The ‘Jewface’ debate: Religious representation in the arts
Should non-Jewish actors play Jewish characters? Should there be better religious representation in the arts?
In December 2021, production of an upcoming biopic Golda finished. This film focuses on the former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and her actions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The protagonist, who was Jewish, is being played by Dame Helen Mirren, a non-Jewish actor. The casting of a non-Jewish actor to play one of the most famous women in Israeli history has generated debate and some criticism. For example, Jewish British actor Dame Maureen Lipman has said that “ethnicity should be a priority” when it comes to casting.
This debate is reflective of wider discussions over representation in the arts which have existed for years. Condemnation of whitewashing in film and TV is now commonplace and demonstrates society’s improved understanding of racism. However, the ‘Jewface’ debate – a term that describes actors of non-Jewish descent playing Jewish characters – continues. This article will discuss whether religious representation should be understood differently to other forms of representation, and if so, why.
The Golda debate
Before discussing religious representation in the arts more widely, it is important to look at the different sides of the debate over the film Golda. Dame Maureen Lipman was the first Jewish actor to publicly criticise Dame Helen Mirren for accepting the role. She stated that “the Jewishness of the character is so integral … my opinion is that if the character’s race, creed or gender drives or defines the portrayal then the correct ethnicity should be a priority.” Lipman’s opinion was supported by Jewish author David Baddiel, who says the issue is not actually whether Mirren is entitled to play Golda Meir but instead the lack of uproar her casting has caused compared to other “non-authentic” casting choices.
However, a few commentators within the Jewish community have disagreed with Lipman and Baddiel. For example, Prominent Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain defended Mirren’s casting. He said that “actors should act — that’s what is their skill. You don’t have to be Jewish to play a Jew.” Although he added that it is wise “to have an adviser from whatever is the context.” Moreover, from within the arts world, playwright-director Patrick Marber dismissed the idea that “lived experience” should be critical to casting and making plays. He said that “I want us Jews to fight our corner but to not be excluding.”
The importance of representation
Central to the Golda debate, and other debates of this nature, is the importance of representation. Why is it important that we represent different religious and cultural groups accurately? In 2019, the American musical Falsettos, which is heavily focused on reflecting Jewish life, opened in London with no Jewish actors in the cast. In response, Jewish director Adam Lenson raised concern and stated that “people’s lived experience of Jewishness, in all its glorious richness, informs the way that they make Jewish art.” From Lenson’s perspective, to accurately portray the experiences of a Jew, the actor must be one. By failing to cast any Jewish actors, the musical cannot truly reflect the Jewish experience. Indeed, this perspective could also be applied to other societal groups, religious or not religious.
Should we view religious representation differently?
Therefore, the idea of correct representation in the arts is important and is supported by many within the film industry. For example, when it comes to casting actors in roles in which they have to play a different ethnicity, issues of racism and eurocentrism are rightly raised. However, should similar concerns be applied when casting in religious roles? Should non-Jewish actor Christian Bale not have been allowed to portray Moses in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings? Or should British actor Tamsin Grieg, who is practising Christian, not have been allowed to play the character of a Jewish matriarch in the TV sitcom Friday Night Dinner?
Journalist Brendan O’Neill stresses that acting is about portraying someone other than yourself and that “acting will suffer if we sacrifice imagination to identity, if we demand ‘authenticity’ of actors rather than convincing, empathetic performances.” For O’Neill, this rule applies to all – whether it be portraying someone of a different religion, culture, or sexuality. Therefore, trust in the talents of actors and directors to research and explore the character they are portraying is of great importance.
Jewish actor Tracy Ann Oberman agrees with the fact that actors should be able to play any character. However, her issue is that whilst conversations about the appropriation of characters are happening, until now, she believes there has been “little similar concern about Jewish characters where their Jewish religious and cultural identity is intrinsic to who they are being discussed with the same respect.” Therefore, from this perspective, it is not that religious representation should bar any actors from a role, but that there should at least be discussion about it, something that has been previously lacking.
Continuing the discussion
This article has explored the different angles of the ‘Jewface’ debate, one which is not clear cut and has divided opinion, especially within the Jewish community. It has also shone the spotlight on whether an actor’s religious beliefs and experiences (or lack of) affect their portrayal of a religious character. Some believe that drawing a distinction between reality and fiction is essential. It is, at the end of the day, only acting. Yet, others feel that the debate is not about casting but instead about making sure that discussions on Jewish, and more widely, religious representation in the arts are taking place.
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 In the film industry, whitewashing is when white actors are cast in non-white roles.