To say 2020 has been an eventful year would be the greatest understatement of all time. We are currently still weaving our way through a global pandemic which greatly disturbed the socio-economic balance of everyday life. In the Caribbean, we also had to deal with numerous (albeit varying in magnitude) earthquakes throughout the region as well as the unwanted arrival of a Saharan Dust storm that caused the temperature to sore. And then there is the current Black Lives Movement that sees thousands line the streets in protest of police brutality against people of colour and systemic racial injustice. The likes of which that saw spotlight being placed on black people in all industries, including animation. A spotlight that intensified this past week after 3 beloved black characters in 3 popular animated shows will be changing voice actors after their white VAs decided to step down to clear the path for a black colleague. A noble gesture, but should it matter who voices a character regardless of race?
As previously stated, this all kicked off when Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell from Big Mouth and Central Park, respectively, both decided that women of colour should come on board to replace their voices for their black animated characters before the start of the new seasons.
I adored the character of Missy so much that I had completely forgotten that she was voiced by someone white.
Then things were cranked up a notch when Mike Henry, the voice of Family Guy's Cleveland for over 20 years, decided that he too will step down to make way for someone black.
Mike Henry tweeted, "It's been an honor to play Cleveland on Family Guy for 20 years." He went on to say, "I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role."
Again, a very noble gesture and one that was praised by some, but ultimately criticized by many (especially the die-hard Family Guy fans). For every 'it's the right thing to do no more whitewashing in entertainment' there was tongue in cheek rebuttals of 'well we should have a real dog play Brian or a real baby should play Stewie'.
Family Guy series creator Seth Mcfarlane, voices many characters on his show including a dog and an alien.
Such responses could be labelled as insensitive, and unsportive of the white voice actors' noble gesture but many are merely upset at the fact that one of their favourite characters will never be the same again. As a massive fan of both Family Guy and Big Mouth, I agree with whole heartily with this sentiment. Especially in the case of Cleveland, who has developed into such a great character, he was even awarded his own animated series. None of which would have been possible without the excellent work of Mike Henry.
As a black man, at no point watching Family Guy these past 20 years, I felt offended or believed the character would have been better being voiced by someone black. But ok, let's slow down for one minute, and take a deeper look at why Mike Henry and others decided to step away from these characters. Their action could be more than simple foreseeing and hence avoiding any future backlash for being racially insensitive in wake of the recent Black Lives Matter movement. But instead, acknowledging that there is a lack of ethnic diversity in voice acting/animation and thus, doing their part in raising awareness. AGAIN! again...a noble gesture, but one that does open up a potential Pandora's box. While there have been many white voice actors that have voiced a variety of characters of differing ethnicity, the same can be said for numerous black voice actors as well. Phil LaMarr, Cree Summer and even Family Guy alum's Kevin Micheal Richardson have all voiced a multitude of characters with differing ethnicity. Heck, I am stilled blown away to have recently learned that Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-air was the freaking Shredder!
Kevin Micheal Richardson voiced the likes of Shreeder, the Joker , Jerome from Family Guy as well as 'white' Lester from the Cleveland Show.
However, this shouldn't distract us from the fact that there are indeed under-representation minorities (POC, women) in the animation industry, and more can be done about inclusion. I just don't agree that limiting voice actors to only playing characters that match their ethnicity is the way forward. What is needed is for more projects/visions from POC creators to be picked up and greenlit by the industries big wigs. Let us see and hear more of their stories which would have the trickle-down effect of opening the door for more POC talent to shine.
More stories like Hair Love is what we need in the industry.
So inclusion, I am glad that the underrepresented minorities are getting much attention which will hopefully lead to major changes. But, at the same time, I have no problem with the likes of Mike Henry voicing Cleveland anymore than Uncle Phil voicing the Shredder.
The right voice will find the right host.
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Hey I am Marlon Mcfarlane the writer here at Blue Crescent Studio & a longtime lover of all things Animation & Gaming.