Casting changes afoot after white actors give up their roles
Last week, we reported on the phenomenon of Hipster Blackface, which has led to mea culpas from some of comedy’s leading stars. Streaming services have pulled from circulation Blackface episodes of popular sitcoms like 30 Rock, Scrubs, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. In related news, several prominent animated shows have recently announced that white actors will no longer provide the voices of characters of color. There won’t be any more Blackvoice.
While Blackface had a long and inglorious entertainment history, Blackvoice is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the 1960s, most animated characters were anthropomorphized animals. The first wave of animated sitcoms, like The Flintstones and The Jetsons, were as white as the live-action shows they imitated. In the 1970s, Josie had a black Pussycat, and the Superfriends had Black Lightning, but black cartoon characters were still relatively rare. The Scooby Gang was as white as The Brady Bunch unless the Harlem Globetrotters stopped by for some antics.
With the arrival of The Simpsons, and the ongoing golden age of primetime animation, Blackvoice became a real phenomenon. The shows reflect a more complex and diverse America, but white actors have tended to dominate the casts, no matter the racial or ethnic background of the characters they voice. Ironically, the most “offensive” show of the era, South Park, also featured the most prominent black character of the era, Chef, voiced by the late legendary soul singer Issac Hayes. Maybe that’s why South Park hasn’t yet signed onto the extraordinary list of Blackvoice renunciations that started last week.
The current era of Blackvoice awareness began with the 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, created by the comedian Hari Kondabolu. He persuasively argues that white actor Hank Azaria’s voice portrayal of Apu was a demeaning Indian Blackface stereotype. Azarai and Simpsons creator Matt Groening initially dismissed Kondabolu’s critique as politically-correct nonsense, but as public outcry grew, they woke up and Azaria announced he would no longer play the character.
On Friday, the Simpsons announced that it would no longer have white actors portray Black characters. Azaria won’t play Homer Simpson’s co-worker Carl Carlson, and Harry Shearer won’t voice Dr. Hibbert. Part of the problem is that, while most of the characters in The Simpsons have mustard-yellow skin, no matter their ethnicity, the Black characters are definitely Black. It’s a tough reckoning for modern TV’s defining program.
Last week, Jenny Slate announced that she’d no longer be playing the character Missy on the popular animated Netflix middle-school sex farce Big Mouth. While Missy herself is no stereotype, and is, in fact, the show’s most intelligent and nuanced character, she’s definitely Black, and a white actor definitely voiced her. Slate said, in a statement, “At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play Missy because her mom is Jewish and White—as am I. But Missy is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people…In my playing Missy, I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”
Series creator Nick Kroll wrote on his Instagram page, “We sincerely apologize for and regret our original decision to cast a white actor to voice a biracial character. We made a mistake, took our privilege for granted, and we’re working hard to do better moving forward.”
Big Mouth has already recorded its fourth season, but it hasn’t yet premiered on Netflix. There’s no word as to whether or not they’re going to dub in a new voice for Slate’s scenes.
This one had people saying “Kristen Bell stars in an animated musical that isn’t Frozen?” Central Park, from Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard airs on the little-watched Apple+ streaming service. It features Stanley Tucci and Daveed Diggs as female characters and Bell as a mixed-race girl named Molly Tillerman. In abdicating her role, Bell released a statement that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Chinese Cultural Revolution Struggle Session. “This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity,” she wrote.
The most prominent Black animated character of the last 20 years, and possibly the most prominent Black character of any type, has been Cleveland Brown from Family Guy, played by white actor Mike Henry. Cleveland was popular enough that Seth MacFarlane gave him his own Black family sitcom spinoff, The Cleveland Show, which ran for a few seasons on Fox last decade. Now Mike Henry will play Cleveland no more. Henry said, in a statement notable because it sounded like a person actually spoke it as opposed to pasted it whole-cloth from White Fragility:
““I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”
This is all part of a larger and sudden cultural shift in racial awareness sparked by the murder of George Floyd. While “white actors shouldn’t voice Black cartoon characters” wasn’t really part of the primary agenda, it’s been bubbling for a while, and now it’s here. Keep in mind, though, that Black-voiced Black characters can have their own sets of issues. Fat Albert, a popular Black animated show of the 1970s, had an all-Black cast, all performed by a prominent Black voice.
Unfortunately, that voice was Bill Cosby’s.