument was not one of disrespect but basically denying a qualified transgender actor the opportunity to play an important role. Well-known cisgender actors have won major awards in trans roles — such as Jared Leto's Oscar for playing a transgender woman in "Dallas Buyers Club" and Jeffrey Tambor's Emmy for a similar role in the series "Transparent." Johansson's supporters invoked artistic freedom — a very legitimate issue — but she eventually stepped down.

OK, I get the economic issue. For many years black jazzmen complained about white cats getting gigs that should have gone to African-Americans. I also get the respect issue. For years, with few exceptions such as the great Paul Robeson, white actors played the role of Othello. Doubt you'll find many these days, and it's a good thing, regardless of the talent or artistic freedom of the whites in any of those cases.

I wonder, however, how far this should be extended: Should only gay actors portray gays or lesbians? Golly, for generations gay men and lesbians played the role of straights, but for the most part we weren't supposed to know their actual sexuality.

The other case involves a musical event at the Montreal International Jazz Festival where a "theatrical odyssey based on slave songs" and titled "Slav" was having a run. There, a mostly white cast (only two of seven were black) sang the roles of black slaves. This, I thought was quite dicey, as did a slew of protesters who eventually got the show closed down despite director Robert Lepage's plea that his artistic freedom was "muzzled." However, several leading directors sided with Lepage and four Quebec theaters will now present "Slav" despite the protests, all in the name of artistic freedom. Sorry, but plenty of black singers could handle it very well.

I recall years ago a big Hollywood musical where Frank Sinatra — whom I love — stood atop a Busby Berkeley, a film director and musical choreographer, movie set in white tie and tails singing "You and me, we sweat and strain/body all achin' and wracked with pain/tote dat barge ... " I also recall a white woman playing "Pinky," a light-skinned black woman passing as white. 

So one case was resolved in favor of sociopolitical fairness, the other for artistic freedom. Though film director Spike Lee tells us to do the right thing, sometimes it's hard to figure out exactly what that is.

— Don Rose is a Chicago-based media consultant.