When The Prince of Egypt was released in theaters in 1998, it was the recipient of mass critical acclaim for a variety of reasons. Great storytelling, stellar animation and excellent musical numbers were in abundance throughout the film. As it nears its 20th anniversary, The Prince of Egypt is also earning acclaim for another pivotal reason: its inclusion of black and brown faces as biblical characters.
In films such as The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt, Hollywood’s knee-jerk inclination has seemed to be to whitewash biblical characters and fill these sort of films with an all-white cast. With that said, The Prince of Egypt sadly succumbs to the same narrative: white actors voiced most of the characters.
White actors voicing characters of color in animation is nothing new. However, the conversation surrounding the issue seems to be just beginning. In the acclaimed 2017 documentary The Trouble with Apu, writer and comedian Hari Kondabolu examined Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a mainstay South Asian business owner on the long-running sitcom The Simpsons. An Indian immigrant from West Bengal, Apu has been criticized by the Indian-American community for perpetuating harmful stereotypes and caricature that could potentially serve as fodder for racially motivated discrimination against South Asians. It also doesn’t help that Hank Azaria, a white actor who reportedly took one of his inspirations from a Los Angeles 7-Eleven clerk, voices Apu. Given this tidbit of information, Azaria used his perception of South Asians, mainly how they speak, as inspiration for the voice of Apu.
Similar to the controversy surrounding Apu, there have been many instances in which white actors voice black characters. This systemic issue could be the impetus for racially motivated bullying against African-American children in school due to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes against African-Americans.
Take, for example, Cleveland Brown, a black character who serves as one of Peter Griffin’s friends on the animated sitcom Family Guy and the star of his spinoff, The Cleveland Show. Unbeknownst to many, Cleveland is voiced by Mike Henry, a white actor. On The Simpsons, Hank Azaria also voices the character of Carlton Carlson, an African-American character who refers to himself as an “urban Lenny,” an instance of stereotyping that could be attributed to the show’s writers. Both cases serve as prime examples of when the voicing of a character doesn’t quite fit.
History has shown us that white actors tend to rely on stereotypes of black people for their default source of inspiration. Dr. Julius M. Hibbert, another black character in The Simpsons, is voiced by white actor Henry Shearer. A parody of Bill Cosby’s portrayal of Dr. Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, it becomes very evident that upon first hearing Dr. Hibbert’s voice, Shearer is giving his best impression of Bill Cosby. This is a textbook example of a white person pretending to be a white person making fun or parodying a black individual.
Viewers are treated to a white actor’s take of what they believe to be how black people speak. Without any knowledge of what these characters think or feel, it can be relatively easy for a white character voicing a black character to use their internalized bias to form the basis for how they sound.
Earlier this year, Travis Turner, a white Canadian rapper who goes by the nickname Little T, became the subject of conversation when it was announced he was slated to voice a black character named PSI on Netflix’s new animated series, Spy Kids: Mission Critical. In an interview with TMZ, the rapper defended his casting with an egregious explanation.
“I actually come from like an urban background,” Turner told TMZ. “I’ve lived in motels to where I am at now. I relate to the urban community.” The rapper then proceeded to give a sneak peek of what his interpretation of PSI would sound like: a garish exaggeration of a stereotypical “black” voice. As if his response couldn’t get any worse, Turner went on to disregard the racial optics of his casting. “If people want to make it like a black and a white thing, then… it’s gonna be that,” he said. For any naysayers who believe that race doesn’t play a role in voice acting, this couldn’t be further from the case.
The race and ethnicity of an animated character can play an integral role in determining who gets to play that role purely from the language. Language is very nuanced. It can come with many meanings and many modes of expression. Diction, cadence, forms of speech and voice patterns are unique to every race and culture, especially for the black community.
