I have in my time had many feelings about Scarlett Johansson, but up till now they have been pretty straightforward in nature, and not of the sort that a gentleman would share. Now, however, I find myself beset with a terrible inner conflict about ScarJo.
You see, Johansson has in the past come in for criticism over the roles she’s accepted, including playing an originally Japanese character in manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell, and accepting a role as a transgender man in a planned movie that was eventually scuppered by the ensuing controversy. Apparently a glutton for punishment, she has now given an interview with arts and culture magazine As If, in which she states: “As an actor, I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.”
Well. Any fool could’ve told her that this statement was going to bring calamity down on her head, and so it proved. For a start, her decision to speculate on the possibility that she might one day play a tree has provided plenty of merriment. But in a more serious vein, ScarJo’s apparent callous disregard for diversity and inclusion has seen her painted as the poster girl for oblivious white cis privilege. Is that deserved?
Well, here’s where my internal turmoil comes in. Because my first instinct when an actor says “I should be allowed to play anyone” is to respond, “Hell yeah you should. That’s the whole point of acting!” It does seem absurd to me to insist that actors must only play characters with which they can identify in some way. Acting is, after all, the art of pretending to be someone else, and the greatest manifestation of the art is not to portray someone like yourself, but to transform yourself into someone completely different. Moreover, if when casting a role, you restrict yourself only to actors whose experiences closely resemble the characters, you’re greatly narrowing the chances of actually hiring the best person. Nobody would ever get cast as Batman for a start.
So yes, I stand with Scarlett Johansson: her job is transformation, and she should be able to transform into anyone she pleases. Even if it’s, er, a tree. Her words were obviously true.
But her words were obviously untrue too, weren’t they? I mean of course an actor can’t play ANY part? Scarlett Johansson as Nelson Mandela, for instance, would be as ridiculous as Morgan Freeman as Black Widow. If a movie were made about the struggles of slaves in 19th-century America, and Johansson showed up as the lead in blackface, there aren’t many who’d claim that was appropriate casting. And let’s be honest, neither would ScarJo herself: it seems unlikely that her declaration – which she later claimed was taken out of context – was meant to suggest that everybody should be cool with her playing Harriet Tubman. But then, where’s the line? We know there are roles that Scarlett can definitely play. We know there are roles that it would be dumb for Scarlett to play. But in the grey area between, at what point does “definitely” turn into “dumb”? If we agree a white American can play a Russian, but not a Japanese woman, which race is the tipping point?
I am just not sure. I just know that I hate telling any kind of artist what kind of art they’re allowed to make, and at the same time, I don’t want white people stomping around the movie world like they own it. Maybe we’ve just got to take it case by case, and hope we just know bad casting when we see it. And that we can get back to those uncomplicated feelings about Scarlett Johansson as soon as possible.