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Peter Sellers and Harmful Stereotypes at the Movies


Peter Sellers is regarded as a comedic genius, his most famous roles being in The Pink Panther, Dr Strangelove and The Party. Playing an Indian man by the name of Hrundi V. Bakshi, this 1968 film will draw direct comparisons with Breakfast at Tiffany's, Short Circuit and even Gandhi where white actors portrayed Asian characters. While Ben Kingsley's performance won him an Oscar, making it more respectable and playing the part with a sense of dignity and honesty rare for a film of its era, this appropriation would not be permissible in today's more enlightened age. Blackface or brownface, it seems that no matter how you swing it these days, it will almost always be deemed inappropriate and offensive. While there are many who would want to cancel these film artefacts, they serve as important time capsules and echoes of another time however misguided.

Condemnation of racial-facsimile was at one time an impressively forward-thinking ideal when you consider that the art of film is all about illusion. From Shakespeare's days, actors have played a variety of men, women and even props, essentially called on to use their unique performance abilities to interpret just about anything and anyone. However, taking historical and political context into account, there is a much greater sensitivity around cross-racial performances. Harking back to derogatory and racist acts that cast a long shadow in the world of film since the very inauguration of Hollywood with Birth of a Nation's overt racism and harmful representations, one can understand the stigma. The matter is further complicated by interpretation, which if used in combination with any stereotyping tends to reinforce and propagate racist views.

In The Party, Peter Sellers is playing a bumbling actor of Indian descent, who keeps finding himself in socially awkward situations. While his nationality puts him at odds with the rest of the party, making him a fish-out-of-water in almost every respect, one wonders how the film would have worked if he'd played a version of himself. We've seen the rubber-faced Leslie Nielsen do brilliant work with Frank Dreben of Police Squad without having to appropriate another race or nationality. So it appears Sellers is adopting another race to poke fun and leverage the character's foreign status. Is he trading on his accent, the conceit that he's not actually Indian and how does this campy undertone contribute to the comedy?

From the outset, Hrundi's buffoonery as an actor in a big picture discredits the character who should be blacklisted as an on-set liability but mistakenly ends up on an A-list. While the situational comedy is undeniably brilliant with a drunken waiter frequently upstaging Sellers, The Party has influenced the likes of Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean and Mike Myers' Austin Powers. Mr Bean also uses words sparingly and has been treated as a sore thumb in his own society. Realising the universality of the comedy, he also proves that Sellers didn't have to appropriate another nationality to be funny. Perhaps his choosing to play a British oddball is the reason Mr Bean isn’t quite as well-received or honoured at home as he is away. Myers has always been afraid that the no-talent police would come a-knocking and after turkeys like The Guru, it seemed that his headline star days were numbered. Based on the larger-than-life swinging '60s atmosphere of The Party and his turn in the other Casino Royale as Bond, it seems as though the uproarious Austin Powers owes a great deal of his success to the late Sellers.

The Party hasn't drawn as much criticism in recent years as Audrey Hepburn classic, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mickey Rooney's racist performance as an Asian neighbour is harmful, offensive and in bad taste even during the age it was seen as permissible. One is painfully aware of how harmful Asian stereotypes have persisted in commercials and even films until recently in South Africa. You imagine Mr Yunioshi only made the final cut because of Rooney's status at the time, a short-lived and glorified cameo he'd have rather seen hit the cutting room floor in retrospect. The film is still regarded as a great in spite of this glaring racial slur of a supporting act.

Perhaps Sellers and The Party have dodged the scorn of today's cancel culture because he's no longer with us, so there's no tangible recompense or retribution. Or one could argue that his inappropriate performance has been softened by his empathy, purity of heart and “strangelove” for the character. Starting as a socially awkward third wheel of a guest at a pretentious and swanky Hollywood party, he holds a mirror up to these snooty and two-dimensional people. Trying to keep his head down, he inadvertently attracts the spotlight with his funny antics in spite of the unwanted atmosphere. While there's deep-seated othering at play, his human performance ultimately demonstrates that he's the most upstanding of all the party attendees.

