Colour-blind vs colour-conscious casting on TV

Embracing inclusive casting means that we can finally target the inequalities of opportunity for marginalised groups within the television industry, whilst increasing the diversity of representation we see on our screens. It’s an important method for preventing the whitewashing and straight washing of characters. It provides actors from the LGBTQ+ community, and actors with disabilities, the opportunity to play characters from their own communities, whilst also allowing them not to be limited to these types of roles. Women have more opportunities, too, playing roles that were originally written for men. But most of all, for a casting director, it means choosing the best actor for the part – the actor who can best represent the twenty-first-century world we live in today.

So, what’s the difference between colour-blind casting and colour-conscious casting? What do they both mean, and why are they so important?

Colour-blind casting is the practice of casting actors without considering factors such as their ethnicity, skin colour, body shape, sex, or gender – while colour-conscious casting is the practice of casting actors where these features are considered. The biggest issue with the concept of ‘colour-blind’ casting is that colour and race are not considered; this is an issue because it suggests that the discrimination and inequalities that actors of colour have faced within the industry are ignored. Therefore, a ‘colour conscious’ approach where race, ethnicity and skin colour is positively recognised, is perceived as the more inclusive casting approach by casting directors.

The best thing about inclusive casting is that it opens up new opportunities to communities who have previously been marginalised within the wider acting community. But within a television genre such as British history and period dramas (of which the UK is internationally known for: Downton Abbey, The Crown), how can inclusive casting successfully work?

The answer: we’ve seen it work before! A recent film release favoured for its colour-blind casting was ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’, a reinterpretation of the Charles Dickens novel with British-Asian actor Dev Patel playing the lead, alongside a multi-ethnic supporting cast. There is, of course, the question of historical accuracy – but with London being a more global and diverse city than most exclusively white historic-drama series currently present, we may challenge ourselves to reconsider the way we perceive history, with thoughtful casting acting to correct historical injustices. In theatre, the critically acclaimed musical ‘Hamilton’ has also been massively celebrated for its colour-conscious casting with America’s founding fathers presented within the show as people of colour.

But within television, the most sensational recent example of inclusive casting working wonders is within Netflix’s incredibly successful romantic period-drama, ‘Bridgerton’. Based upon Julia Quinn’s novels, set in the world of upper-class Regency London, this series follows the lives of the elite Bridgerton family during the glamorous social season as debutantes compete against one another to present themselves at court. With 63 million households streaming the series within the first four weeks of its release, the show is an example of yet another success story for colour-blind casting as despite setting itself within the world of high-society Regency London, ‘Bridgerton’ chooses to reflect and connect itself to the multicultural contemporary world.

As captivatingly portrayed by the British-Guyanese actress Golda Rosheuvel, ‘Bridgerton’ makes colour and race a part of the conversation as the series sets itself within Queen Charlotte’s court. And of course, who else could we imagine playing the bad-boy meets prince-charming role of Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings, other than the delightful, British-Zimbabwean, Regé-Jean Page?

However, what this show best represents is progression, a cultural shift in casting within the television industry. Allowing for diverse, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic representation within period dramas means that people of colour are less likely to be type-casted or tokenised within this genre (which has excluded opportunities to represent this community for so long), as well as elsewhere within the entertainment industry. For this reason, colour-conscious casting is crucial. However, we must also remember to keep diversifying the types of representation we see on our screens through thinking about the kinds of stories and histories we are being told and by whom. Being fed false, edited histories for so long within many moments of television and film, it’s time to aspire to new levels of representation, to open our eyes to new perspectives, experiences, and histories, to listen to those whose voices were previously silenced, and to position them in the foreground.

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Lily Boag

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August 2021
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