The Subversive and Cathartic Act of ‘Fancasting’ Movies
Hollywood has lost its imagination.
Movies are cast with predictable, familiar faces. Awards are picked by homogenous insiders. And the result is a second year of Oscar nominations that include no actors of color. The problem is bad enough that on Thursday the Academy itself voted to disrupt the current voting membership in order to diversify who picks nominees. But it’s not enough to have one or two people of color on the nominee list—the bigger problem is the need for a plethora to choose from in the first place. That’s where the idea of fancasting comes in.
In fancasting, imagination is alive and well. In fact, that’s all it is: fans imagine their dream cast for the movie version of some media they love—think comics, books, video games, etc.—on social media to share with their fellow fans. These stories aren’t the typical Oscar bait of historical fiction or literary adaptations; fancasts are mostly concerned with genre films based on hugely popular source material. In the real-world, even when movies like this are diverse (such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the Fast & Furious franchise), these are treated as exceptions to the rule. Where real-life casting skews toward the predictable and homogenous, fancasting can be a way to subvert casting conventions. The best fancasts can really illustrate the giant gap created by the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Within fancasts, anyone can play a role, regardless of that role’s history.
It’s liberating to see what stories fans dream up when they break from the idea that characters need to be white by default (and male and straight, by the way). There are such casts for films in the sprawling Batfamily (Batman and his vigilante associates), and one of my favorites, this James Bond fancast, which casts Lucy Liu as the titular lead, Natalie Dormer as her Q, Lena Headey as her formidable nemesis, Sebastian Stan as a “Bond Boy” (!), and Rami Malek as her Mr. Moneypenny. The gif set and quotes have a feeling of a trailer to them, but only of a movie we can only really hope for. What else can we do when the current James Bond writer called Idris Elba—a handsome, suave actor whose range is full of the kind of action-packed, suspenseful fare that illustrate him being more than qualified for the job—“too street” to be James Bond?
You see actors like Idris Elba over and over again on these lists and there’s a reason for that. Fancasts often include actors and actresses of color who have been working a while and who have been cast in everything but a major lead role. As Elba himself said in a speech this week about diversity in media and on film, “Our imaginations are boxed in.” That’s what fancasting, in its way, fights against.
These fancasters recognize that the problem is not that there isn’t the acting talent—it’s that there isn’t the push to be original and different with casting. Rather, there’s a pressure to fall back on the notion that if a character is white in the original (or given an ambiguous race), they have to be cast as white in the movie, like Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. To do otherwise invites prodding and outrage—heck, which happens even if there’s some basis in the original text, like what happened when Amandla Stenberg played Rue in The Hunger Games. The same lack of imagination afflicted the casting of J.K. Rowling’s upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a continuation of the Harry Potter Universe. While fancasts had a range of picks for the protagonist Newt Scamander, the movie’s cast ended up being incredibly white. Some could cite the idea that many people of color weren’t around in the U.K. in 1925, when the films is set, which is the justification used by the director of Suffragette. But that’s neither accurate nor the point.
For instance, Marvel’s terrible track record with casting women of color in its films and TV shows is frustrating, but with fancasting we can hope for a world where one of the world’s biggest franchises is headed by the criminally underused Diane Guerroro (best known for Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgine ) as Spider-Woman. Or take Marvel’s Dr. Strange, for instance, which is coming out later this year. By casting Benedict Cumberbatch to play Dr. Strange, Marvel added yet another white man to an already long lineup of white men, and even Tilda Swinton’s gender-swapped role as the Ancient One sounds a bit like yellowface. Some fans responded to these choices productively, by creating these casts of Doctor Strange with nary a white man in sight.
Fancasting breaks us out of the rut of doing only what’s been done before, of believing the idea that our imagination can only go so far. In the cases of Marvel and Harry Potter, it’s key to note that these are fans doing it, people with an affection and connection with these stories, as lots of people just want to see themselves included in what they enjoy. There are some real-world triumphs of casting that can seem like they are ripped straight of the dreams of fancasters: among them, the diverse casting of the hit broadway play Hamilton, or the popular Sherlock-Holmes television show Elementary, where Lucy Liu stars as Joan Watson—a genderflipped, racebent version of the original Sherlock Holmes’ John Watson, or the new Harry Potter play. Though J.K. Rowling hasn’t discussed the very white casting of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, she did endorse the casting of a black actress for Hermione, a triumph connected to the fact that Hermione has often been interpreted as black in the books.
Of course, dreaming up a better world does not make one come true. And yet it’s a start, a way to feel productive rather than hopeless. We need more diversity that can’t be rewritten or argued away—like in these fancasts for diverse stories such as Brian K. Vaughn’s amazing comic Saga and a childhood favorite, Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. We need more stories like Beasts of No Nation, Creed, and Straight Outta Compton, and Selma last year, which are all unequivocally about people of color, by mostly people of color. Fancasting provides a glimmer of hope. It provides an opportunity to feel productive and react creatively, to use our anger as a fuel to dream bigger about what stories and what people we want on screen.