I’ll admit it. Filmmakers have described my unusual inclination to cast white actors as black ex-slaves in Another Slave Narrative as idiosyncratic. Okay, maybe they didn’t call it idiosyncratic. If I recall correctly, and I’ve blocked some of this out of my mind, they described this inclination as offensive, insulting, disrespectful, hurtful, insensitive, confusing, gimmicky, distracting, weird, and I can’t remember what else they said.
Like I said, I blocked it out.
Despite offending others, I cast white actors as black ex-slaves in Another Slave Narrative anyway. Sometimes an affront is worth the beauty that is the metamorphosis of storytelling.
Let’s start from the beginning. I approached casting Another Slave Narrative like any resourceful, independent filmmaker with a $0 budget would. I cast my actor friends.
Correction: I cast my actor friends who would work with me for free.
I needed at least 20 actors, and I only had a handful of black actor friends.
Correction: I only had a handful of black actor friends who were willing to do this project.
This may come as a surprise, but not all black actors enjoy being cast in the slave’s role of subjugation and abuse in yet another slave narrative. To fill those remaining unassigned roles, I petitioned a few non-black actor friends. Admittedly, I petitioned them with hesitation since I too was unsettled and confused about my idea to cast non-black actors in exclusively black roles. Since it is already onerous for black actors to secure gigs for stereotypical roles like that of black slaves, I did not want to outsource one of the last roles they could call their own.
I finally resolved to cast white actors, as well as other non-black actors, as ex-slaves in Another Slave Narrative after a black actor friend declined my invitation to join the project. She cited fatigue. “Playing a slave is hard on the body and the psyche,” she explained. “If I am really going to do the part justice I have to go to certain places in my mind, in my soul. It’s heavy. It is a lot to carry with me for days. My agent called me the other day and said he had an audition for me. The role? A Slave. All I could think was, ‘God. Another one?’”
Scripted slave narratives levy a brutal, unapologetic—albeit justified—emotional tax on the writers that write them. I have paid this tax more than once. Yet, I never considered, or perhaps even cared about, the lasting trauma that traditional slave narratives impress on actors, black or white. Excluding the genre of blackface, traditional television and film slave narratives invariably employ black actors to fulfill slave roles. The reasons for this are obvious, but consequently, black actors disproportionately bear the burden of playing such roles.
The premise on which Another Slave Narrative is founded is simple: Firsthand accounts of American slave narratives must be told and retold into perpetuity because the stories of enslaved men and women matter.
As director, I am compelled to rely on actors to channel this history. How can I meet this obligation to retell these firsthand accounts without overburdening the backs of black actors with residual trauma? Cast non-black actors as well.
My pitch to non-black actors to join Another Slave Narrative went a little like this: “Dear Friend, we can’t let people continue to act as if slavery never existed or that it did exist but with benevolence and with good meals. Slave narratives are horrible, painful, amazing, beautiful, inspiring, and heartbreaking stories, and black actors have borne the weight of channeling these stories for years. Could you please bear the weight with us?” They responded, “Can’t wait,” and they meant it.
Directing a cast of Asian, black, Indian, Jewish, Latina, and white actors in Another Slave Narrative was moving. Together, we deconstructed our racially-informed emotional barriers and confronted our preconceived notions of “slave” life. We employed make-believe to imagine ourselves in the shoes of those enslaved men and women who had none.
We engaged in an interracial dialogue regarding the history of slavery, race, privilege, and otherness in this country that broadcasted a signal connected to the suffering we each experience alone. Asian, Indian, Jewish, Latina, and white actors had, for the first time, permission to embody the emotional profoundness that only a role of a systematically subjugated yet methodically resistant slave can provide.
Hearing a white actor refer to black people as “niggers” in a slave narrative is unexceptional. However, in Another Slave Narrative, white actors, for the first time, speak of “niggers” in the first person. Believe me, it jarred each of us involved.
Recently, I shared a rough cut of Another Slave Narrative with a friend. He was uncomfortable. Not with the multiracial casting, but rather with his reaction to it. He said, “The only time I really felt any sense of fear or urgency watching that piece was when the white girl was talking. Black actors had the same material as she did, but I didn’t feel anything when they spoke. That’s a problem.”
Interracial dialogue, biased reactions to multiracial casting, deconstructed emotional barriers, and make-believe. What does it all mean? I am still processing that.
Nonetheless, I am hopeful that in the same way Alexander Hamilton gained value in audiences of color as a result of Lin Manuel Miranda’s unwillingness to limit his casting to white actors in Hamilton, so also will slaves’ contributions to this country gain value in communities not just of color as a result of my unwillingness to limit casting only black actors in Another Slave Narrative.
Moreover, I suspect if we limit the casting of slaves solely to black actors, the legacy of slavery will remain a perceived black inconvenience for those people instead of an American injustice for our people. If we continue to create inclusive interracial dialogue regarding the history of American slavery as Another Slave Narratives does, I am hopeful healing can get on with her process without our constant interruption.
Multiracial casting isn’t for every slave narrative production. It’s absolutely appropriate and artistically responsible to cast Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy instead of say, Ellen Page, and to cast Jamie Foxx as Django instead of say, Ryan Gosling, in films like 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained.
Multiracial casting works for Another Slave Narrative because multiple actors perform one ex-slave’s narrative together in the same scene. Think the Pharrell Williams “Happy” video in which several people lip-sync the same song or when the New York Daily News staffers read the letter of the victim of the recent Stanford rape case involving Brock Turner. In each instance, a community carries one person’s story.
Likewise, multiracial casting isn’t for every actor—even with the best intentions. For example, despite expressing for several months that she was committed to acting in Another Slave Narrative, a white actor friend dropped out of the film a week before our scheduled shoot. She cited that, as a white actor, she was just too uncomfortable with performing the material. On the other hand, my black actor friend, the one who initially declined to join our cast citing fatigue, did finally join in the production and she was amazing.
It is a privilege to pass on these ex-slave narratives to you. As a descendant of those who were enslaved, it is the least I can do. Moreover, if you are only interested in watching Another Slave Narrative because you want to see if the actors and I can really pull off this multiracial casting peculiarity, then multiracial casting was worth the commitment. Your curiosity that led you here will make Fannie Moore, Mary Reynolds, Arnold Gragston and others who survived slavery into household names.