Monday, April 25, 2011

It's not all Black & White

I remember an early script meeting for Khumba where I was asked: "Are the zebras black or white?" 

The question put me into a bit of a spin, because - naively - I hadn't thought about it. Each had connotations and implications that would impact the characters, let alone the politics of it. I asked hopefully "Does it matter?" They are not human after all, they don't have to be any race, but this just prompted the next question "What about when you cast their voices?"


About 5 years later, as I now approach this casting stage in the production, the question once again rears its ugly head. 

Scientifically, it turns out zebras are in fact likely to be black with white stripes. And I did originally intend the herd to be more traditionally "African" with the other animals representing some of the different social groups of South Africa.  In the story, however, the zebras have closed themselves off from the outside, much like a gated community. It all sounds a bit paranoid white in our stereotypical view of South Africans. Plus, as a white South African, how could I really write an African film with a black lead? In any case, the voices (especially of the leads) are likely to be American so that throws yet another spanner in the works (the issue of South African vs American voices is a whole other issue I'll leave for another discussion...).

Khumba leaves his herd, goes on a mission to find his stripes, to change his skin. It is really a search for self-acceptance, a journey to discover and embrace his difference. Is this not a universal message? Surely I'd be limiting it by choosing a race? The film is about so much more than race. But now that I have to seriously think about casting the movie, the question of how they sound can no longer be put off. 

Are these characters black or white? 

Writing the screenplay for Khumba has been a bit like my own quest for stripes. Even though I might look the same on the outside (though slightly more balding), internally, I have changed and - like Khumba - grown into my own skin. And one of the things I've realized is that life seldom seems to be so cut and dried that the are only 2 options.

The answer has really been there all along, right in front of me. The reason I chose the zebra, the reason it's such a powerful symbol to tell this particular story. It's neither black nor white. It's not "or". It's "and". 

They are black AND white.