ED GORDON, host:
Oliver Stone's new film World Trade Center is causing a stir for something more than its storyline.
One of the central characters, an African-American Marine Corps Sergeant, was cast as white. Commentator Lester Spence explains why this may be more than just a case of mistaken identity.
Professor LESTER SPENCE (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): Oliver Stone's movie about the World Trade Center opened recently to wide acclaim. But a controversy has arisen.
Now, controversy is something Oliver Stone is known for. But here I'm talking about something different. The controversy here isn't about the politics of the movie. Stone isn't putting forth some conspiracy about how the towers were bombed by the government. Rather in this case, the controversy deals with the simple matter of casting.
In the movie, there's a character, Marine Sergeant Thomas, who, after seeing the destruction, gets his Marine Uniform and goes directly to the site of the wreckage unasked, saving the lives of New York Port Authority Officers.
Sounds simple, right? How could you get the casting here wrong? They cast a white actor in the role. In real life, Sgt. Jason Thomas is African-American.
The film's producer apologized to Thomas for the error, saying it was an oversight that they didn't catch until filming had already begun. And Thomas himself hasn't been too critical about the oversight. He just stepped forward so the true story could be told. Black people and others interested in accuracy have been understandably upset.
What happened to the World Trade Center didn't just affect a thin slice of white folks, it affected all of us. And the firefighters, police officers, and Marines that saved lives that day came in all races, all religions, and all sexualities.
But I've got a different take on it. I don't think those associated with the movie did this to ignore the contributions of people who didn't happen to be white. Not at all. I think they did it to increase white self-esteem. And this particular self-esteem-affirming tactic is nothing new. Think Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments. Think James Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of Christ. Remember the movie Mississippi Burning? The one about the murder of the four civil rights workers? Remember who the stars were? Not that black organizers. Come on - no! The stars were the two white FBI agents.
In fact, it was the director of Mississippi Burning who was fairly honest about his choice. When asked why he couldn't make a movie that was factually accurate, focusing on the black people of Mississippi and their attempts to deal with the crime, his response was telling. I couldn't make the movie any other way. Think about that. The only way he felt he could get the movie made and get whites in the theater to see it was if they were the stars, the central players. He didn't think whites wanted the truth. To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, you can't handle the truth!
The effects of this are pretty clear. According to the literature, fear of strangers and high levels of aggression are both associated with low levels of self-esteem. If whites need to see white people in positions of power and authority in order to solve their self-esteem, then by all means I think they should continue.
Most black people I know would laugh at a movie made about George Bush that starred Mekhi Phifer in the role. But maybe we're just different that way. Special.
You know what? I hear that someone is thinking about making a movie about Tiger Woods soon. Might I suggest Tom Cruise for the part?
GORDON: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.