When discussing a complex issue, one has to think about which layers of the issue to discuss. The issue of race obviously has many layers. One of those layers is representation in public arts (whether movies or otherwise). That layer itself is composed of multiple layers. One might discuss the disparity in arts funding between white directors and directors of color. One might decide to discuss how the location choices of certain movies might predispose those locations to gentrification. There are any number of complex issues one could focus on.
When we go to a park, my toddlers might ask me how a flower grows towards the sun. A discussion of heliotropism is where I want to be, but they are not there yet. I need to bring my answer to them because they can’t come to me yet. Thus, I say something simple like “seeds are like babies that grow into big flowers, just like you grew into a big kid. Flowers love the sun, so they try to play in it, just like we came to play in the park.”
That answer is essentially wrong. But in the context of the question at that time, it is as right as it needs to be. It answers the question that needs to be answered at the level that they are with a specific example that resonates with them. We can get to heliotropism later.
Similarly, this speech–as I noted–was to a specific audience. More to the point, it was an audience comprised mostly of people whom I were assuming had not necessarily thought about race in even the simplest of terms. Therefore, I can’t bring them to the complexities where I am. I had to bring it to them. The speech was written to address things at their level. Yes, specific statements were essentially wrong, but in the context of the issue at that time, they were as right as they needed to be with specific examples that I thought would resonate with that specific audience. We can get to heliotropism later.
Yes, Star Trek was revolutionary, and I certainly could have gone into great length detailing the wonderful acting of Frank Gorshin as a character who was written entirely as a proxy for safely addressing race in the 60s. Yes, I could have discussed the relative merits of casting a South Asian as a bad guy over a European, and even weighed the benefits of writing the Asian character in as bad vs not writing them in at all.
Neither of those address the purpose of the speech, which is simply to point out that racism still exists. Would they be appropriate for another speech? Certainly. But one can’t discuss the entire encyclopedia every time one reads a single page.
That is not an attack on Star Trek (Hell, I saw Into Darkness 3 times in the theater) nor even on Benedict Cumberbatch (He’s great in everything he does from Sherlock to Zoolander 2). And don’t read too far into the simple comic relief of the spoken word (I challenge you to say “Benedict Fucking Cumberbatch” out loud and not have people laugh. Seriously, that shit is funny). This is a speech. Cadence, word choice, sentence construction, repetition of ideas, and comic relief are all part of carrying the message to the audience.
Cumberbatch as Khan was nothing more than a specific, timely example of the normalization of white people cast in non-white roles. I could have picked any of seventeen thousand different examples. That example is not emotionally meaningful to me. It’s simply a funny example used as a proxy to introduce the broader issue of the normalization of whiteness. It’s nothing more than an introduction–to an audience new to the subject–that there might be something else here to think about. All I wanted to say–really all I had the space and time to say–was “Look, here’s one example of a very white guy cast in a non-white role. That shit happens all the time, y’all.”
There are more complex issues I could have talked about, of course. Orientalization of Asians in general, casting one non-white person in as an unrelated ethnicity, even the position of 60s Star Trek vs. TNG vs reboots with respect to how they attempt (or avoid) social commentary, etc. All of these are real layers, all of these are actually where I want to be. But my audience wasn’t there yet. So I brought the discussion to them and just noted some very simple examples.
I figured I can get to heliotropism later.