What’s that black Viking doing there?

by Ted on February 2, 2006

One of the wiser things that Hollywood has done in recent years is fail to hire me as a casting director. This is canny for a few reasons: I’ve never worked in TV or film in any way, I’ve never lived in Los Angeles or New York, and I’d be crap at it. Well played, Hollywood.

A number of screenwriters with blogs (John Rogers, Alex Epstein, Craig Mazin, Denis McGrath and John August) have been having a fascinating discussion of how they deal with race and ethnicity in their scripts. I’ve found this interesting for a long time because, in a world full of touchy people, it’s so much easier to get wrong than right. (When I say “wrong”, I mean that you get someone angry at you. I personally think that kvetching about ethnicity in casting is generally inappropriate, but not everyone agrees.)

There are any number of factors playing into the casting decision:

  • The desire to prevent your work from emphasizing harmful stereotypes
  • The desire to create positive role models of minorities
  • The desire to offer working opportunities to nonwhite actors
  • The desire to create a cast of actors that don’t look anything like each other (see John August, or watch Cruising and try to keep all of the dark curly-haired guys straight)
  • The desire to keep Jesse Jackson and Brent Bozell off of your lawn
  • The desire to write stories with a racial component, or just to leave the possibility open (On “The Shield”, the black actress CCH Pounder plays a role that was originally written for a white man. In the first episodes, her race is irrelevant, but it eventually becomes very important to office politics.)
  • The desire to attract a minority audience
  • The desire to avoid alienating a white audience (“Can we not make the dumb guy Southern?”)
  • The desire to represent reality as closely as possible (“That’s a street gang? What is this, West Side Story?”)
  • The desire to avoid audience eye-rolling at perceived PC casting (“This town sure has a lot of of black female judges”)
  • The desire to avoid the perception of tokenism or mechanical “one good Latino for every bad Latino” rules
  • The desire to cast the best/ most famous actors, regardless of race

Inevitably, some of these guidelines are going to conflict, and that’s where it gets interesting.

Here’s an exercise. Kindly indulge me while I let out my inner Eric Blevins:

A strung-out junkie is arrested after ambushing and shooting a college premed student coming home to his off-campus apartment late at night. The junkie is caught in the middle of ransacking the apartment. Under interrogation, he claims that a cab driver picked him up, gave him the gun, and offered him $1000 to kill the student. Most of the cops don’t believe him and don’t care- they’ve clearly got the murderer, and no witnesses remember a cab. One detective, however, gets authority from his sargeant to follow up with cab agencies around the city. After a series of complications, the detective eventually finds the driver, who confesses that the junkie was telling the truth. The cab driver tells him that he wanted revenge on the father of the student. He believes that the father of the victim sold drugs to the driver’s child, who died of an overdose. At the pleading, the driver pleads guilty and tells the judge, “It was worth it.”

(I never claimed to be original or plausible. I’m a blogger, after all.)

What does the cast look like, in terms of gender and ethnicity? I dunno. There are any number of pretty good options which resonate in interesting ways. What if the cab driver is Arab, so bitterly disappointed at how immigrating to America has torn apart his family that he’s willing to engage in murder? What if the detective and the junkie are both black, and the detective is visibly disgusted with him? What if the witnesses are liberal white students, who offend the cops with their concern about how the cops are treating the junkie? What if the premed student is Jewish, and it’s unclear to what extent the crime is motivated by antisemitism? Or, what if he’s a WASP, and the police don’t really consider the cab driver’s accusation against his father? What if the student is black, his father is black, and the white cab driver had made some unwarranted assumptions connecting him to his own son’s death? What if the cab driver and the detective are both women, and the detective has a hard time convincing her bosses to follow up? Which of these is too offensive, cliche or implausible?

What if you’re a white producer uncomfortable casting minorities as murderers, junkies and drug dealers? What if the show couldn’t get made with a minority actor playing the detective?

Etc. What if I don’t have a point here? What do you think?

