Good Art. Yours, mine, theirs or everybody’s?

So we’re all agreed Cillian Murphy is a fine actor who was outstanding as Oppenheimer. Yes? Okay I felt Robert Downey Jr slightly stole the show but if Murphy wins the Best Actor Oscar I don’t think anyone could reasonably object But now I see there’s some question over him taking the role in the first place as he’s not Jewish. So how far do we take this?

I see he was raised a Catholic. So that’s him ruled out of playing Protestants. That stops him playing an awful lot of important British and American characters. In fact that pretty much means he can’t play the majority of people in the English-speaking world. That’ll be disappointing for him. Not to say a tad career restricting. Then again what if he isn’t a regular mass goer or if he’s rejected religion altogether? Is he just allowed to play atheists?

Of course he’s Irish so that rules him out of his career transforming Tommy Shelby role as he isn’t from Birmingham. He’s not even English for goodness’ sake! Should Peaky Blinders be taken off the iPlayer? That’s the logical outcome. And to the best of my knowledge he’s never been turned into a scarecrow so that makes his Batman Begins role a bit “problematic.”

Christopher Nolan clearly needs to start paying attention to his casting policy. After all he had Harry Styles as an airman in “Dunkirk” and he wasn’t even born then! How far are we expected to suspend disbelief? Next they’ll be telling us John Wayne was never in the US Cavalry and never rounded up a single buffalo! Or that Marlon Brando never actually built up the USA’s most powerful fictional mafia family. God forbid.

So is Cillian Murphy basically just allowed to play atheist Irishmen called Cillian Murphy? Or do we do the sensible thing and allow the best actors to pretend to be other people and in so doing have the best possible performances in the best possible movies? That gets my vote.

But where will this nonsense end? Tom Hanks gave spellbinding performances in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump and won Best Actor Oscar in consecutive years for those roles. But now he’s said he couldn’t accept either role because he’s not gay or mentally handicapped. Where do we even start with that? Philadelphia was an incredibly educational movie. And a very honest one. I felt I understood the impact of AIDS as I lived in the fairly decadent advertising world in London when it was at its height in the 80s. But I didn’t. “Philadelphia” (and much later and even better “It’s a Sin”) served a major purpose in educating us about the random and cruel nature of AIDS and who it damaged. So who bullied Tom Hanks – a great and hugely sympathetic actor – into disowning two such pivotal and reputation building roles? Who bullied him into apologising for educating us so well?

Meanwhile  Michael Sheen reckons only Welsh actors should play Welsh characters. Of course he made his name through brilliant portrayals of David Frost, Tony Blair and best of all, Brian Clough. Not a Welshman among them. Thank God Dustin Hoffman (my favourite actor) had the balls to see the merit in his performance in “Rain Man” and its role in educating us about autism.

Then a couple of weeks ago we had a similar nonsense in the music industry. Apparently some white and male singer called Luke Combs has taken a cover version of Tracy Chapman’s late 80s hit song “Fast Car” to number one in the US Country Music charts. Okay it’s a terrible record but so what? It seems Combs shouldn’t be covering a song by a gay, black female artist because apparently not many gay artists or black artists get to number one in the country charts. Now Tracy Chapman – who had tremendous success with her original recording of the song – broke a long media silence to say  ““I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honoured to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’” Sounds clear enough to me.

Wouldn’t you think the writer’s endorsement would be enough? Apparently not. Some middle-class white people continue to be outraged at this exploitation of Tracy’s art on the basis that a black gay artist would be unlikely to top the country chart.

Of course she wouldn’t. Music in its purest form reflects its origins. Country music ultimately was the music of the white, blue-collar worker in the southern states and in parts of California where the very poorest migrated to (hence the Bakersfield sound). Country music in its purest form (Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers, Gram Parsons and my favourite artist Steve Earle) is the white man’s blues. Likewise I’ve been to Detroit and Memphis on musical crusades as Motown and Stax music and artists have meant so much to me throughout my life. I loved both visits as I love the music from both labels. But I still came home a white boy from Belfast. Albeit one with a greater understanding of the people and culture that has enriched my life so much. Add to that Stuart Cosgrave’s fantastic soul trilogy of books on Memphis, Detroit and Harlem and it all makes so much sense.

So why shouldn’t a white singer cover a black artist’s music? Particularly in a manner that enriches said artist and brings the song to a wider and bigger audience? The first two Beatles albums contained no fewer than nine cover versions of songs by black American artists. The Rolling Stones first two albums contained at least seventeen. Add the Who, The Small Faces and Them and that’s the bands who educated me in music (then Dr Feelgood and Eddie & the Hot Rods who much later took me to the next stage). All those albums did for me (as did the UB40 Labour of Love albums of reggae and ska cover versions in the 80s) was educate me and send me off to find the originals by the black writers and singers who brought those gems to the world. Also it enriched those artists so I’m sure they – like Tracy Chapman – had no particular objections to the cover versions. Was this “cultural appropriation”? Or was it respect? I go for the latter every time. Anyone who’s heard either the Beatles or the Small Faces cover Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” would have to agree. If they’ve any taste.

Put simply, people need to grow up. Good art is good art. People from diverse backgrounds can respect each other and learn from and share with each other. Cillian Murphy played a great part in “Oppenheimer”. As did Marlon Brando any time he played a role that wasn’t Marlon Brando.

The Beatles weren’t bad either.


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