He doesn't imbibe alcohol, showing he's a man of discipline and principle with a number of repeated temptations. He protects a woman from her bigwig date, who tries to leverage his studio executive power over her career to force himself on her. He's the first to get rid of the slogans on the unexpected elephant guest, another issue with The Party in terms of animal rights. He wins the heart of the fairest maiden without trying to "buy her a drink". He offers her a ride home without trying to "go upstairs". As time proceeds and his antics get funnier, he becomes the life and soul of the party. As much as he embarrasses Hrundi V. Bakshi with one hand, he offers dignity with the other, yet the casting decision still leaves a feeling of discomfort going beyond the point of an ill-conceived yet purposeful oversight.

In South Africa, the reception of Leon Schuster represents the layered complexity of the debate. A box office sensation, having famously portrayed many different characters across the demographic spectrum over the decades, his performances actually poke fun at people's prejudices. South Africa's diversity and racial history created a space for the comedian to thrive in disguises and send up just about anyone and everyone. Appropriating other cultures, playing into stereotypes and regularly immersing himself in characters for comedic effect, there was a move to discredit his work in a bid to draw the line. While many would say his candid camera deceptions constitute blackface, there are just as many people who would argue that his antics were not lampooning other races as much as they were showing up narrow-minded bigots. Schuster was attempting to fool people into believing his characters are real and while leaning on harmful stereotypes, he aimed to ensnare his mark rather than harm or offend through appropriation.

One also thinks of Sacha Baron Cohen’s exploits when it comes to over-the-top misrepresentations. Picking on Kazakhstan, ironically a move that has put the relatively unknown country on the map, something he reinforces as a positive spin-off in his sequel. Sacha Baron Cohen has remained edgy based on his inflammatory representations and views, which he’d probably frame as fatal character flaws. While ultimately a send up of America, he flirts with satire to breaking point, entertaining long standing prejudices. Luring marks into agreeing with his character’s sentiment, the ambiguity of his stance is simply blamed on backward and outdated customs as if he was a time-traveler and simply doesn’t know any better. Defining intentionality can be a minefield. While Schuster’s intentions were deemed to be pure in his attempts at poking fun rather than being on a subversive and exploitative bent there’s still a level of accountability at play. Generating this viral quality and shock value is the tightrope Sacha Baron Cohen walks and much like Joan Rivers and Ricky Gervais, if you’ve developed a reputation for being a loose canon, it can provide a level of impunity. Just how far one can go for the sake of comedy or satire, even with one's own racial or religious classification, remains to be quantified.

Hollywood is constantly criticized for whitewashing casts, from Scarlett Johansson playing a popularized role in Ghost in the Shell to performances in Exodus: Gods and Kings where white actors played Egyptians in the time of Moses. A basic litmus test for all of these situations is simply asking the question: does this sit well? Any feeling of discomfort is usually a sure sign that something is not right and gut feels should be taken more seriously in these kinds of casting decisions. One can understand that Scarlett Johansson's fame and name would be a much greater global attraction than a less famous Japanese counterpart. The Hollywood machine is ultimately a business, driven by profits, so perhaps the answer is to create awareness of these wild miscalculations and vote with your money. Support films that maximize local casting and buy movie tickets to films that take a respectful and honourable approach to casting. It seems wise to steer clear of artificial representations or if absolutely necessary, to invite other stakeholders into the decision-making process.

While there's a much greater sensitivity to entertainment products and casting today, we've still got a long way to go when you consider it was only a few years ago that Joseph Fiennes played Michael Jackson. Arguing that it's only wrong if harmful stereotyping or division is promoted, Fiennes contends that he comes from a colour blind legacy where he worked as a stagehand in a production where a black woman portrayed and owned the part of Marilyn Monroe. The controversy of casting decisions like this one rages on when it seems best to operate with even more heightened sensitivity than ever before. Whether laziness, greed, inherent racism or a combination of all three is motivating casting decisions, there need to be more measures or agencies in place to protect against or review these decisions. Most of these discussions seem to be reactionary when it's the kind of talk that should be happening more openly to create awareness rather than simply pointing the finger when someone steps over the line.