This is a true story. I went to school with a girl I will call Mary. Mary was mixed heritage in a school almost entirely white (that's Devon for you): her absent father was black and her abusive mother and stepfather were white. At school other pupils called Mary "black" and at home she was the "nig-nog" stepdaughter. Growing up in such environment then it is not surprising Mary fell foul of a self-fulfilling prophecy; always the outsider, ostracised by her peers bar a select few and reminded daily what a nuisance she was at home, it was not long before Mary fell into a cycle of crime and drugs to gain (negative) attention and by the age of seventeen she was in a young offenders' institute serving a short stint for burglary.
I suppose I was friends with this girl because I too felt like an outsider growing up; we were both bullied, her for her skin colour and me because I had that stamp of someone who did not quite "fit in" and refused to see why she should try. It ended happily for both us by the way; as you know I left the trials of school behind and Mary had a similarly happy result. Sent away from Devon because of a lack of facilities for female juveniles, she ended up in a unit with other black and mixed heritage women and discovered, for the first time, that others felt as ostracised by our society as her: it wasn't just her. In the unit she studied, did a few exams and when she was let out, she became a cobbler of all things and set up her own business, which she does very well at.
But what is this story doing on the pages of a screenwriting blog? It seems to me that we are encouraged to see colour as something that is seen to "define" us - Asian Film, Black Film, Asian Women in Film, Japanese Horror are all tags we see on a daily basis online, at film festivals, on DVD boxes. Yet where is the definition if we are white? There is none. It is just, simply, "Film". It would appear that no definition is needed.
But what does this mean? Well first off, it would appear that defining people on the basis of colour *can* be a bad thing... Mary would testify to that: "she was a problem because she was an outsider and she was an outsider because of her colour" is a foul way to pigeon-hole someone, especially so young. But defining people because of their colour can also be a good thing: how can pride in your heritage and its achievements be a bad thing? Well, if you're celebrating the heritage of Nazi Germany (or similar - Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Serbia etc) and its "achievement" in oppressing and destroying entire races of course. There's a flipside to everything, it seems.
But this is why giving your characters a colour in your script *can* be a mine field. It's come up on here before: should we specify if someone is black, asian, white etc? Does it matter? And crucially, are you being racist if you do/do not do this??
Lots of writers say casting should be "colour blind" and I am one of them. Who knows whether this script will ever be made anyway and if it is, huge changes will be made according to what and who is available at the time. One of my Bang2writers made the assertion that we should write with a particular actor in mind and if that actor is then black, you should specify that character is also black but this doesn't work for me just on the basis of maths: specs spend such a long time in development that by the time it goes into production who's to say if that actor will even still have a career?
Of course, sometimes colour pays off in a story. If you're writing about say, Neo Nazism, then it helps to have some black characters for the sense of conflict. But often the casting choices we make as writers are obvious - names can give a huge sense of what colour a character is, as can ways of speaking and the actions they make.
Which leads us onto another rub. Black characters are so often negative role models. For every Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness, there are legions of drug dealers, gun runners and ill-educated black characters, whether it's TV or film. And let's not forget the oooh-let's-do-the opposite and be 100% POSITIVE. Someone said to me once, "It's either/or : on telly we're on the street selling drugs or we're the bloody captains of the police force!"