Diversity must be supported in production castings


Diversity must be supported in production castings

By Ariana Portalatin

After a group of New York high school students protested the casting of a white student for the role of Esmeralda in Ithaca High School’s musical production of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the students began getting harassed with racist and offensive comments. With the response these students got for advocating for something positive, the need to support diversity in casting has proven to be more important than ever.

The situation began last month when student activists objected to the casting by forming the Students United Ithaca group, which wrote letters and organized a campaign against the musical direction to advocate for a student of color to play the leading role instead of a white student, according to a Feb. 8 New York Times article.

The musical, based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo and the 1996 Disney animated film, tells the story of an outcast bellringer who sets out to help Esmeralda, a dancer who is framed for murder. In Hugo’s book, it is unclear whether both Esmeralda’s parents are Roma, but Disney’s film shows the character with a dark complexion, and that is the version Ithaca’s students grew up watching, according to the NYT article. Roma people are descendants of migrants who arrived in Europe from India more than a millennium ago.

Considering that students of color make up 34 percent of the high school’s student body, students were right to want that demographic represented in the production, which is especially important when it comes to a minority character. Instead of casting a student of color for the role, the high school eventually decided to cancel the production after a community meeting was held to discuss the casting concerns. Not long after, the local debate expanded nationwide when it was picked up by multiple right-wing publications, including Breitbart and neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. 

The criticism was offensive, to say the least. Students soon saw pictures of themselves on social media with swastikas over their faces and received racist comments and messages. One parent received an email accusing her of embracing “anti-white racism,” saying, “I feel bad for your brainwashed child.”

Supporting an accurate representation of a diverse student body is not racist and it is not “anti-white.” It is the exact opposite. Let’s not forget that productions, films and other artistic expressions are used as a way to tell stories, which brings with it a responsibility to tell those stories as accurately as possible. This means casting multicultural characters with diverse participants to match. 

Disney has come under fire numerous times in the past for whitewashing its multicultural characters in their films, including live action remakes of their “Mulan” and “Aladdin” movies. This one should not be excluded just because it’s not exclusively a Disney production and because the issue lies on a smaller scale with a high school production. These issues reflect a much larger problem during politically-charged times under the current White House administration. 

Not only is it important to support diverse casting, but it’s imperative to do so not just in huge Hollywood productions with adults, but with those that are small-scale and include all ages. Then, multiculturalism is supported from a young age when people are more impressionable and able to accurately see the reality of the increasingly diverse population they live in. Whether it is in Hollywood or a high school, accurate representation matters.