Like many of you, I’m an Iranian-American Muslim lady comedian/filmmaker and one of my all-time heroes is Jon Stewart. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s into social justice, he does that falsetto thing with his voice. The heroism doesn’t stop there because he agreed to be in my film, “The Muslims Are Coming!” where he speaks out against Islamophobia, a dangerous and distinctly stupid form of bigotry festering in the U.S. today. But hold up! Jon Stewart’s wonderfulnisity doesn’t even stop there because then, THEN he up and made “Rosewater,” a movie about Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution. Say WHAT?
When he announced “Rosewater,” there wasn’t an Iranian-American comedian, actor or writer, myself included, who wasn’t chomping at the bit to be involved, to audition, to promote, to link and to be generally excited because holy cow, Jon Stewart, fake journalist and esteemed statesman of comedy was making a movie about Iran! Even my little immigrant mother called me to A) gush about JStew and B) ask why I still don’t have a thousand babies.
“Rosewater” is about an Iranian journalist who was covering the uprisings in Tehran, a story that desperately needed to be told. BUT the one thing that seemed…well…odd, was that Jon Stewart cast Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal to play that Iranian journalist. Now, I’m not saying that Gael Garcia Bernal isn’t Iranian. But I am saying that he’s definitely Mexican. If you asked him where he was from, he would say “Mexico.” If you were to say to him, “Please translate ‘donde esta el bano?'” he would go, “that means, ‘where is the bathroom?’ Now please stop asking me questions. I’m Mexican.”
I understand why Jon Stewart cast Bernal – he’s talented, he’s a celebrity, he’s hot, he’s really good looking and he’s cute. My point is, I have a crush on Gael Garcia Bernal. Oh no wait, that’s not my point, my point is that while I understand why Jon Stewart made that choice, maybe he even had to – who’s going to fund a movie with an unknown Iranian actor as the lead? – what I don’t understand is that the internet didn’t seem to care that a Mexican was playing an Iranian. Or that Danish and Greek actors were also playing Iranians in Rosewater. Where is our threshold when it comes to authenticity in casting?
Are we moving into a brave new world of casting? Is Margaret Cho going to play Oprah in her biopic? Is Denzel Washington going to play Paula Deen in hers? Gael Garcia Bernal is no stranger to biopics, he played Che Guevera in “Motorcyle Diaries.” But what would have happened if Kal Penn played Che Guevera, would that have been “cool, no big deal?” doubt it because last time I checked the internet was more than willing to jump on a rage binge for casting decisions. But only certain casting decisions.
If it was a white American playing any African-American part, it’s safe to say there would be outrage! Or a white American playing a Latino, or a Korean, or probably half a dozen others ethnic groups. There would be Jezebal article upon Gawker rant. We would unleash the most severe internet cast shaming! There would be public Twitter apologies! Donations made to historical societies! Someone would lop off one of their own limbs for atonement!
Why does the internet express rage at some of these choices but not others? Where is the rage-ometer dial? What’s on it? And who’s reading that dial? When the public was outraged over the lack of a black female cast member on “SNL,” I joined in. Like most Iranian-American comedians, I have a Master’s degree in African-American Studies so this was in my outrage wheelhouse and I honestly thought it sucked. Or remember the major commotion over Zoe Saldana in the Nina Simone movie? People wanted Zoe out because she’s not as dark-skinned as Simone was, because she had Latina roots, because they had to use skin-darkening makeup. That outrage seemed understandable.
But to another group of casting choices we say “meh.” For example, why did we stop at black female cast members on “SNL”? Why aren’t we outraged about Chinese-American cast members? There’s never ever been a Chinese-American cast member on “SNL,” not one. And yet, we’re not that bothered by it.
Oh and don’t worry, authenticity rage seems to go the other way, too. Remember back in 2011 when there were talks of Donald Glover playing “Spiderman”? The internet jumped on that REAL quick! Glover had his supporters but the naysayers, they were loud and abundant. A black Spiderman would break continuity with the comic books!, they said. Spiderman is supposed to be an “everyman,” they said. Donald Glover got death threats. And the role eventually went to a white British dude.
What makes one minority group’s needs “popular” and worthy of outrage? It seems we have an unofficial “no-one-gives-a-shit casting category.” Middle Eastern characters have generally failed at getting any kind of casting authenticity. Bill Maher variously refers to laws coming out of Saudi Arabia as being part of the whole region. He views the Middle East (and maybe parts of the Near East and South East Asia?) as one big brown violent blob and that kind of thinking infiltrates the way we cast movies and TV shows.
No one cared when Ben Kingsley was cast as an Iranian in “House of Sand and Fog.” A lot of people like to say “oh but he’s part Indian,” which just makes me throw my lady paws in the air because India and Iran, while similar in spelling, are two totally different countries.
I get called in to audition for Arab and Indian parts all the time. I also get called into audition for Iranian parts. No matter what I’m going in for, I see Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, actors from various Arab countries, and Iranians. We all just get thrown into the pot and mixed up. Add some saffron and you got a dish!
I realize it ain’t easy A) being green and B) making a movie. Which is to say, it’s hard enough making a movie, maybe authenticity in casting is just a bridge too far. When you’re making a movie, you’re constantly making compromises. I’ve made three feature films myself so I know how rough it is.
But when I step out of my sympathetic filmmaker pants and into my regular audience pants, I can’t help but worry. Is it the fate of the Iranians – and other Middle Easterners and Native Americans and probably Belgians – never to achieve authenticity in mainstream media because we’re such a small-time minority? Or because we’re not sufficiently popular or vocal? Is it because people don’t always know the difference between these ethnic groups? Are we supposed to just be okay with it?
You know what, I might actually be okay with it. Gael Garcia Bernal did a terrific job in “Rosewater.” Sure, he his accent had some off moments but, the guy is a great actor. And I’m grateful that Jon Stewart took this on – that he was brave enough to do it. But what about that little Iranian-American kid, somewhere in America, going to see this movie? Wouldn’t it be nice if the hero on screen reflected him? Wouldn’t it be nice if he had an icon to look up to?