The Voice: The Tricky Topic of Race and Voice Actors

28.4.11 ShaSha LaPerf 5 Comments

So we all heard about the white-washing of The Last Airbender films. There were websites created about how unjust it was for a show heavily inspired by Asian culture to cast whites in the lead roles. There were boycotts held at movie theaters and even Roger Egbert spoke out about the casting. I have to admit I hadn't seen much of the animated show but I had a basic idea of it, and also gave side-eye to Shyamalan when it came to casting (and even ranted about it a little in an earlier blog). But when we look at the casting of Avatar, are should we really have been surprised? After all:

from left: Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, and Dante Basco

Look at the casting of the characters on the animated show. Like the movie, all the voice actors are white with the exception of the villain.

Despite the similarity in casting between the TV show and the live-action movie, there was little uproar about the animated show.  Avatar: The Last Airbender follow a long list of shows and movies that have decided to choose white people to do the voices of people of color (POC). A few hours on Wikipedia (woohoo lazy research tools) gave me some insight on who's really behind the voices we see on TV.

It's Not Just Avatar: White Faces Behind POC roles

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is one of the characters played by Hank Azaria.


Putting whites in the roles of POC in character is definitely nothing new and is still pretty common practice today. Just look at The Simpsons' Apu Nahasapeemapetilon who's voice by Hank Azaria. Meanwhile Toby Huss played the Laotian character Kahn Souphanousinphone on King of the Hill. Apu is a stereotypical Indian supermarket owner and Kahn is a "redneck-hating" man who refuses to see his daughter as a daughter. Even more, both Huss and Azaria put on accents to play these characters, adding to the stereotypes. So perhaps we have two cases of yellowface here.

The messed up thing is the idea of whites in POC roles extends to animated shows and movies in which the main characters are POC. With both The Simpsons and King of the Hill, the Asian characters are supporting characters living in predominately white worlds. But The Cleveland Show is an animated show about a black family. The creators of the show went through the effort to hire Sanaa Latham, Reagan Gomez-Preston, and Kevin Michael Richardson to play the roles of Donna, Roberta, and Cleveland Jr. However the title character Cleveland is played by Mike Henry who is white. Henry also plays Rollo, Cleveland's stepson who dons a big afro, deeper voice and snappy attitude. Granted the choice to have Henry play Cleveland is from the fact that Cleveland was originally a character on The Family Guy. But why wasn't Kevin Michael Richardson offered the role? It's not like he's a new voice actor; his credits stretched back as far as 1989 on The Simpsons.

Ironically Richardson does NOT do Dr. Hibbert on The Simpsons...that role was also given to a white man. Dr. Hibbert isn't as stereotypical as Apu, but he does have some "black" moments. Think of the number of black hair styles he's had including an afro and Stevie Wonder's braids and beads. There's even a scene where they show Dr. Hibbert attending an all black church rather than the church the Simpsons attend. Harry Shearer (who voices a lot of characters on The Simpsons including Mr. Burns, Kent Brochman, and Ned Flanders) uses a much deeper voice to portray Dr. Hibbert. He doesn't put on any type of accents, but I wonder when Shearer was choosing a vocal style of Hibbert if he had to go through several different version before deciding on which voice was "black" enough. And better yet is this a case of animated blackface?

One major thing The Simpsons, The Cleveland Show, and Avatar have in common is the fact that they were all created by white people. It's pretty reflective of a lot of what we see in Hollywood. Whites have majority of control over what happens on Hollywood and will create shows for people that look like them. Despite the fact that they want to make their animated worlds a bit more "diverse," there seems to be little effort into finding POC to fill the roles of the animated one. It's frustrating that even in the world of animation we're not seeing a lot of POC taking on roles of...well animated POC.


POC Creators and Their Influence on Voice-Actor Casting 

The Proud Family's main protagonist was Penny Proud, voiced by Kyla Pratt.

So what happens when it's POC that are in control of a show? Hammerman, Waynehead and The PJs were all created by well-known celebrities when they aired. I'm talking about MC Hammer, Damon Wayans, and Eddie Murphy. Of course these guys had enough clout in Hollywood at the time to make sure black actors were hired for their shows. Jackie Chan Adventures was the brainchild of Jackie Chan himself. The majority of the cast are Asian with Chan himself doing a role. But a show doesn't need to have a big name behind it to have POC in voice acting roles.

