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Brazilian Production Of 'Lion King' Requests Blacks For Leads, But Finalists Are Artificially-Tanned Whites

by Courtney
December 26, 2012 4:19 PM
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It was just a few days ago that I posted an item here on S&A (read it HERE), about a Brazilian TV show broadcast by Globo TV, that featured a white woman who "becomes" a black woman in order to live out a bucket list fantasy to have sex with a black man. Needless to say, comments around the web in response to that piece of news weren't exactly endearing. 

I think I can sum up reactions with a single acronym: WTF?

So I'm dying to read your reactions this today's news, reported, once again, courtesy of the Black Women Of Brazil blog (a blog that I'm glad Tambay introduced, and that I read regurlarly, and recommend).

Here's the short story:

The production of the Disney musical O Rei Leão (The Lion King) sought black or brown children to play the protagonists Simba and Nala in the Brazilian edition, which debuts in March. But most of the child actors in the final phase of auditions are white. Two finalists declared to the Folha news column that they are using tanning spray to darken their skin to suit the production. The T4F company, which is assembling the show, says it didn’t recommend the procedure to applicants. In American and English versions of the show, the protagonists are black.

So the casting call requested black and brown kids for the lead roles, BUT, for some reason, most of the kid actors in the final stage of the auditions are white. And that's just half of it; the other piece to this is that the white kids are essentially spray-tanning themselves to suit the parts that they just might get - parts that originally called for black and brown kids.

My first question to this is, if the casting call asked specifically for black and brown kids, why are there white kids who made it this far into the audition process? It tells me that, from the get-go, white kids also responded to the casting call, and auditioned for the parts that have always been set aside for black kids. Or I guess it could also be that there was a second casting call, that didn't specifically ask for black and brown kids?

Secondly, I wonder why, if black and brown kids were sought from the get-go, there are a majority white kids in the final stage; are the producers saying that there aren't any qualified black kids? I really doubt that.

When I first read this, I thought I'd just let it go, and not write about it, because I thought maybe I'd wait and see who ends up being cast in the roles, because they actually may be from the small pool of black kids who made it to the finals.

But then as I sat and thought about it, the final casting decisions aside, I just couldn't shake the fact that the white kids (the majority of the candidates left) are actually getting by, moving from one stage of the audition process to the next, using tanning spray to darken their skin, so that they can pass as black/brown kids.

How are the producers letting this slide? The report says that the company behind the production says it didn't recommend that the kids do this, but it doesn't further elaborate. So they aren't recommending that the kids do this, but the kids are doing it anyway. And the fact that they are apparently getting through the audition process, and the majority of the finalists are white kids, suggests that the company is perfectly fine with this! I guess they are saying that they didn't recommend the procedure, so as to relieve themselves of any criticism?

I don't get it.

When the South American production opens, it will mark the 6th continent in which The Lion King will have played. The premiere will happen in São Paulo, Brazil, on March 7th, 2013 at the Teatro Abril. 

The previously-mentioned T4F (Time For Fun) production, will mark the largest stage musical ever presented in Brazil and the first time the show has been performed in Portuguese. 

But maybe we can add a third "first" - the first time it's been performed with white kids in spray-tanned darkened skin in the lead roles.

I should say in closing that this is the second post from me that's shining a negative light on Brazil, and I didn't want it to seem like we're just Brazil-bashing, because we have written about other works of film and TV from Brazil positively and enthusiastically. And also, it's not like we here in the USA don't have our own race/color issues as well.

Please read the full report from the Black Women of Brazil blog HERE, where you will find not just critical observations of Brazil, but also posts that celebrate the country. I'm Just saying... if only for balance.

From what I understand about representations of blacks in Brazil in the media, depictions are limited and narrowly-defined (not-so unlike here in the USA, although it's worse), which is problematic when you consider how significant the African-descendant population is in that country (compared to the USA).

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  • Seth | March 5, 2013 4:31 AMReply

    What's racist is the idea of setting aside roles for actors and actresses of a particular race in the first place. As it has been noted, the work is set in Africa, but the characters are not human beings but ANIMALS. What difference could it possibly make what the races is of the actors and actresses are? Certain roles are race specific, certain ones are not, but when the roles in question are non-human, such considerations are irrelevant.

  • Seth | March 6, 2013 9:17 AM

    There is no contradiction. I was speaking in general. Certain roles in certain works ARE race specific, such as Othello. The ROLES are race specific, but they need not be filled by members of those races. That's why it's called ACTING.

    Although it is now politically incorrect to do so, there is nothing wrong with a non-black playing Othello, or a non-white playing Desdemona, for that matter, as long as they are made-up to appear to be the race of the character in question, although there is apparently some doubt as to the intended race of Othello...

    Regarding the "Lion King" , the question of the race of the performers is particularly irrelevant, as the characters are animals. I agree that the tanning is ludicrous. But actors in question were not "born physically representing the look needed for the play", since they were born human beings.

  • ALM | March 5, 2013 7:31 AM

    @ Seth: You contradicted yourself. First you said, "What's racist is the idea of setting aside roles for actors and actresses of a particular race in the first place". Then you wrote, "Certain roles are race specific..."

    In addition to the contradiction issue, there is no reason to tan a group of actors when there are already qualified actors who sing who were born physically representing the look needed for the play.

