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Racially-Charged Casting Call: 'Surprising' But Not Shocking To Insiders


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now we'd like to talk about something that we all see, but rarely talk about. We are talking about casting in the movies. And there's a casting call that's gotten an unusual amount of attention. It was posted on Facebook last week by Sande Alessi Casting. They were searching for featured extras for the upcoming bio pic about the pioneering rap group, NWA. The casting call asked for women aged 18 to 30 and ranks A through D. B, A-women could be of any race but had to be quote, "the hottest of the hottest models - must have real hair - very classy looking - great bodies," unquote. The B-women were asked to be Beyonce types, with long natural hair, really nice bodies, and light skin - quoting again. The C-women were African-American girls, medium to light skin, with a weave. And the D-women were quote, "African-American girls - poor - not in good shape - with medium to dark skin tone," unquote. Universal Studios is behind the movie and they released an apology statement saying quote, "that film makers did not approve and do not condone the information in this casting notice," unquote. No word yet on whether they will continue to work with the casting company. And if you were interested, we did reach out to Sande Alessi Casting but they did not respond. Nevertheless, we felt this was important to talk about because some people feel, and a lot of writers have expressed that this casting call, just put in stark terms, something that is in fact the norm in Hollywood anyway - which is attitudes about size, skin color and beauty, and how those factors play into who gets what roles. We have a distinguished panel of industry insiders to talk about this and they are Linda Lowy, she's a casting director who's worked on shows like "Private Practice," Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." Rick Najera is a film writer, actor and producer. He's worked in films including "Nothing Like The Holidays," and shows such as "In Living Color." He's a regular on our Barbershop roundtable and he's also author of the book "Almost White - Forced Confessions Of A Latino In Hollywood." Nana Mensah is an actress on the breakout web series "An African City." She's also a writer, and director and star of the upcoming feature film "Queen Of Glory." And Bill Duke is a producer and director. You know him from his work on camera in films like "X-Men - The Last Stand," and has many directing credits including "Sister Act Two," and he produced the acclaimed documentary "Dark Girls," that explores issues around skin color, hierarchy and - welcome to you all. We're all so glad you could be with us. Thanks for joining us.

LINDA LOWY: Thank you.

RICK NAJERA: Thank you.

NANA MENSAH: Thank you.

BILL DUKE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: I'm just going to go around briefly and ask each of you, just what was your reaction to this - this casting call? Lind Lowy, I'll start with you as somebody who's done casting for a number of notable shows.

LOWY: I was somewhat shocked by it but not really surprised. And then I noticed that it was a casting call for featured extras. That usually is something that is a nonspeaking role. So I was a little surprised by it because it seemed so odd to me. It seemed unnecessarily complicated and scarily politically incorrect. So...

MARTIN: But let's - let's ask the other folks. Bill Duke, what do you think?

DUKE: I wasn't shocked by it and yes as she said, it was a featured extra which means they'll be seen a little more than others. And it's also the context within which the other people in the film will see it - they call it background - but in the perception of the creative of folks this is the reality of that background and they were casting it as they saw it. The expression of it I think, was a little insensitive. But I think it's the reality that we face.

MARTIN: Rick, what do you think?

NAJERA: I - I think it's totally the reality. I mean, it's NWA. They're talking about hip-hop culture and movies. So of course, it's going to be even more blatant. But it works in every single area of Hollywood. I mean, it's - background to them is their wall paintings - they're not really even people - they want to slap up the wall, and the wall's going to be in these kind of colors, and this kind of grading. So it's dehumanizing, but is one of the first times people are as open about it. And this is how the industry really honestly thinks.

MARTIN: Nana Mensah, what about you? Have you ever seen a casting call like this? And just - being honest about it have you ever answered one or thought about answering one even just for the sake of getting some kind of a shot?

MENSAH: Well, you know, that's the interesting thing is that you know, the thing that really resonated with me when I was looking at this casting call for the first time was you know, thinking about the girls like myself you know, who are aspiring to get their shot in Hollywood. We'll be looking for themselves in A-girls - OK, I'm not an A-girl - OK, B-girl - I'm not a B-girl - which by the way, Beyonce is a prototype for a B-girl? What universe are we living in where Beyonce is a B-girl? I don't want to live in that universe if - if Beyonce is - is touted as a B-girl. But anyway - C-girl - I'm not a C-girl - OK, so then I must be a D-girl. And it's like that self-identification of being you know, a D-girl - it's like, what is that doing for the psyche of - of the young women - you know, the young girls who - all they want to do is act and are thinking that background work is how they are going to get their shot.

NAJERA: It's true, to actually force someone to grade themselves is pretty...

MARTIN: Was that the part that was hard for you?


MARTIN: Because you were - really what I hear each of you saying is that you know this exists. This is - this is in fact we people think. But what is it that - that made this thing stand out? Was it asking people to put themselves in that category?