Bruce Smith is the black man behind the show the Proud Family. The predominately black cast is filled with black actors like Tommy Davidson and Kyla Pratt. The BouleVardez family are all voiced by Latin actors. Dante Basco popped in to take on the role of Asian classmate Kwok in one episode. Of course we can't talk about black animated shows without mentioning the Boondocks, with the likes of Regina King and John Witherspoon doing major roles on the show. And let's not forget Static Shock, which was created by the late Dwayne McDuffie and used Phil LaMarr to voice Static Shock. Ni Hao, Kai-Lan was created by Chinese-American Karen Chau and has a young Asian girl doing the title character. I can't say The Proud Family and Jackie Chan Adventures were free of stereotypes, but they did hire POC to take on the roles. The Proud Family actually showed a diverse group of black characters; sometimes they were loud and ghetto and other times they were smart and funny. Jackie Chan's show aired in the Kids WB! slot and fit the action formula of the slot. It's pretty hard to say that people like Chau and Smith had a big say in voice actor casting, but I don't think it's a coincidence that these shows specifically created by POC have POC doing the roles here.


Eh!? That Asian Guy Has a Black Voice Actor!?

Phil LaMarr did the voice of Samurai Jack.

Who else was shocked to see Phil LaMar playing Samurai Jack? As I mentioned before LaMarr was no stranger to voice acting seeing as he was Hermes on Futurama and Static Shock. But what's interesting is like Shearer did with Dr. Hibbert, he gave Jack a much deeper voice than the other characters he's played. So it's a stranger flip on a white man giving a black character a deep voice; we have a black man giving a deeper voice to an Asian character.

LaMarr isn't the only black man to take on the role of an Asian. Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince (aka James Avery) did the original voice on Shredder on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And even on Jackie Chan's show, big Japanese Tohru was played by big black Noah Nelson. None of the characters on Ninja Turtles were voices by Asians and I'm pretty sure Avery was the only POC period to have a role. So seeing him isn't as surprising as seeing LaMarr and Nelson in there roles. I already discussed the cast of Jackie Chan Adventures. There are Asian voice actors in the show such as Mako, who is the evil Aku, and Sab Shimono, who plays the emperor. This type of casting doesn't seem to be as common as whites being in POC roles however we have to be curious about why these men were chosen over potential Asian actors.

Furthermore, some why characters were also voiced by POC. Most notably are Penny from Inspector Gadget and Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures. Both characters were done by who should be considered the POC queen of voice acting: Cree Summer.  And in some cases we have POC playing "blue" characters as Jaleel White a.k.a Steve Urkel from Family Matters did the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog through most of the Sonic animated franchise. Then there's Keith David, known for several roles, including that of Goliath in Disney's Gargoyles.

Gargoyles and Sonic aren't really "people" and thus were not coded as "black" because of their voice actors. Yet in some case, we get characters that aren't human that audiences automatically identify as being "black." And obvious case of this would be The TV show and movie versions of Transformers. The original version of Transformers feature Jazz and Blaster, two robots that were voice by black actors Scatman Crothers and Buster Jones respectively). These Autobots like music, dancing, and it's a common belief that blaster's name refers to a "ghetto blaster." Although Blaster did not appear in the updated Transformers movie, Jazz--who was voiced by Family Matters actor, Darius McCreary, did. LOL and he was the only Autobot to die in the first movie...yeah we all know what that means. In the second Transformers movie, Jazz did not return, but two characters named Skid and Mudflap did, and boy did they cause a ruckus. The "twins" received a lot of criticism for being "black" characters. Only one of the robots was voiced by a black actor. It seems that in the latest version of the animated series--Transformers Prime--has gotten rid of "black" coded characters. However the series does feature POC as voice actors: Gina Torres plays Decepticon Airachinid, Kevin Michael Richardson is Autobot Bulhead, Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson plays human Agent Fowler, and Tania Gunadi plays human Miko Nakadai.



Sometimes TV/Movies Can Surprise You


Actor Samuel Jackson took on the role of Afro Samurai.

Disney is pretty hit or miss when it comes to voice acting. Of course Disney has slipped up a few times like those fuckin racists crows in Dumbo. And, none of the voice actors in the movie Aladdin were remotely Middle Eastern. Although Disney bastardized the story of Pochantas, I have to commend them for finding a Native American female to take on the title character. Mulan used Ming-Na and BD Wong while the Atlantis movie featured a multicultural cast and featured actors like Cree Summer, Phil Morris, and Jacqueline Obradors. Then there's The Princess and the Frog with Anika Noni Rose in the lead role. Of course Disney had a WTF moment when they changed the black prince to a racial ambiguous not-so-light,not-so-dark skinned prince, but they get Keith David, Terrance Howard, Jenifer Lewis, and freakin Oprah Winfrey to play roles as well.

Comic book creator Stan Lee brought his black superhero Black Panther to life last year and the six episode series featured the voices of Dijimon Hounsou, Kerry Washington, and Alfre Woodard. LOL actually this show gets extra props for hiring an African to play an African! Additionally Afro Samurai is a manga series that was later adapted into an anime. They got Samuel Jackson to fight those muthafuckin samurai in muthafuckin Japan. Ugh I guess that line doesn't really work that way. :( As for shows where blacks are just supporting cast take a look at Archer, which has comedian Aisha Tyler playing black female agent Lana Kane.

Even After All This, Does It Really 
Matter The Race of The Voice Actor?

