Home Featured News The voice of change: the recasting of minority voice roles

The voice of change: the recasting of minority voice roles

A column straight from the unorthodox mind of Jamie Miller. Often written during the middle of the night, Miller provides reviews of TV shows and movies, books, and details life through from his perspective (artwork by Abby Haywood/The Collegiate).

Jamie Miller – 4:18 a.m.

A great musician by the name of Bob Dylan once said, ”the times they are a-changin’.” I do believe that rings true now more than ever. We are on the cusp of an ideological coup, a philosophical battle between the old guard and the new. And oddly enough the latest battlefield appears to be that of television. Hello Nightlighters, it is I “The wannabe modern day Bob Woodward” Jamie Miller. Now as I briefly mentioned in a previous story, ”Cops” and other shows like it have been canned. However, a rather unorthodox “victim” of the changing times is the role of those who voice minority characters in cartoons. Voice acting has been around almost as long as cinema, from Mark Hamill to Mila Kunis. Many famous actors have done voice work, and many others exclusively do voice work. It is an honorable profession. However, it is now a profession that is going through a major change. The George Floyd tragedy has ignited a burning fire that shines light not only on the racism within police forces across the country, but our television too, including the role of voice acting in adult cartoons. 

“The Simpsons” has been around longer than I have and I often wonder if it would still be here once I cease to be. Although, I believe if it keeps going the way it is… maybe it should fade away into the sands of time. For years the show featured the character of Apu, an incredibly racist portrayal, perhaps the most offensive stereotype of Indian culture and people that ever lived. Take for example the crossover between “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons,” in the scene where The Griffin family meets Apu. Long story short their conversation gives rise to a line uttered by Apu – who pay in mind is played by Hank Azaria, a white voice actor – that goes, “I come from a country where the words for beverage and sewage are the same.” They had a white person say this about a minority culture. However, thankfully the show is taking a step in the right direction as it was announced that moving forward the series would no longer have white actors voicing non-white characters. As of now, the fate of Apu remains to be seen.

“Family Guy,” the crown jewel of Seth MacFarlane’s coalition of cartoon chaos, has been around since 1999, and one actor who’s been around for pretty much its whole run is a man by the name of Mike Henry. Henry has played a few different roles – all of them somewhat troubling. For example, he voices Consuela, a stereotypical Hispanic maid who speaks in broken English while not listening to anything other characters say and always requests lemon Pledge. Henry also voices John Herbert, an elderly pedophile who lusts after Chris Griffin. Henry’s most famous voice role on the show… Cleveland Brown, one of the titular “Family Guy” Peter Griffin’s oldest and closest friends. The character also had a spinoff series, “The Cleveland Show” which ran for four seasons, a blink of the eye compared to “Family Guy” and “American Dad.” Brown for the most part was portrayed as kind and soft spoken. The more reasonable of the characters to appear on the show. However, the problem with the character isn’t how he was portrayed but  who portrayed him. Brown is an African American man, and Henry is white. One of “Family Guy’s” most prominent African American characters, voiced by a white guy: the irony is strong with this one. However, I trust you can see the problem with this. Well, fortunately, so did Henry as he stepped down as the voice. So, much like Apu from ”The Simpsons,” what will become of Mr. Brown is unknown.

Okay… now that I have “paraphrased” the facts I believe it is time to give my four cents. Since I talk a lot,  I’ve racked up more than two cents. That being said I believe… what I think… is… inconsequential. Granted, I don’t feel strongly one way or another, but I am white. My race doesn’t have a history of being scorned, mocked or attacked. From minstrel shows to “The Birth of a Nation” and beyond, minorities have a history of being demonized or outwardly mocked and portrayed as stupid or less than human. When Europeans first came to this country they thought that the Native Americans were savages. “The Birth of a Nation” portrayed the KKK as heroes and African Americans as animal-like brutes. During World War II, Japanese Americans were imprisoned out of fear that they were conspiring to bring down the U.S. from within, while German Americans were allowed to walk free. Even today people are afraid that Latinx Americans are going to steal their jobs or make horribly racist jokes about those same Latinx. So you see, yes, Apu has been around for a long time, and, yes, Brown’s only offense is being voiced by a white guy. And, yes, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to white people. However, to the minorities who have been constantly and systematically mocked, ridiculed and attacked throughout their history, this is a big deal. And can’t we just accept that? Instead of calling them “liberal snowflakes” or “oversensitive” can’t we just understand their complaints and work to make pop culture fitting for everyone? To those who think it will be the end of the shows as we know them, as Hari Kondabolu pointed out, “The Simpsons”  went on without Mrs. Krabappel and Maude Flanders… It can survive without Apu.