LOWY: I think what Bill said was - was very astute in that it's just an insensitive way to present it. Look, you know, I can't even imagine extras and what that must be like because that - we are talking about hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. You know, in my world we try to get is as specific as possible to avoid getting over 5,000 submissions for one part in a period of a day or two, if we don't have to. So the more specific you can get, the better it is, however you know, there is language that you can use and I think this A, B, C, D - even if they meant it to be like 1, 2, 3, 4 - it just - it's like a grading system. But I will tell you - I'll be a B-girl if Beyonce is a B-girl.

MARTIN: Well, Bill, your documentary "Dark Girls" - that's really what it's about in a way, isn't it? It's about what it means to have light skin or dark skin and what - the impact that this has, even in a way that people might not want to admit that it has. So just talk a little bit about that. I mean, so - so in a way didn't this casting call to say what people think anyway? They just put it in writing?

DUKE: Yes, and it's not only the way people think about our community but it also reflects how we think about ourselves. And our culture for example, the brown paper bag test - many years ago you could not get into a club in unless skin was lighter than a brown paper bag. If it was darker you were left to the side like chattel. Online today - if go online and look under #TeamLightGirls and #TeamDarkskinGirls, you'll see on each side a membership of both 200,000 approximately that are still dealing with this issue today. So it is a perception of beauty that has, to certain extent, from slavery been imposed. But it's a perception of beauty that we accept and we live within our own community.

NAJERA: We have that in the Latina world too...

MARTIN: Yeah, talk about that, Rick Najera.

NAJERA: It's the indigenous versus the European. And in terms of Latinos there are Caribbean - it's African versus European and which side of the grade scale - they used to have a saying in Puerto Rico it was, you know, donde esta tu abuela - where is your grandmother? And the thought was, if she's dark she's in the kitchen and they wouldn't bring her out. So that was a way of putting someone down. And you know, you see it throughout Latin America and you see it in Africa to.

DUKE: I screened "Dark Girls" last year for this high school and at the end of the screening is two little dark-skinned girls were sitting in the second row and they were weeping. And some of the ladies in the audience put their arms around them and asked them why were they crying and they said that you know, senior prom had passed and they were the only two girls not invited to the senior prom. And that was a little heartbreaking.

MARTIN: I have a clip if we can play it? You want to play a short - I don't know if this is the specific clip that you were thinking of here, Bill Duke, but let me play a short clip from the documentary if I may.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I can remember being in the bathtub asking my mom to put bleach in the water so that my skin would be lighter. And so that I could escape the feelings that I had about not being as beautiful, as acceptable, as lovable.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If we're all just hanging around and - and a dark-skinned girl will pass by - oh, well, she's pretty for dark skinned girl. And I'm like, what is that supposed to mean?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us we're talking about the controversy around the casting call for the upcoming bio-pic. It is about the rap group NWA and the casting director - the casting agent, Sande Alessi, made some very specific requests for people of different skin tones that seemed to you know, apply you know, some value judgments to people based on what those skin tones were. We're talking about this with a panel of industry insiders including the producer, director, actor Bill Duke - Rick Najera, also a producer, a director and actor -Nana Mensah, the same - and casting director Linda Lowy. So do you think - well, Linda let me ask you this - one of the things that shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" have been noted for - critically acclaimed for - the stories are unusual but also the casting that doesn't fall unto the usual tropes, right?

LOWY: Right.

MARTIN: And I just wondered what - was that - how did that come about and why do you feel like they - you know, you've been so successful with that - and yet you're still getting casting calls like this - what's your take on that?

LOWY: At the beginning, 11 years ago when I met Shonda Rimes, she looked at the things that I had done and she said I just want you to cast the show, "Grey's Anatomy," the way you see the world. I'm not going to give anybody a last name and I said to her - before I even started I just wanted to make sure that it's all ethnicities for every role because otherwise, I wasn't really interested. And she said that - no, all ethnicities for all roles. The only role she insisted - she had to have a Caucasian woman, preferably blonde - was the role of Dr. Bailey, which as you well know what Chandra Wilson. Like, I just go with my instinct and if I see something really great I bring it to the producers and director no matter what it is, no matter what's been said at the beginning, because as you go along things change.

MENSAH: I think that that's phenomenal. I also recognize the fact that that is absolutely not the norm. I mean, you know it's like

NAJERA: It's very rare.

DUKE: That's true.

MENSAH: ...The one thing that the three - the four of us have each said when we talked about this casting call was yes, it is despicable but yes, we are not surprised.

MARTIN: Rick, could I just ask you though - Rick Najera - the fact is - you also made the point that this isn't something that just affects African-Americans - like for sample I'm thinking, certainly it affects Latinos and Latinas. Sophia Vergara, whose the Colombian actress best known for her role in "Modern Family" said when she first came to Hollywood she couldn't get roles because her hair is in fact blonde so she had to - they told her she didn't look Latina enough. So she that had to dye her hair darker.

