Animation Is One Place Where Race Shouldn't Matter (Guest Column)

Missy - Big Mouth - Molly - Central Park -A Perrin- Publicity stills - Split -Inset- H 2020
Netflix; Apple TV+; Inset: Courtesy of Subject

First cast in a major role by George Lucas, Black voice actress Angelique Perrin comments on Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate stepping aside ("I was surprised so many white actresses were playing Black characters") and how opportunities define success in Hollywood: "What Indian actor's career would have been launched if cast as Apu instead of Hank Azaria?"

I'm a Black voice actress who left North Carolina with one big dream: I wanted to bring all my crazy characters to Hollywood. My plan was to voice an array of cartoons and maybe one day have a cartoon of my own. And though I don't have a cartoon of my own, do I have the right to complain? George Lucas changed my life when he cast me as a Jedi in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. More recently, I joined CannonBusters. It's a Netflix series created by LeSean Thomas, a Black animator who developed a world filled with a multicultural cast of characters and voices.  

I always believed that one of the jobs of SAG/AFTRA was to protect my interests, that when a role called for a Black, Brown, Asian or disabled person, casting had to make a real effort to hire accordingly. Imagine my surprise when I learned that so many Black roles I never even got the chance to audition for went to white actresses. The roles in Big Mouth and Central Park were made for me. Yet, they were placed outside my reach.

The national reckoning over racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd caused a serious examination of systematic racism worldwide, including in Hollywood. The animation world was turned on its head last month when Jenny Slate quit her role in the series Big Mouth to make room for a Black actress. Since the series launched, she had been voicing the role of Missy, a mixed-race character who is caramel brown with thick, bushy hair. By quitting, she exposed an ugly little secret that most of the industry has ignored. White actors have been allowed to play, voice, mock characters of color for ages. As a Black voice actress, I cheered when Jenny stepped down. It also prompted the creators of Central Park to announce plans to recast the mixed-race character played by Kristen Bell, hiring theater actress Emmy Raver-Lampman of Hamilton fame as their new Molly in July. I watched as Mike Henry stepped away from decades of playing the Black neighbor Cleveland on Family Guy, and The Simpsons vowed to hire people of color to play its characters of color following years of controversy over Apu, the Indian grocery store owner voiced by Hank Azaria.  

I don't know why, but I was surprised at the news that so many White actresses were playing roles of Black characters. I realize some of these characters identify as biracial, but in this country, any person with even one ancestor of Black ancestry is considered Black (a social and legal principle of racial classification). We'd like to think we've evolved past the point of having actors perform in Blackface, but somehow the industry thought these casting choices were acceptable without questioning who was losing out on an opportunity. Imagine what Indian actor's career would have been launched if he had been cast as Apu? 

One of the very difficult conversations this moment is forcing us to have is about equal opportunity. 

Having a main character in a cartoon who is Black and female is rare. Leading roles for Black women are equally rare. When they do pop up, they almost always go to the top A-list Black actresses. Sanaa Lathan landed the role of Cleveland's wife. Similarly, I had several shots auditioning for The Boondocks before the roles of Huey and Riley went to Regina King. But at least I had the opportunity to audition.

And I get it. I know how the creative process works. People are in a room coming up with ideas, and they hire the hottest talent they can get to, hopefully, ensure success. Or they hire the people they've worked with before and the people whom their friends know. And that's where the problem really begins. I could have played Cleveland's wife, and his son, and a little old lady next door, and her 5-pound Yorkie, had I been hired for that show. There's plenty of talent out there, whether it's on the mic, or in engineering, or in drawing or creating new cartoons. Finding them means we have to forge new relationships outside of our immediate circle, it means mentoring and cultivating rising talent, and yes, it's going to take a little bit of extra work. Hollywood is filled with voices of color that will never succeed because the gatekeepers keep hiring the same people. 

What troubles me is that animation is one place where there are actually numerous roles where race does not matter. Animation is a world where we get to have fun, break rules, and take chances. But even in the fantasy worlds they create, animators rarely take the time to sprinkle in people of color in the background. And how often do producers and directors take the time to hire people of color for their non-human characters unless it's for the purpose of illuminating some ethnic stereotype? 

When I look around at my peers in the voiceover industry, I don't see many people who look like me: Black women. When I try to think of a Black woman who has excelled and earned a good living doing cartoon voiceover, only one name comes to mind: Cree Summer, and perhaps fellow North Carolinian Rolonda Watts. 

With all that said, I am not giving up and I do feel hopeful. Almost every audition sides I've gotten in the past two months has said "open to all ethnicities," which for casting directors is a way of being inclusive. It's a baby step forward, but it's the actual bookings that matter. Until there is systemic change, I'm reminded of something my mother always said: "You'll have to be twice as good and work twice as hard." What she didn't say is that even that may not be good enough.

Angelique Perrin is a voice actor and radio personality who helped launch the syndicated radio show Café Mocha, heard on New York radio station WBLS and 30-plus markets. She has decades of experience producing content for Sirius/XM, Westwood One and major radio outlets throughout the country.