That's the question of the day. Should we considered some of these things blackface or yellowface since we're not even seeing a "real face?" Since we're not seeing a face at all should it even matter about the race behind a cartoon character? even after I spent all this time writing this, I have to say I'm on the fence here. For the most part and animated character isn't that different from a live-action character. If a live-action TV show calls for a black character, they should hire a black actor to play the role. The same should apply to voice actors. The number of animated characters that are POC is probably as limited as they are on live-action TV, and I'm sure competition for actors that are POC is tougher because we aren't seeing their faces. Expand the freaking pool and let others besides Cree Summer, Phil LaMarr, and Dante Basco get roles.

At the same time, when I watched Samurai Jack I enjoyed hearing Phil LaMarr's voice. For that matter I haven't been particularly bugged by Shearer's Dr. Hibbert either. Perhaps because LaMarr and Shearer stayed away from silly accents they don't seem to be bad choices for the roles they play. As a fan of anime I've found a lot of English dub voice actors that do a great job despite the fact that they are often white (except for Johnny Yong Bosch who is half-Asian). Here's a question of choosing the best actor for the role despite their race. But like white-washed movies like the potential upcoming Akira film we still have to wonder why is it when it comes to whites that in roles on as POC character they're always chosen because they are the "best" for the role? How much effort was put into finding the "best" black or Asian actor to begin with? Moreover how can non-white actors learn how to become the "best" when they aren't given any chances to spread their wings?

What a tough call, that sadly I don't have any of the answers.

5 comments:

  1. I think it depends of the nature of the character. Certain characters, like Apu, are stock side characters, with very little depth.
    I don't see a problem with them using a white actor, who is also used to voice several other little side actors, as well. I think that says alot about that actor's skill set and range, more than his color (or lack thereof). Also, I think with characters that demonstrate a great deal of feeling and personality, they do tend to pick the best actors, in animation, at least. For example, Zuko starts off as the enemy but quickly evolves into the most noble, charismatic, and multi-dimensional character on the show. Basco got the best role, hands down. I read your post yesterday, and couldn't comment; I hope I'm on topic bc I didn't take the time to reread, so I might be just rambling, idk. But I remember liking what I read.

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  2. @ban2j:
    No, you're on topic. :) With a show like the Simpsons, I'm sure a character like Apu probably wasn't going to be a "regular" character and financially it was probably cheaper to use Azaria because like you said, he'd did several roles on the show already. You made a good point about Zuko's character as well. I feel like it is a bit easier for voice actors to get a "pass" because in general I tend to remember more what a character is about and not so much what their voices sounds like. But I also think like that when I see live-action characters too. I know what Will Smith looked like in Independence Day, but I don't think to much for what his voice sounds like. It is about how well a character is played at times.

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  3. Russell from Up was voiced by an Asian American kid as well, which was somewhat surprising.

    It's perhaps unrealistic to expect every POC to be portrayed by his/her respective race, but the Last Airbender having all heroes portrayed by whites just makes me sigh. At least they found an Asian for the villain. -.-

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  4. I didn't know that about Russell! Thanks for the info.

    I have a love-hate relationship with Disney. I still don't understand why Jason Weaver was only chosen to do the singing voice for Simba. Geez the kids was fuckin Michael Jackson! He was an actor! And Disney also got some flack for having the hyenas voices by blacks and latinos and portrayed as lazy. But I LOVE the fact that they gave Anika Noni Rose the rose of Tiana in The Princess and The Frog rather than say Beyonce or...Rihanna. They decided to go for a lesser known actress/singer so she could have the spotlight. Unfortunately their changing of the princes race is still suspect though. >:(

    I do agree that it's probably harder finding more POC for voice roles. Most of the ones I mentioned didn't even start out as voice actors, they just came into it I think. Airbender seems to be a big mess behind the scenes though.

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  5. Live action I would agree with. Because not only is it about character, but appearance is also a major part of portraying a character. (Avatar was bomb.. I watched the series, and was disappointed with the acting.)

    Now voice acting is another story. Unlike acting it's all about character, not appearance. I'm very particular of my dubbed shows.. too many times a voice actor is cast that just doesn't capture the character. But, I don't think the voice actor auditions should be limited to the ethnic background, or race, of the person auditioning. It should be based upon who can capture the character best. True, I'm sure someone with the same cultural background would be at an advantage because they would understand the character better-but even so, if the personality is portrayed by someone other than that- they should be considered.

    Characters like Apu are also different.. Apu is a stereotype. The foreign man who runs the gas station.. so, unless they have a sense of humor, some people may be offended by characters like Apu-thus it would mostly likely be hard to find someone with the same ethnic background.

    Like I said, though, I'm extremely particular of my dubbed shows, and animated voice actors.. some are horrible, and I can't help but think.. "What the hell where they thinking?" I've even gotten to the point of ditching an animated series because I didn't agree with the voice actor.

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