Talent doesn’t know race. Like the great actors Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington, actors of color have every bit the potential to personify their characters that white actors do. Morgan Freeman is one of these actors. Not only has he out-shined almost every other actor in the business, regardless of race, he also auditioned for an iconic role that was originally intended for a white actor. The best part is that he got it.
Adapted from Stephen King’s 1982 novella, The Shawshank Redemption is a classic prison tale of guilt, oppression and humanity that defines what it really means to be free. It is a brilliantly captivating picture by Frank Darabont, and one of the few Stephen King properties that doesn’t belong to the horror genre.
In the film, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is declared guilty for the murder of his wife and her lover and thrown into Shawshank State Penitentiary, where he would carry out his life sentence and die as a prisoner groveling into the dirt. At Shawshank, he meets Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), an kindred soul who is considered the smuggler of Shawshank. Their friendship grows over the course of many years while Andy and Red learn how to cope with their situation and live their lives to the fullest, despite their imprisonment within Shawshank.
What’s really neat about Morgan Freeman’s casting in this 1994 classic is that Red was never meant to be a black character. In Stephen King’s original novella, Red is described as a middle-aged Irishman with graying red hair, hence his nickname. Before Freeman’s casting, actors Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Paul Newman and Robert Redford were all being considered for the part, but Freeman ended up snagging it from all of them. He even jested about the character's origins in the film, being asked about his name and jokingly answering "Maybe it's because I'm Irish."
The decision to cast Freeman was made by director Frank Darabont, who was so smitten with Freeman that he couldn’t see any other actor playing the part. Noting how the film is told through Red's continued narration, Darabont said:
"It was such a strong voice, it was such a present voice, the whole story was, 'Let me tell you about this amazing guy I once knew, Andy Dufresne.' It was like Red, this character, was spinning a yarn for you on a porch somewhere, telling you this story. I couldn’t imagine the story working some other way without that voice."
In hindsight, Redford might have been the more physically faithful option, given his similarities to the character’s description in the book. Even the word “red” is in his name! But Darabont wasn’t looking for similarities, he was looking for a character. Upon hearing Freeman’s smooth, soothing voice with a tint of age, experience and exhaustion to it, his decision was already made. Morgan Freeman was Red, and there was no convincing anyone otherwise.
This casting approach to focus on a character’s personality as opposed to their appearance is one that needs to be embraced more in Hollywood today, and it’s being adopted by many productions already. Robert Neville was originally portrayed by Charlton Heston in 1971's The Omega Man, but in 2006 he was recast as Will Smith for the remake I Am Legend. 400 child actors auditioned for the part of Russell in Pixar’s animated masterpiece Up, but after watching Jordan Nagai speak and behave like Russell would, the Pixar team decided to cast him and animate him as an Asian-American. After decades of hearing that gender and ethnic minorities could never lead a successful blockbuster, J.J. Abrams decided to challenge that by casting a woman and an African-American as the leads for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega helped lead Star Wars past the $2 billion dollar mark at the box office.
Diversity is growing in today’s media. Whether it’s with Creed taking over for Rocky, Wonder Woman showing up Batman V. Superman, or a bisexual Atomic Blonde challenging 007, our world is slowly progressing away from stereotypes and adhering more to the uniqueness of their characters. It’s a welcome change to the way we digest entertainment, and Shawshank Redemption helped pave the way for it all.
Well, with the help of Morgan Freeman, of course.
Have you seen The Shawshank Redemption? What was your favorite moment from the film? Let us know in the comments below!