The Flight from White: Should Bob Odenkirk be Allowed to Play an Armenian-American?
From something called Pajiba, an article about the upcoming Spielberg movie The Post, with Meryl Streep as Washington Post owner Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee. Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) is fourth-billed as reporter Ben Bagdikian:
By Roxana Hadadi | Film | December 8, 2017 | Comments (17)
… it falls a little short, and for me that is encapsulated in the casting of Bob Odenkirk as the Armenian-American Washington Post journalist with the given name Ben-Hur Haig Bagdikian. Does something about that feel off to you? It should.
Whitewashing is everywhere; whitewashing happens every day; and it feels like a new wound every time, especially when it’s an actor who is beloved. And at this point in his career, that’s what Odenkirk is, thanks to the continued underground appeal of Mr. Show with David Cross (who also appears in The Post), his years of comedy work, and his transition into dramatic leading man with the critically adored Better Call Saul.
… He’s ultimately a paragon of journalistic virtue, and Odenkirk is quite good at capturing the nuances of that character, and still, he shouldn’t have been cast. … Bagdikian was one hard dude, and presenting him just as some white guy, which is what Spielberg does by casting Odenkirk, flattens his experiences. Sure, in the 1900s a Boston judge decided that if Jewish people should count as white to the U.S. government, so should Armenians, but as the years have passed it has become more and more clear that those simplistic ways of lumping together various cultures and ethnicities aren’t valid anymore. Which is to say that Odenkirk, with his Irish and German ancestry, simply isn’t believable as someone whose name is Bagdikian. He’s just not.
Bagdikian had an improbable-looking nose, and it looks like Spielberg didn’t insist on a prosthetic for Odenkirk to quite match it. (If he had, everybody would be complaining about stereotyping noses.)
Armenians used to be just plain white in America. For example, the late Mike Connors (born Krekor Ohanian in Fresno, CA in 1925) played Irish-American detective Joe Mannix from 1967-1975. I don’t recall anybody complaining back then about Mannix being brown-washed.
But now that we have White Privilege, everybody is trying to bail out of the white race.
Odenkirk has made his career by being a Northwestern-looking guy with Southeastern energy and chutzpah, which is a slightly disconcerting combination. He often plays a character who at first you think is a Jewish guy who has groomed himself to look Northern European, but then you eventually figure out he’s a Northern European pretending to be a Jewish guy pretending to be a Northern European. It’s not a coincidence that in his most famous role as Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad and now his own spinoff series, he plays a criminal attorney who changed his name from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman because clients prefer Jewish attorneys.
In many of his roles, he often plays some kind of media business hustler, like Garry Shandling’s agent Stevie on The Larry Sanders Show and a local TV anchorman in Nebraska. (Greg Kinnear sometimes plays similar roles.) He’s good at it. Which is why, I’m guessing, Spielberg hired him.
Similarly, Streep isn’t Jewish like Graham and Hanks is more Portuguese than the Boston Brahmin Bradlee, but Spielberg cast them in those roles because he figured they would do good jobs. And Spielberg is often right about such things.