NAJERA: I met Salma Hayek when she came into town, she didn't look - she didn't look Mexican...

MARTIN: That's what she said. But so - with the country becoming much more diverse, why does this persist? Is it - is it because people are afraid to do something differently, or because they feel that this part of the audience does not matter, or what's the deal there?

NAJERA: When you look at people, especially in the Latino world, it affects us in so many ways. Like immigration - you know, the big thing happening in Murrieta and places like that - when they're talking about Latinos and this horde of Latinos - and they're calling them you know, Ann Coulter's saying the browning of America. It's the images you're seeing on television of Latinos are really bad. So when you think of Latino you're thinking of those images, the drug lords and all that and they tend to make them darker, you know. And the truth is I have two friends who are undocumented that came over there, they have more degrees and I do, much more intelligent than I am and I was born here - full citizen. My father fought in Vietnam, World War II, my uncle died in World War II - total American, Mexican-American. But I'm not on TV and that's the problem. When you're not seeing us on TV it affects immigration laws, it affects all how America sees Latinos. And that's about color.

MARTIN: So Bill Duke, Lupita Nyong'o made such a splash, won an Oscar for her role in "12 Years A Slave" and you said, you know, she's going to be on the cover of your the book version of "Dark Girls" your documentary. Does a break out roll like that - a breakout performer like that change it or does it just change it for that person?

DUKE: I think that's a great question. My prayer is that it changes it. But we have yet to see whether or not that's the reality. You know, wouldn't be wonderful to see a movie with a dark-complected woman as the female lead? When I say that I mean in a major motion picture on a consistent level that is not an anomaly. But somehow her humanity rather than her color is the thing that we really kind of look at. Because again, media is very powerful. And there's two sins involved. The sin of co-mission - when you put black people or Hispanics up there and they're clowns or they're criminals or they're something negative. That's one sin. But the sin of omission is when there's never anything wonderful or royal or stoic - we're not there.

MARTIN: I did mention at the beginning that we reached out to Sande Alessi. We were not able to get them to participate in this conversation. They did speak to TMZ and they said the casting call was, quote, "an innocent mistake and when it comes to casting poor people they're also looking for women of various skin tones and body types," unquote.


DUKE: Was that serious or was that a joke?

MARTIN: Let me just ask each of you for a final thought. Linda go on, you go first.

LOWY: First of all, Shonda Rhimes being an African-American female show runner - there's not a lot of that in Hollywood. Let's face facts putting Kerry Washington - I mean, that role was based on a real woman, the role in "Scandal" - the woman named Judy Smith, who was African-American. There was all the articles in the paper that, you know, this is the first time in 30 or 40 years that there's been a female African-American lead of a television show. Now, you know, we have Halle Berry, we've got Octavia Spencer, we've got Taraji Henson and Viola Davis who I cast in another show that's picked up for the fall season called "How To Get Away With Murder." All actresses that are leads of television shows. That's what happened with "Scandal."

MARTIN: Success breeds success. Rick final thought?

NAJERA: I think it really starts with writers. I'm a proud member of the WGA but I unfortunately sometimes it's the whitest Guild of America. The numbers, it's not me it's actually there. And you'll see it. And until that changes you won't see some real change.

MARTIN: Bill Duke?

DUKE: I hope there's an investment in our children's future so that this curse of this madness and silliness of colorism and racism will address itself so that our children will not inherit this madness.

MARTIN: Nana, final thought?

MENSAH: I just hope that, you know, what we've seen with all of these leading women that Linda was just listing who are, you know, heading TV shows - I just hope that if the shows do not produce the ratings that "Scandal" has and they are canceled that we don't wait another 30 years to try again because that seems to be the thing that continues to happen. Is that the shows happen and then, you know, they aren't successful and then we stop trying. So I think a persistence to actually reflect America as it currently stands is, you know, commit that commitment is paramount.

MARTIN: Nana Mensah is an actress on the breakout web series "An African City" she joined us from our bureau in New York City. Rick Najera is a film writer, actor and producer. He's worked on a number films including "Nothing Like The Holidays" and programs like "In Living Color." His latest book is called "Almost White: Forced Confessions Of A Latino In Hollywood." Bill Duke is a producer and director. He produced the acclaimed documentary "Dark Girls." Rick and Bill were both with us from NPR West which is in Culver City, California. Linda Lowy is a casting director who has worked on many, many shows including "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." She was with us from her office in Los Angeles. Thank you all so much for speaking with us. We appreciate it.

DUKE: Thank you for having us.

NAJERA: Thank you.

MENSAH: Thank you.

LOWY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.