Image Awards spotlight diversity's new face

Look out, Hollywood, there’s a new kind of hero in town. Call him the hybrid, as represented by stars such as Vin Diesel, Wentworth Miller and the Rock.

Neither black nor white, these actors thrive on the ambiguity of their multiethnic heritage — and so do audiences. It’s no longer just little white boys and girls who see themselves reflected onscreen, but black, Latino and other audiences as well, all in the same faces. The new “everyman,” once defined exclusively by actors like Jimmy Stewart and Harrison Ford, now packs cross-cultural potential.

It’s a relatively novel concept for an industry that relies so heavily on typecasting, and one that seems to throw an event like the NAACP’s Image Awards for a loop. Nominees like “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Heroes” all reflect the standard politically correct definition of diversity, featuring casts peppered with actors of all colors. Increasingly over the years, the NAACP awards have honored Latino actors and creatives. But how does the org deal with diversity reflected in a single star?

Take an actor like Daniel Sunjata, nominated for his portrayal of Reggie Jackson in ESPN mini “The Bronx Is Burning.” A year earlier, the light-skinned thesp (of African-European descent) was honored by the Latin Pride Awards for his work as Puerto Rican firefighter Franco Rivera on “Rescue Me.” But wouldn’t his color-blind Broadway turn opposite Jennifer Garner and Kevin Kline in “Cyrano” be the true coup?

Hollywood has a long tradition of casting cultural chameleons in “ethnic” parts. Actors such as Joe Mantegna, Andy Garcia and John Turturro made their careers alternating between Italian, Jewish and Latino characters. The Image Awards even nominated all-white Angelina Jolie for her sensitive portrayal of Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart,” proving that such roles needn’t always be defined by the character’s skin color.

In 1994, before he was a star, Diesel made a semiautobiographical short film entitled “Multi-Facial” in which he played a young actor stuck in a series of dead-end auditions. He nails each one, but misses out on the roles because he doesn’t look Italian, black or Latino “enough” for the casting directors.

The happy ending came later. Steven Spielberg saw the short and cast Diesel in “Saving Private Ryan” (the part called for an Italian-American, just one of the ingredients in the actor’s cultural heritage). And so, what had been a liability at entry level became an asset once he reached leading-man status. In addition to the distinctive voice and physique of another Schwarzenegger or Stallone, he boasted a look that resonated with nonwhite audiences, too.

Hyper-hyphenates

The same goes for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson (half black, half Samoan), who breaks the mold of the Jackie Chans and Eddie Murphys before him by trading on his kilowatt appeal rather than some caricature of his cultural identity. Just as Tiger Woods did for golf, the Rock’s approach broadens his appeal and unites audiences.

For “Prison Break” star Miller, his big career break came with “The Human Stain.” As Anthony Hopkins’ younger self, Miller played a black man so pale he decides to pass for white. Offscreen, the actor embraces his diverse roots. As he explained to TV Guide, “My mother is Russian, French, Syrian, Lebanese and Dutch; my father is African-American, Jamaican, English, German and part Cherokee.” While many white audiences probably don’t even notice the complexity of Miller’s heritage, such nuances certainly aren’t lost on viewers of color.

Multicultural appeal isn’t just a boys’ game, either. Consider breakouts like Rosario Dawson (“I’m Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban, Irish and Native Indian,” she told Britain’s the Independent) and Jessica Alba (who informed BlackFilm.com, “My father is Mexican-American-Spanish and my mom is French and Danish”). Such actresses serve as role models for a wide-ranging audience, provided they are allowed to break free from narrowly defined ethnic stereotypes — and therein lies the key.

White actors regularly enjoy diversity of a different type: namely, picking their projects from a broad selection of well-rounded roles. Plug one of these progressive new “everymen” into those movies, and things stand to get really interesting.

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