  • Anthony Pierre | January 9, 2013 11:57 PMReply

    I have visited Brazil a number of times over the past 10 years, including the Carnival in Rio in Feb 2012. While I love much about Brazilian culture, especially the music, as a black male I can state unequivocally that Brazil is a very, very racist country. As someone who grew up in the Caribbean, Brazil reminded me of the the social dynamic in the Caribbean in the early 1950's. While there is a large Black population in the country, Black Brazilians live in very, very oppressive social conditions in most large Brazilian cities. They are totally under-represented in the media, and many mainstream occupations in Brazilian commercial life. This story about the casting of Lion King is Brazilian racism, plain and simple. There is absolutely no excuse for this. Lion King is set in the African savannah, and has been correctly and sensitively cast as a largely black production wherever it has been staged. My daughter performed in the Toronto production, so I am quite familiar with the staging. This is a top notch Broadway production and this is dominant white Brazil refusing to give this fantastic opportunity to black actors, children or otherwise. Disney and Julie Taymor should be ashamed!! I am outraged by this and am going to follow this up with a letter to Disney and probably start a Facebook page to call Brazil and Disney on this. Blacks have too little opportunity in theatre and film in general, to get shouldered out of a rare black production by white actors with a spray on tan.

  • Victoria | May 11, 2013 4:50 PM

    What you say is partly untrue. The production of the Lion King in Madrid, for example, cast 'white' people, and people of a tanner skin (there is a fantastic Mexican singer in it). I had the chance to watch it in Mexico City, and no one paid any mind about some actors being whiter, and some tanner, than others. The truth is, nobody minds. The rest of the world is not as sensitive to what you like to call 'political correctness'. Julie Taymor is not ashamed of this, because it is understood that different parts of the world have different views and takes on different issues. There is also the point that, perhaps, not many black children in Brazil have had the chance to have proper musical training. I see absolutely nothing wrong with this.

  • Braseuiero | December 29, 2012 7:00 PMReply

    in braxil its racist to call for a casting of "black and brown" people therefore whites also go there. But it is not considered racist to choose only white people.

  • Zeech | December 27, 2012 3:38 PMReply

    Kinda reminds me about all the Coperia groups I use to see in London, New York, France etc which were all white. Afterall it is BRAZIL, it's like caribbean there, ie caste based miserable system. You've seen their TV? it is pure pork, nothing but white folks just like Venezuela before brothaman Chavez kicked them out. Good News though in the land of honouree whites, they passed legislation recently that would allow our Diaspora to raise some legal hell about this.
    Hope you follow the story to see if we ready to Agitate and Organize.

  • lorri | December 27, 2012 1:02 PMReply

    There are very few roles for Afro African Blacks in the theater. This means the casting either didnt extend itself to these communities OR believes anyone can play the role. As a person in the theater realm, it reeks of corn fed bull.

  • Aaron | December 27, 2012 10:56 AMReply

    History is going to repeat itself one way or the other and the racists are probably going to choose the blackfaced white child and not an actual black child. They've been doing a lot more of this blackface stuff lately, right. It's history. Pretty soon we will have no choice but to do it on our own like before and learn the lesson of not integrating into the burning house again.

  • Miles Ellison | December 27, 2012 2:09 AMReply

    The hits just keep on comin'. What's next, a Brazilian version of The Color Purple with an all white blackface cast?

  • ALM | December 26, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    I ask again, what is our response to this? It's obvious that blackface is not going to stop, so should we just ignore it? Does posting on this cause more harm (by giving these productions free/increased publicity) than good? I honestly have these questions.

  • ALM | December 27, 2012 12:01 AM

    @ Getthese: Honey, I understand the racial makeup outside of the U.S. Your response is condescending, and yet you still failed to answer a basic questions that I posed above. Posting on the topic of Blackface has not made it go away, even after all of these decades.

  • getthesenets | December 26, 2012 6:48 PM

    Alm, Brazilian production...and they went through the farce of open cast call, and article is implying that the child actors are "spray tanning" on their own.

    Not sure that there is anything that American audience can do.

    Posting this kind of news is beneficial. There are other Black people in the Western Hemisphere besides the ones living in USA, and we need to be aware of what is going on.

  • Sehar | December 26, 2012 5:54 PMReply

    Do all the touring casts use folks from the country? I have seen the Lion King on Broadway more than 6 times and a variety of complexions have played the children. I even know several of them. The typical Kids have been "neutral". Definitely not white but fair. That is not say there haven't been many complexions of talented children in its long run.

  • Donella | December 26, 2012 4:46 PMReply

    Only if one travels to places like Brazil, Cuba, Mexico will one see that the majority of the population is medium brown or darker. Television, film, and fashion magazines would have the world believe otherwise, but the real deal will amaze.

  • Ava | December 28, 2012 12:56 PM

    I've had the opportunity to visit Cuba and I would indeed agree with that statement. I had always hoped to be able to visit Brazil in the near future, although articles like these and the last one is causing me to put this desire on a lower set of priorities for the foreseeable future.

  • getthesenets | December 26, 2012 4:35 PMReply

    Ithe Macy's thanksgiving day parade.....can't fool me....they had a float with Indians...BS....there were TWO real Indians..and a bunch of Puerto Ricans with feathers in their hair..I know Puerto Ricans when I see them...that's not Pocahontas, that's j-lo" classic Chris Rock

  • getthesenets | December 26, 2012 4:31 PMReply

    I've read that Brasil, is the country with more Black people than ANYwhere else outside of Nigeria. So it's a copout that there weren't Black kids in roles that were written for Black children.

    Perhaps it's an issue of Black parents steering their children away from the arts, because it's not seen as a viable career option.

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