Why Casting Black Actors for White Characters Onscreen Can Be A Good Thing

Let’s take a look at a few book-to-screen adaptations and see why the recent increase in “non-traditional casting” marks a positive change in the industry.

Adaptations Book Culture Opinions Pop Culture TV & Movies
Bridgerton Queen Charlotte

Films and tv shows have received backlash over the last few years for the increasingly popular practice of non-traditional casting. Non-traditional casting is the casting of women, minorities, and disabled individuals in roles in which these characteristics are not imperative to the character’s or story’s development. There are some who believe it is an unnecessary change to the original characters or that it negatively affects the storyline of the adaptation.

However, this simply isn’t true. Having a more diverse cast of characters can actually enrich the book’s original story and the resulting inclusivity means the story will resonate with a broader audience. The world is broad and diverse and our media should reflect that.

The Percy Jackson Series on Disney+

An upcoming book adaptation that sparked controversy over its non-traditional casting is the Percy Jackson series premiering on Disney+. Some fans of the novels were upset to discover that actress Leah Sava Jeffries is to play Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena and one of Percy’s best friends. The backlash became so overwhelming that Jeffries deleted her social media accounts in response.

This negative reaction to her casting was disappointing as a longtime fan of the series. Annabeth’s blonde hair, fair skin, and gray eyes as described in the book have nothing to do with who she is as a character beyond her physical description. What matters more is her personality and spirit, something that series author Rick Riordan stated Jeffries has. Riordan stated that Jeffries was “truly the best” at capturing Annabeth’s character, and frankly, that’s all that matters.

Percy Jackson Cast Disney Series

Netflix’s Bridgerton

Netflix’s adaptation of Julia Quinn’s romance novel series Bridgerton is another example of non-traditional casting in a book-to-screen adaptation. In a column for The Hollywood Reporter, show creator Chris Van Dusen wanted to create a new kind of Regency drama,

“where every viewer, no matter who they are, could see themselves onscreen” regardless of their race or sexuality.”

The Hollywood Reporter

In the novels, all of the characters are described as having fair skin– a characterization that period drama lovers are all too familiar with. It may seem like the most historically accurate depiction of English high society in the early 1800s, but is it really?

Lady Danbury Bridgerton Cast

Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III who reigned throughout the entirety of the Regency era, is considered by many historians to be England’s first queen of color due to her African descent. According to The Wrap, Van Dusen was aware of this history when he was creating the hit Netflix series, and decided to add Queen Charlotte as a character in the show, played by Golda Rosheuvel. And the queen is not the only black member of high society in Bridgerton.

Regé-Jean Page was cast as season one’s rakish love interest Simon Basset, and many of London’s other lords and ladies are black, as well. Van Dusen thought that, as queen, Charlotte would use her station to elevate people of color to higher ranks of society and cast the characters as such. The team’s goal in choosing non-traditional casting was to show that

“everyone is worthy and deserving of all of [love, joy triumph], and more,”

The Hollywood Reporter

It’s a beautiful message and a fun twist on a classic romance genre.

Duke of Hastings Casting Bridgerton Netflix

Marvel Comics

Novel adaptations aren’t the only ones changing things up in the name of inclusivity. Marvel Comics has cast many originally white characters as people of color in their on-screen adaptations. Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury, a canonically white character, is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Idris Elba plays Heimdall, the gatekeeper of Asgard from the Thor comics as a black man, contrary to the comic books.

Zendaya Coleman was recently cast as ‘MJ’ in the new Spiderman film trilogy and is the first woman of color to portray the character on-screen. These non-traditional casting decisions not only gave us some of the best performances in the MCU, but made the 80-year-old Marvel universe as seen on the big screen match our own in its diversity.

Zendaya Actor Spiderman Marvel

In the past, we have seen many white actors portraying characters of color to the detriment of the character’s development. Elizabeth Taylor portrayed Cleopatra, Johnny Depp played Tonto and more. The casting decisions made for these recent book adaptations are completely different. People of color portraying these characters not only doesn’t harm the storyline, but it may even enhance it, as is the case with Bridgerton.

Adaptations are never going to be exactly like the books they’re based on. Art is subjective, and every viewer has a different interpretation of the material. Non-traditional casting may challenge our personal views of what a story should look like, but I think that’s a good thing. Media is evolving to reflect the world around it, and I for one am excited to see where it goes next.

Want to read more about onscreen adaptations of your favorite books? Click here.