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Kulturblog » Race and Casting
02.08.06 at 12:28 am



abb1 02.02.06 at 3:26 pm

The nice young black fella will inevitably die 15 minutes before the end.


bob 02.02.06 at 3:32 pm

…earlier if it’s a horror movie.


dave 02.02.06 at 3:38 pm

this is a csi plot, right? all it needs is a stripper and a seedy nightclub owner, plus some sexual tension between two of the detectives


Ted 02.02.06 at 4:22 pm

I forgot to mention that the police sargeant moonlights as a stripper in a seedy nightclub, with sexy results.


Robin 02.02.06 at 4:29 pm

What does it say when you have a show like The Wire with lots of different racial groups, sexual orientations, distinct social classes, all of these factors quite salient, and the question that so often arise with other shows with similar make ups (“why do they represent them this way?”) never quite come to the foreground when you’re watching it?


dearieme 02.02.06 at 5:33 pm

This is a crime story and the only categories of whites you mention are Jews, Wasps, Southerners? What about the chappies whose names end in vowels?


Richard Bellamy 02.02.06 at 6:15 pm

Obviously, the answer is to create a show in which there is only one script per season, but a dozen permutations in casting it.

Option 2 is just to let the casting directors just cast whomever the best actor is, and take it out of the scriptwriters hands.

“Tim Robbins: Why do they call you Red?
Morgan Freeman: Maybe because I’m Irish.’

–Shawshank Redemption


Mo MacArbie 02.02.06 at 6:16 pm

That brings up one of my big casting peeves: all the cab drivers are still that fat unshaven white guy with black hair under a knit cap. I’ve never ridden in that guy’s cab.


Ted 02.02.06 at 6:19 pm

That’s an interesting example. In the original novella, wasn’t Red, in fact, Irish?

I remember an old Harlan Ellison story, “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, which mentioned at the beginning that one of the two main characters was white and one was black. But he never told you which was which. When the 80s “Twillight Zone” television show adapted it, they had to make a decision. I’d love to hear how they decided.


SamChevre 02.02.06 at 7:05 pm

The only time I complain about casting is when it is a movie is:
a) based on a historical era, and gets it wrong (Romans weren’t blond, Vikings weren’t African)
b) based on a book where race matters, and gets it noticeably wrong (Tolkien, plays about racial tension, etc).


BigMacAttack 02.02.06 at 8:45 pm


I am a little disappointed. That is about 35 years out of date.


At what stage? I thought that Northern Italians/Romans had a blondish cast from way back?

For the show I can see any combo. I think they do a good job. (Every now and then a clunker but mostly a very good job at balancing.)

In real life the answer is all black. All white.


Barry Freed 02.02.06 at 9:17 pm

Re. the character “Red” in Shawshank Redemption. Has no one here read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? (If not, for shame, it’s one of the great American classics). Recall that Malcolm’s nickname before his conversion experience in prison was “Detroit Red”. On the other hand I find the character that Morgan Freeman played in Amistad to be wildly implausible.


BigMacAttack 02.02.06 at 9:19 pm

Clarification. A good job in mixing and matching racial compistion.

Which is maybe why so many 35 year olds play 25 year olds. Limited resources.


Richard Bellamy 02.02.06 at 9:28 pm

Yes, Red was Irish in the original.

I think he was a white Irish guy in the movie, too. He was just a white Irish guy being played by Morgan Freeman. Does the movie script ever specify that Red is black? I don’t think so.

As I understand it, the script was written first, and then the casting was done. They cast Morgan Freeman, but didn’t change the dialogue. The line I quoted then got perceived as a joke, even though it wasn’t written as one.

But it didn’t have to be perceived that way, any more than we have to perceive it as a joke when a blond guy in a movie says, “I’m Jesus.”


melissa spore 02.02.06 at 9:30 pm

Hasn’t anyone here seen “Crash”?


fargo north, decoder 02.02.06 at 10:10 pm

Some of the most aggravating examples of Hollywood lameness in this regard ensue when contemporary productions are set in historical or geographical settings that offer rich environments for displaying racial, cultural, or gender/sexual diversity–with what could be really interesting effects on the story–and the filmmakers just drop the ball or go with the dopiest sort of standard tokenism. I’m thinking of _Pirates of the Caribbean_, for example, which gave us an all-but-Aryans Only version of the West Indies in the 18th century. Just whose bodies and labor was it that was being converted into all that plunderable specie, anyway? And the image of pirates as an outlaw society offers possibilities for casting that “looks like America” even beyond what the historical record indicates. Seems to me that Disney just wasn’t trying. (Children’s Television Workshop, on the other hand–now those guys could have given us a properly multicultural Caribbean…aye.)

