Filmism.net Dispatch October 1, 2014

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If you haven't seen it, Captain Phillips is as great a movie as you've heard it is, but I couldn't help but feel slightly sorry for Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-American actor who played pirate leader Muse. With his skinny countenance, prominent upper teeth and slightly crazy eyes, all he needed was a sweaty tank top and an AK47 and the casting was perfect. Even his smile looks evil.

I feel sorry for him because as great as he was, he'll never have much of a career (in fact if you can believe recent news, he's already broke) in Hollywood. He got me thinking about the acting career of Abdi's fellow African Djimon Honsou.

He made a similar splash playing Cinque in Steven Spielberg's 1997 slavery drama Amistad, but have a look at his CV since. Apart from a few small scale comedies like Baggage Claim and Queen Latifah's Beauty Shop, he's been Hollywood's go-to African guy, filling various roles that all amount to 'B-roll tribal chief' regardless of the setting.

After debuting in Amistad alongside Honsou, Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor (who has Nigerian parents) seemed to be careful not to take roles trading on his 'blackness'. As a consequence, his career since has been one of steadily diminishing returns, and he didn't bust blocks again until he played Solomon Northrup, the enslaved hero of the triumphant 12 Years a Slave.

The point is, it seems Honsou, Abdi and Ejiofor will always play black men, particularly Africans. Sound ridiculous? They're all black and they're descended from or born in Africa, after all. But in the same way, Michael Pena and Eva Mendes will always play Latin American characters. Rick Yune and Dev Patel will always play Asian guys.

It's not so ridiculous when you consider that Abdi's Captain Phillips co-star Tom Hanks doesn't always play a white guy. Neither do Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr or Tom Cruise. I mean, they're all white males, but they don't play white guys. They don't play characters who are identified by the colour of their skin or shape of their nose.

Or am I wrong? I once chatted to Asian-Australian actor Anthony Wong at an industry do. He'd just appeared in The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions and was prepping for John Moore's 2004 remake of Flight of the Phoenix . He said one of the biggest challenges of his career was that he was always being cast as 'the Asian guy'.

Sometimes a comment on the way Hollywood characterises minorities* comes from the unlikeliest of sources. Here's one from 2001's Not Another Teen Movie. And of course South Park, ever-eager to skewer societal norms in America, has a character who's so much a token black his name's actually Token Black.

But having actors of colour or any other minority play anything other than their race on screen can feel like a losing battle. If you're a black character surrounded by a group of white characters, you're indeed the token black. If the main characters in a movie are black, Latino, women, etc, studios see them (and market them) as 'black movies', 'chick flicks', etc.

A few films, like the Fast & The Furious franchise, get it right by having enough minority race characters to keep them from being tokens but not too many to turn into minority movies. Does that mean we have to impose a magic number of minority cast members ('25 percent blacks? We'll market this to the teenage summer movie crowd. 50 percent? It'll only play to black audiences, take out an ad in Vibe magazine!')?

Of course, every now and then a movie like Bridesmaids can come along that does really well and has headlines screaming 'When Will Hollywood Realise Movies About Women Make Money?', and once again the box office will prove conventional wisdom wrong (until it doesn't).

* 'Minorities' is utterly the wrong word to use in this context, there just isn't an alternative that gets the message across. One of the most prominent groups to suffer the fate of stereotyping is movies is women, who make up 51 percent of the human race. And as recent news revealed, Latin-American audiences now comprise the biggest audience demographic in the US Domestic market.

As promised, I'm back into watching and reviewing movies in a very big and bad way. Recent entries have included the latest movie to make you wonder why Kevin Smith still has a career, Tusk.

I also saw a great example of how a movie with a star that shone brightly blinded us all to the flaws. It was a particularly 90s phenomenon that gave names like Kevin Costner and Judge Reinhold careers, and in 1989 it was Roseanne Barr's turn in She-Devil.

But the most pleasant surprise I had was from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I've been told to avoid the sequel, but as a confirmed non-fan of family movies, this one had me laughing throughout. No surprise it's from the same creative team as 21 Jump Street.

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