Was The ‘Straight Outta Compton’s’ Bio Pic Casting Call Racist?
Shades of Black, Blue, & Green: Toeing Hollywood’s Indelible Color Line
In July of last year, as Universal was busy filming Straight Outta Compton (a biopic on the controversial rap group N.W.A.), the Sande Alessi Casting agency was busy typecasting an entire race of women. Using a descending hierarchy of types, the agency asked for:
A. “The hottest of the hot” (i.e., models of all races and ethnicities)
B. “Fine girls” with “really hot bodies” (“Beyonce is a prototype here”)
C. “medium to light skinned” “African American girls”
D. “African American girls [read: “medium to dark skin tone”]. Poor, not in good shape.”
Apologists for this clumsy talent search fell into one of two categories: (1) it’s an unfortunate grouping, but not purposeful and (2) casting calls often rely on broad stereotypes.
If you’ve followed the roll call of superheroes, vampires, zombies, and small screen on the big screen nostalgia trips that dominated the box office over the last decade, then it’s hardly a revelation that Hollywood follows certain lazy formulas. What may be more surprising is the top-down pervasiveness of certain racial set pieces within the casting process: where colorism still dictates pay and “natural” is often a watchword for “passing.” That the industry—criticized for undervaluing its female leads—still defaults at misogyny isn’t a morally satisfying defense, either.
Was the Straight Outta Compton casting call racist? It was, and the defense that it wasn’t deliberately racist is entirely the point. Almost three decades after N.W.A. released the album of the same name, consider how little the cultural needle has moved. According to a 1991 study by the Los Angeles Times, more than 300 cases of police brutality—from 1980-1991—went unprosecuted. Four years after N.W.A. jarred white suburbia out of its post-racial delusions, South Central Los Angeles burned in an explosion of violence and civil unrest. In 2014, the Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice cases again sparked nationwide protests and civil unrest. Like the stubborn community policing crisis revealed by these incidents, persistent, institutionalized racism is often taken for granted inside the business-as-usual bubble.
There are other sad truths, indifferently voiced by the Sande Alessi search. In 2013, 14.3% of American households met USDA food insecurity criteria. When not skipping meals to stretch food budgets, 70% of food insecure households reported an inability to afford balanced meals. Enter fast food, ready-to-eat convenience foods, and the obesity that a starch-heavy poverty diet facilitates. “Poor” on this scale doesn’t just thin work portfolios and give starlets body image complexes: it shortens lives.
This casting call is perhaps most unsettling as an index of indifference and complacency: a cultural shrug. Where one generation asked why gun and liquor stores were anchor businesses in the black community, this generation might ask (but often doesn’t) why full-service groceries and farmer’s market are not. And why, in an era where police brutality goes immediately viral, does an entire generation seem immune to the activist bug that made N.W.A. feverish with rage?