And I think the Black Guy Always Bites It rule is still very much in force. Anyone see _King Kong_, whose tokenism was so naked that it didn’t really seem there was much of a liberal guilty conscience to salve in the first place? Nice Black Guy–explicator of Conrad to his callow white assistant and official Good Example by contrast to the jungle golliwogs–made his noble sacrifice about halfway through (along with the Asian dude, the token’s token–sort of a racial grace note there). (And again, what was up those islanders? The move of turning them into blackface orcs has me dusting off questions about the LOTR flicks I thought I had laid to rest.) In the end, it’s not so much _King Kong’s_ racism that’s infuriating, but its lack of imagination. I guess at some level they’re the same thing.


Harald Korneliussen 02.03.06 at 3:04 am

Ursula Le Guin, the fantasy writer, was mad with the people who directed the Earthsea miniseries, because they had used so-called colorblind casting. The book had made a point of reversing/changing some racial stereotypes in fantasy. (Of course, they had utterly trashed her book in other ways, and then gone on to talk about the author’s vision based on their own version, so it wasn’t the only reason Le Guin was angry. She wrote more about it than the slate piece I linked to.)

Just shows there is a long way to go…


Gary Farber 02.03.06 at 3:28 am

Pam Noles and Ursula Le Guin on whitewashing Earthsea. I highly recommend Noles’ piece and associated links.


Gary Farber 02.03.06 at 3:37 am

“When the 80s “Twillight Zone” television show adapted it, they had to make a decision. I’d love to hear how they decided.”

Happy to oblige. It turns out that there’s this thing called “Google,” see.

Over to Harlan, and with luck this time David Gerrold won’t read this, give a copy to Harlan, and well, actually, it wouldn’t be so awful if Harlan called me again and we caught up for an hour.

You can also buy the DVD, or Netflix it, or whatever, and see for yourself. I recall it as quite the decent adaption, as many of those on that incarnation of Twilight Zone were. Various good people were involved, including George R. R. Martin.

Yes; I’m always interested in David Cronenberg films. (And I just used this half-joke on Balloon Juice only hours ago.)


agm 02.03.06 at 3:52 am

dave, no, no, no. Ted needs to be sure that he’s suing the right people for suing his story. This is much more a Law&Order plot. SVU, if you can contrive a rape somehow.


Ronald Brak 02.03.06 at 6:39 am

I saw that movie with the black Viking when I was a kid. They had a couple of lines explaining how he became a Viking, but I can’t remember them.


Richard Bellamy 02.03.06 at 9:33 am

It actually intrudes on my reading of books, too.

When reading Jonathan Strange — which I know is a favorite here — I couldn’t help but think, “Ah, prominent sympathetic black butler, that will certainly help in the casting!”


Cranky Observer 02.03.06 at 9:46 am

Well, if it is a war movie the tough bald black sergeant always dies before the end.

I will point out that based on my reading of _Tales of Icelanders_ a black Viking would not have been impossible. There is historical evidence that those guys travelled as far as Istanbul by both the Mediterranean and inland Russia routes, and they weren’t shy about bringing home companions and slaves. Children of slaves could become citizens, so only 15-20 years would have been needed to get a dark-skinned Viking.



Cryptic Ned 02.03.06 at 10:31 am

Absolutely. If the most beloved Russian writer of the 18th century can be half-African, so could a Viking.


Dave MB 02.03.06 at 10:50 am

In re 24 — agreed on the general point but I think you mean 19th century (lived 1799-1837).

The classical Hollywook Viking casting triumph was Tony Curtis, who had the memorable line “Yonda lies the castle of my fadda”…


Dave MB 02.03.06 at 10:53 am

In re my 25 — “Hollywook” must be some unconscious George Lucas reference…


ester 02.03.06 at 11:43 am

Re: King Kong:

I completely agree. The offensively artificial interactions between the young white guy and the protective black authority figure made me want to rip my own face off, I was cringing so hard. Awful! Those “No, Timmy, it’s too dangerous. I’ll go” parts reminded me of the Troy McClure-and-little-boy parodies on the Simpsons. And that’s what was supposed to make us not mind the movie’s later blatant racism?