In the hands of a black voice-over actor or actress, black animation characters are given more nuance and are given life in a manner that white voice over actors can’t do. Black actors who live and breathe as black people can bring those lived-in experiences to their fictional, animated counterparts, imparting doses of empathy, understanding and a perspective rarely shown onscreen. Many examples of this notion exist. On the popular ‘90s cartoon Hey Arnold!, the character Gerald Johanssen is depicted as a street-smart African-American child with an abnormally high hairstyle with an affinity for sports and knowledge of urban lore. Also, he is well-liked by most, if not, all of his peers at school and serves as the sidekick to the show’s leading white character.
Similar to Gerald, the character of Vince Lasalle on the classic ABC cartoon Recess is coded similarly: a well-liked adolescent African-American male with an affinity for sports. Both figures fall into the same trope: the cool, black character everyone loves who serve as the sidekick to their respective shows’ leading white character. However, both characters are given nuance. While the ’90s stand as an apex of black film and television, toxic masculinity had yet to become the cultural idiom it is today. A safe space hadn’t been carved where black male characters could express emotion or vulnerability without reprimand. Hey Arnold! and Recess were one of the few exceptions. In one episode of Hey Arnold!, Gerald revealed to Arnold that when he was little, he accidentally rode his bike down the steepest hill in the neighborhood and crashed. As a result of this trauma, he never learned how to ride a bike. While on Recess, Vince lost his bid for class president to friend Gretchen. It is further realized that he cast the deciding vote for Gretchen upon the realization that he only wanted to win for the sake of winning instead of helping his school peers.
In both scenes for each show, the voice acting for each character can be easily described as pensive, calm, equal parts somber and resigned, instead of the false sense of bravado one would assumedly expect when a black male character is going through emotional turmoil. While the emotional side of the “jocky cool black” character was not as prevalent during the time that both these cartoons were on the air, Recess and Hey Arnold! were the exception. It also helps African-American men voice both Vince and Gerald. A large part as to why both shows have a long-lasting legacy is because their characters were written, voiced and expressed with care and nuance.
In the hands of a white voice-over actor, it could have been easy to pigeonhole Gerald and Vince further into “cliched-cool black character” territory, mimicking what they believe to be the cadence and affectation of a black individual. Think about it: What would the voice of Penny Proud on The Proud Family sound like if a white actress voiced her instead of Kyla Pratt? What would all of the memorable characters that voice-over extraordinaire Cree Summer voiced throughout the 1990s and 2000s sound like if they had been voiced by a white actor?
The tradition of white actors voicing black animated characters has its roots in another insidious form of entertainment: blackface minstrelsy. For those unfamiliar, blackface minstrelsy was a practice that involved shows performed by Caucasian actors who donned blackface to portray black people. Perhaps the first form of theatrical entertainment that originated in America, these shows falsely and egregiously characterized black people as buffoonish and dim-witted. In other words, Caucasian actors impersonating how they believe black people speak and behave. Sound familiar?
Blackface minstrel shows were developed in the 19th century and peaked in popularity during the 1830s. Ironically, blackface minstrelsy played a pivotal role in the birth of the animation industry. In Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, University of Toronto professor Nicholas Sammond reveals how some of the most revered characters in American animation were vestiges of actual minstrels.
Mickey Mouse, perhaps the godfather of all animated characters, appeared as a minstrel character in a Vaudeville show for the 1929 cartoon The Opry House and is later shown as a blackface character in the 1933 short Mickey’s Mellerdrammer. Add to that his signature white gloves, Mickey Mouse’s origins contain “all of the markers of minstrelsy while rarely referring directly to the tradition itself,” as Sammond says. It’s no surprise the animation industry is replicating the roots from which it came.
The dissemination of stereotypes forms negative perceptions as to how we see ourselves and how others view us. By systemically denying black voice-over actors to portray themselves in cartoons, whether it be on film and television, animation will continue to emulate and normalize the conventions of blackface minstrelsy from which it was birthed. Whether it is in front of a camera or behind a microphone in a voice-over booth, no one can portray us better than we can.