The other day, I went to a movie, and the experience moved me to tears.
It was the most recent version of “Macbeth,” brought to the screen by the great Denzel Washington, appearing alongside a combination of veteran actors (like the sublime Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth) and talented newcomers. That, added to the amazing black and white cinematography, lifted this film to the next level.
As I was walking home, something dawned on me. Denzel Washington is a Black man that took on the role of a medieval Scottish king speaking Shakespearean English, and no one in the theater batted an eye. Thank God they didn’t.
There have long been examples of this sort of cross-pollination of talent. White men have often played Othello, the Moor of Venice, donning blackface when that was still permitted. James Caan inhabited the characters of two famous Italians, one real and one fictional: Brian Piccolo and Sonny Corleone. Al Pacino, a real Italian, played a Cuban in “Scarface,” and Meryl Streep has been Dutch, Australian, German, Italian, Jewish, WASP, British, and the entire Security Council of the United Nations over her storied career.
Until recently, no one has had a problem with artists being artists, and manifesting the glories of literature, theater, music, history, food, poetry and all of the things that make living worthwhile. Longfellow was able to write about Hiawatha without Native Americans screaming about how he had no idea what was going on in their wigwams. Ernest Hemingway was able to write about a Cuban fisherman in his twilight years, fighting the last great battle of his life, without people protesting that a guy from landlocked Idaho had no idea what it meant to be a Latino on the sea. Charles Dickens was able to write about ghosts, without people pointing out the trenchant fact that he was still, apparently, alive.
A few years ago, some overly-sensitive Latino groups were up in arms because a non-Mexican woman wrote a book called “American Dirt” about the experience of, you guessed it, a Mexican woman who illegally crossed the border. As an immigration attorney who has handled countless cases of Mexican women in similar circumstances, I can pretty much guarantee that you don’t need to be Mexican, or an immigrant, to understand their particular plight. To suggest otherwise is pure arrogance.
And this is just the literary world. As I noted before, Denzel Washington, a Black American channeled his native genius into a role that he was born to play. I honestly think that his version of Macbeth matches that of Olivier, or Orson Welles, or any of the other great Anglo-Saxon actors who took on the challenge. Skin color was completely irrelevant.
Unfortunately, because of the culture warriors who demand that gay roles only be played by gay actors, or trans roles only be played by trans actors, or Latino roles only be played by Latino (or God help us, Latinx) actors, or female roles only be played by women (tell that to Shakespeare) or Asian roles only be played by Asians, or Black roles only be played by Blacks, it’s now a “thing.”
And that’s tragic, because it balkanizes the world, forcing us into these sterile little categories based on identity. I don’t give a damn what the sexual orientation of the fellow who plays Richard III is, since the whole point of acting is to transcend the physical, the obvious, and raise it to the next level. I don’t care if the person playing Oscar Wilde is straight as an arrow, or the person playing Cleopatra can’t spell the word Mesopotamia, or the person playing Mussolini comes from a long line of O’Haras. What difference does it make?
The identity fascists are out to destroy the quality and character of culture, and they are doing it because they think checking off boxes like the columns on a Chinese menu elevate society. They want quotas based on color and not on competence. They demand that we honor culture by essentially neutering it, and they are ruthless in their willingness to take down anyone who dissents.
I was thrilled to see one of the greatest actors of our generation play one of the greatest roles of any generation. We need more of it, and less of the “stay in your lane” mentality. As the great Sidney Poitier, who knew something about fighting stereotypes once said, “I never had occasion to question color, therefore, I only saw myself as what I was…a human being.”
In the end, that’s all that we are, and the rest is irrelevant societal trapping. And we can honor art, and ourselves without having to be afraid of offending someone who thinks they own the history of their ancestors.
To quote another Shakespearean hero, one a bit more likeable than the Scottish King, “This above all, to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Copyright 2022 Christine Flowers, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times, and can be reached at [email protected].