PARIS — In her 20-plus years working as an actress, Yasmine Modestine has heard her share of outlandish and sometimes painfully ignorant comments.
There were casting directors who implied she was not black enough for a role — or that she was too black. A black man’s lips were described as not being full enough for a part. One director described a scene of three people sitting at a bar as “two men and a black guy.”
Most of the time, Modestine swallowed her pride because show business is tough and she needed to work. But in February 2007, when she thought a casting director’s off-the-cuff comment directly linked her race to not getting a callback, she filed a discrimination complaint. Since then, Modestine said, she has not gotten a job in the lucrative dubbing industry.
“If I don’t work because of a boycott or if I don’t work because I’m black, the result is the same: I’m not working,” she said during an interview at her modest apartment in eastern Paris. “I’m not fighting for myself anymore; I’m opening the door for others.”
The voice acting industry is an integral part of cinematic culture in Europe and extends far beyond that seen regularly in the United States, such as the clumsy dubbing of martial arts films. Virtually all television shows and movies that arrive in France from America are dubbed into French. An estimated 90 percent of foreign films projected in theaters are dubbed.
“There’s a lot of money to be made,” said Modestine, who is also a singer but had been working her way into the voice acting business for five years. The rate for a voice actor, who is usually paid per line, can range from about 100 euros ($135) for a half-day’s work to over 500 euros ($679) for a full day, according to figures from an industry union.
In the complaint filed with HALDE, the government commission that investigates discrimination claims, Modestine contended that the casting director reneged on a work agreement for a television show because of her race. She had just finished recording a background noise scene, the kind of cacophony one might hear in a restaurant, when the casting director told the dozen or so actors present that she wanted them to return a few weeks later for more scenes.
But later, directing her comments at Modestine and another black actor, the casting director said, according to the complaint: “I don’t know if I will need you on March 20, if there will be people like you in the next episode,” according to a transcript of the proceedings. “I can’t put you in everything since you have special voices.”
HALDE could not conclude that the casting director had discriminated against Modestine since it “could not determine the exact content of the sentence.” But “a sense of discrimination was felt by the two actors,” according to the December 2008 decision.
Based on Modestine’s complaint, HALDE investigated the dubbing industry as a whole and found “the existence of prejudices and stereotypes,” namely that white actors were thought to have a universal voice that allowed them to dub actors of any origin while black actors could dub only other black actors. The decision officially reminded industry officials that labor laws prohibit discrimination and recommended that casting directors be given sensitivity training.
Modestine had provided HALDE with an exhaustive list of non-white actors, including Don Cheadle, James Earl Jones, Ice-T and Denzel Washington, and the white voice over artists who dubbed them. There have been some exceptions to the double standard. Maik Darah, a mixed-race actress of Togolese descent, dubbed the voice of Whoopi Goldberg as well as Courtney Cox Arquette’s Monica in “Friends.” Thierry Desroses, a known black French actor, had lent his voice to prominent stars like Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne.
Modestine said she would have no problem if whites dubbed whites and blacks dubbed blacks — at least everyone could work — but instead, “I had the impression that I was in a ghetto,” she said referring to the roles for which she was called to audition — usually caregivers, such as nurses, and never leads. Curiously, voice actors must submit headshots instead of voice recordings when auditioning, partly owing to an industry belief that physically a voice actor should resemble the screen actor being portrayed.
Since registering her complaint, Modestine has had three dubbing jobs, all booked previously.
“The victim is doubly victimized,” said Amirouche Laidi of Club Averroes, an association that promotes diversity in French media, who has pressed her case with dubbing companies. Modestine had been working normally, although in secondary roles, then calls from casting directors suddenly stopped.
In its decision, HALDE specified that the choice of a voice actor should be based solely on the quality of the voice and the person’s ability and not based on the skin color or origin.
The mass of bushy curls on her head betrays her, said Modestine, whose white mother hailed from central France and whose black father came to study on the mainland from Martinique in the 1960s. Although she grew up in Normandy and was educated at one of Europe’s most prestigious drama schools, the French National Academy of Dramatic Art, she said, Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, would always be regarded as more French than her.
“In France, we are in denial,” she said.
Read more about French culture: