Animated Film, TV Creators Aim for Change Beyond Casting: "It's Not Just About Including Black Characters"

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images; Fox/photofest (2); Chance Yeh/Getty Images; Netflix; Apple TV+; Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic(2)
From left: 'The Simpsons’ Hank Azaria, 'Family Guy’s' Mike Henry, 'Big Mouth’s' Jenny Slate and 'Central Park’s' Kristen Bell will no longer voice characters of color.

Amid a flurry of recastings, more "accurate and truthful" portrayals are beginning to be sought in a business that can boil down to "somebody knows someone."

Within days in late June, four animated TV shows that featured white actors voicing characters of color pledged to make changes, all with the actors' support. Netflix's Big Mouth creators said June 24 that they would cast a Black actor for the role of Missy, currently performed by Jenny Slate, while Apple TV+'s Central Park creative team said it will recast biracial character Molly, voiced by Kristen Bell.

Meanwhile, Fox's long-running The Simpsons, which had faced criticism for years over the portrayal of the Indian character Apu (Hank Azaria announced he was stepping away from the role in January), said June 26 that the show "will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters." And Mike Henry, who portrayed the Black character Cleveland on Family Guy, said he would stop voicing the role after two decades. "This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity," tweeted Bell on June 24, adding: "Casting a mixed race character w/a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race & Black American experience."

Yet the moves, amid a nationwide reckoning on race since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25, are only one step as the animation community seeks to become more inclusive onscreen and off.

"Animation in a lot of ways has historically kind of been a legacy business," says Peter Ramsey, who, as one of a trio of directors on Sony Pictures Animation's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, became the first Black filmmaker to win an Academy Award in feature animation in 2019. "There are long, long chains of relationships. And it's hard to sometimes become a part of those networks if you're coming in from outside and you're just a fresh new face." He hopes that casting a wider net in recruitment, beyond dedicated animation schools, could have a positive effect on the industry.

Karen Rupert Toliver, executive vp creative at Sony's animation studio and the 2020 Oscar-winning producer of Hair Love, put it bluntly in a letter published by the nonprofit Women in Animation on June 2. "In this area we are also not doing nearly enough," Toliver wrote. "It's not just about including Black characters in our stories. We need to influence hearts and minds to think differently. To remind us that we are all connected, that other people's hurt is everyone's hurt. We need to encourage people to not look away from uncomfortable things but instead breathe into that discomfort."

Major studios are redoubling efforts to showcase a diverse slate of creators. On July 7, HBO Max ordered a 12-episode animated series based on Oscar-winning animated short Hair Love from its creator and director Matthew A. Cherry and Sony Pictures Animation. According to Cherry, the series, Young Love, will "further explore the family dynamics of a young Black millennial family we established in our short film Hair Love." He will showrun with Carl Jones (The Boondocks, Black Dynamite).

Netflix's upcoming projects include Henry Selick's Wendell & Wild, whose titular characters are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and Glen Keane's Over the Moon, which the studio says will feature an entirely Asian American voice cast. Several upcoming Netflix animated productions helmed by women include My Father's Dragon, from Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner), and Pashmina, directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham).

Meanwhile, on Nov. 20, Pixar Animation Studios plans to unspool Soul, its 23rd animated feature and its first with a Black protagonist. The jazz-inspired story follows Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher and jazz musician played by Jamie Foxx.

To make this movie, writer-director and Pixar's chief creative officer Pete Docter teamed with African American co-director/writer Kemp Powers. In a virtual panel as part of the Essence Festival of Culture on June 27, Powers said that to ensure the project is as "authentic and truthful as possible," the team assembled Black consultants — staff at Pixar, castmembers such as Questlove and Daveed Diggs, along with the likes of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young. Jon Batiste, who wrote jazz compositions and arrangements that appear in the film, also consulted.

Meanwhile, Women in Animation is expanding its existing agenda, focusing on Black mentors and mentees through its fall mentorship program, and launching in early 2021 a talent incubator program for women of color to give them mentorship and experience toward becoming a showrunner. Through the program, participants will pitch and produce an animated project, and then, working with mentors, they will be asked to pitch the production to an actual potential client. Says Jinko Gotoh, WIA vp and Oscar-nominated producer of Klaus, "[Studios] are looking for experience but also looking for new voices."

Ramsey welcomes all efforts, though he admits he's "not too dogmatic" about recent voice casting changes. "I think it happens a lot of the time out of comfort. Somebody knows someone," he says, while noting that a Black actor conveys "accuracy so that you know that that character isn't just a caricature."

Adds Ramsey: "I would obviously rather see a person of color voice the character of color, "[but] the world's not going to end if Kristen Bell or whoever does the voice of a Black character, really. But all things being equal, why not? It's not that hard."

This story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.