Peter Jackson Disappointed Me Too. We should start a club.


abb1 02.03.06 at 12:43 pm

19th century and only his great-grandfather was Ethiopian.


golambek 02.03.06 at 12:56 pm

The Wire is just a fantastic show. You must all watch it.


arthur 02.03.06 at 1:01 pm

The movoe Field of Dreams was based on the novel Shoelesss Joe by W.P. Kinsella. A prominent secondary character in the novel was a crotchety old baseball-loving novelist, J.D. Salinger. The movie presumably had to change the naem for legal reasons. They chose James Earl Jones for the part, as a crotchety old baseball-loving African-American who delivered long soliloquies about his love of professional baseball without ever mentioning that the game had been completely segregated for half his life.


Gary Farber 02.03.06 at 1:34 pm

“The classical Hollywook Viking casting triumph was Tony Curtis, who had the memorable line “Yonda lies the castle of my fadda”…”

Digressing, John Wayne made an interesting Genghis Khan. Which likely helped kill him, but that’s yet further digression.


Tom Doyle 02.03.06 at 1:57 pm

“What’s that black Viking doing there?”

Your question called to mind the meaning and alleged origins of my surname. I’m not sure that was your intention. Still, in light of your question, the information below might be of some interest. Obviously, the “historic” account is extremely one sided, and some parts are sensationalist to the point of hysteria. The truth, one can be sure, is much more nuanced, but unfortunately I could not immediately locate a more respectable and serious narrative. I venture to say that if Boru hadn’t got lucky at Clontarf, fair and balanced accounts of the developments the text purports to describe would be much more available.

“Many colours appear in Gaelic surnames… Dubh, however appears so frequently in surnames … that it is worthy of particular attention…A very common name following this pattern is Ó Dubhghaill, desc[endant]. of the black foreigner (the foreigner in this case appears to be Viking ), anglicised Doyle or Doole. “

The Doyle Page – The Meaning of the Name

At dusk on a summer’s evening in the year 795 AD, a sinister looking high-prowed ship ploughed into the sands at Lambay Island just north of Howth Head on the east coast of Ireland near Dublin. Immediately from the body of the Longboat, the oarsmen rushed to attack the monastery of Saint Columkill. They slaughtered the monks, plundered the monastery for for all the gold and silver vessels they could find, and then disappeared back into the Irish Sea. The Irish Annalists, referring to the incident, describe the unwelcome arrivals as “dubh-ghaill “.

The first “Doyles” had arrived in Ireland!

This was the beginning of more than two centuries of attack and invasion which had devastating effect on Ireland, and on the Irish monasteries in particular. [ Pointedly neglected here are the innumerable benefits and advantages that have accrued to the people of Ireland as a result of the Scandinavian initiatives. That these far outweigh any temporary incidental inconveniences, no reasonable person would deny.]

Viking (from the Old Norse Vikingr) means “sea-rover” or “pirate”, and this precisely what these people were. …. From the eighth century, their plundering raids terrorized much of the known world, reaching as far as America, North Africa and Constantinople.

Doyle … [comes from] …” Dubh-Ghaill” … the Irish Gaelic words meaning ” Dark/Evil Foreigner”; [ !!!!] and this is just what the indigenous Celts called the Danish Vikings who started settling in Ireland and Scotland more than 1,000 years ago. [ Caed mille failte, indeed.]

In Ireland, the annalists distinguished two groups among the raiding Vikings, the Lochlainn, or Norwegians, and the Danair, or Danes, the Norwegians being described as fair, the Danish as dark (because they wore chain-mail armour). Initially, the Norwegians dominated…In 852, the Danes wrested control of one of these settlements, the military and trading post of Dublin, from the Norwegians under their king Olaf … and founded the Danish Kingdom of Dublin which was to last three hundred years, until the coming of the Anglo-Normans.


Doctor Slack 02.03.06 at 4:51 pm

Gary: Digressing, John Wayne made an interesting Genghis Khan.

Well, the effect on my digestion was certainly “interesting.”

fnd: I’m thinking of Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, which gave us an all-but-Aryans Only version of the West Indies in the 18th century.

