Smith: Racial inequality abounds in film casting

As someone who only has an outsider's view of the movie industry, I can't pretend to know all the ins and outs of casting. Still, it doesn't take an insider to see that actors are being cast for their perceived box office value instead of talent or suitability to the role.

Recently, casting began for the film adaptation of Dean Koontz's novel, Odd Thomas. One of the main characters, Stormy Llewellyn, is repeatedly described in the book as having a "Mediterranean complexion, jet-black hair and mysterious dark eyes," and yet the only non-blondes in the final casting pack were Kat Dennings and Lily Collins (who was offered the part). All of them were white.

Out of the options, Collins was probably the closest match, but why couldn't the filmmakers go that extra step of casting someone who actually matched Koontz's description? Judging by the pool of people from which they were choosing, they were just going for pretty blond girls or bankable stars like Collins, who is set to explode in the film industry.

I have no doubt that there are plenty of excellent actresses out there who would have matched Koontz's description, but if they were even asked for in the casting call, they didn't make it to the final round.

A similar issue arose last year when M. Night Shyamalan sparked the heated "racebending" controversy by casting all-white principle actors in his movie adaptation of "Avatar: The Last Airbender," a series distinguished by its multitude of Asian and Inuit characters. Jesse McCartney was originally cast as Zuko, the show's Japanese villain. He was later recast, but the two Inuit roles still went to white actors.

Then Jake Gyllenhal was cast to play the lead in Prince of Persia, alongside almost all white co-stars. As blogger Jehanzeb Dar wrote, "It's not only insulting to Persians, it's also insulting to white people. It's saying white people can't enjoy movies unless the protagonist is white."

While I don't mean to imply that we should institute the film equivalent of affirmative action, it does seem absurd that minority actors often aren't even considered for roles because casting directors seem to think that a movie can't become a blockbuster without white leads.

That fear is starting to seem pretty unfounded after the success of last year's Karate Kid, which featured an almost entirely non-white cast. People might follow certain stars, but ultimately people go to see films because of an interesting trailer or premise.

Race is, when all is said and done, a social construct. Still, we shouldn't perpetuate a history of racist casting by preventing marginalized groups from appearing on screen. Drenching easy-money white actors in spray tan to cash in at the box office is damaging whatever integrity Hollywood can still claim.

Cross-racial casting can work. Just look at Ben Kingsley's Academy Award-winning turn as Gandhi. Casting someone who did Gandhi such justice was possibly a better tribute than casting an Indian actor for the sake of casting an Indian actor, but that wasn't the case in the other instances. Not to mention Kingsley is at least of Indian decent.

Besides, The Last Airbender was slammed with Razzie nominations, and Prince of Persia didn't exactly receive stellar reviews, so you can't argue that the leads were cast for their talent.

Casting directors need to find a balance between casting actors for their talent and for their physical qualifications in a way that gives everyone an equal chance. Maybe Lily Collins really was the best fit for Stormy, but since the Odd Thomas filmmakers only seemed interested in Caucasian blondes, I'll never know, and that's an injustice to Collins as well as the movie-going public.