Yes and no. The slave economy is conspicuous by its absence, but then the economy generally tends to be conspicuously absent from any action movie. OTOH the pirates themselves seemed reasonably diverse, though how much so compared to the historical Caribbean is hard to say. Pirates of the day were a more diverse and accepting lot than society at large, but that doesn’t mean that maroons were always or even often welcome among the buccaneers. (Presumably there’s a reason why “maroon,” derived from the Spanish word for “escaped slave,” became both a racial slur and a verb meaning “to stand someone on an island.”)

Of the screenwriters quoted in the initial, I’d have to say I like John Rogers’ attitude the best; going out of your way to capture the zany diversity of the world as it exists has a lot to recommend for it that can’t be achieved by trying to work out formulae or tiptoe past this or that censor. If you don’t have a “real” world to work with per se, but rather are inventing a fictional setting, then by the same token it makes sense to capture the zany diversities that are possible in your fictional reality. If you’re working with received fiction, like Earthsea or Middle Earth, then it makes sense to respect and try to do some justice to the background you’re working with. (The lack of such an attempt is what made the Earthsea mini-series so objectionable.)


lahke 02.03.06 at 6:01 pm

what about the Denzel Washington/Keanu Reeves brother act in Much Ado About Nothing? My only complaint about that one was that Branaugh couldn’t seem to figure out how to light Washington right, and he was practically blotted out in the sunshine scenes.


asg 02.04.06 at 5:54 pm

The prime-time TV show with the greatest racial diversity is probably Fox’s “24” — the show contained in its first 4 seasons a really striking number of starring & supporting roles for black actors, both heroes and villains, and of course the character of Tony Almeida throughout the series.


AlanDownunder 02.05.06 at 2:08 am

Black females must by now be heartily sick of playing judges in courtroom scenes.


Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste 02.05.06 at 2:25 am

Just to stir this into the soup…

Once upon a time I took myself off to Salt Lake City to study with the second smartest man who ever lived. Being the new guy in town I picked up the campus paper and tried to get my bearings. What I read was, to me as an Eastern Liberal, a bizarre conundrum:

The film reviewer panned the Kevin Costner pic “Robin Hood” on the grounds that casting Morgan Freeman as the blackamoor was an idiotic sop to those America-hating PC hand-jobs. His arguement was that it would be retarded to think that a darkie might have made it all the way from Africa to England at the turn of the millenium.

Ummm…. we might criticise that on many grounds, the first of which might be ‘if Costner made his way from England to Syria, why could not an ethiop make his way from Syria to England?” To be a little more scholarly, Lord Pelinore in the Arthur cycle was dark and clearly arrived from a different place – as did the Numidians who participated in the Roman conquest of Britain.

Besides which, at the turn of the millenium there were so many swedes in Constantinople that they today have their own name for the city: Miklegaard.

I focus on this incident only because it was my first experience of the lunatic backlash against the supposed excesses of PC liberalism. It gets worse, believe me.

MvH, Theo


Steve 02.05.06 at 1:29 pm

Pirates of the day were a more diverse and accepting lot than society at large, but that doesn’t mean that maroons were always or even often welcome among the buccaneers.

The racial makeup (and tolerance) of Carribean pirates is a somewhat disputed issue. The last book that I read on the subject (Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations, which is excellent) cited some examples of African pirates (checking quickly, Rediker says that Edward Condent’s ship made use of a mostly black boarding party), but said that racial attitudes probably were not as egalitarian as the last round of historians might have believed. No idea what the current consensus on the subject is.


JohnTh 02.06.06 at 11:28 am

Samchevre, blond romans almost certainly were somewhat common, at least by late Republican times. On piece of evidence for this that ‘The Blond’ and ‘the Red’ were relatively common Roman nicknames, suggestign that these qualities were noteworthily unusual but not unknown. One popular writer of quite well researched Republican Roman period novels, Colleen McCullough, goes so far as to portray Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Augustus as blondes, and the general Sulla as a strawberry blonde. I’m guessing she does so based on some hints in the ancients text

To this day, natural blondes are reasonably common in Italy, especially further north, though that could be linked to tribal migrations after the Fall of Rome (Unnatural blondes are so common in all parts of Italy as to form a plague)

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