The Big Short Director Adam McKay on Casting Mostly White Men: 'We Had to Do It' 


Adam McKay, who co-wrote and directed Best Picture-nominee The Big Short, did an interview on HuffPost Live Tuesday in which he briefly explained his choice to feature an almost entirely white and male cast, saying: “That’s the truth of Wall Street, we had to do it.” This seems like a bit of a stretch.

McKay, who has been doing a round of press following the critically lauded film’s five Academy Award nominations, was asked about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. He responded:

“I think it’s legitimate. I think it’s a legitimate complaint … We’re supposedly artists, writers, directors, actors, whatever and I think more diversity is important. I think we’ve had stretches where there’s been good diversity, but lately it hasn’t been great. So I think if any group on planet earth should be able to deal with protests like this, it should be filmmakers. So I support it. I thought that there were some really talented people that I would have loved to have seen nominated. I think we’re a group that should always be asking questions like that.
At the same time, I think that there were some great movies this year that do challenge entrenched authority and corrupt power, like ‘Spotlight,’ like our movie with banking … The irony is, we had to make a movie about Wall Street, which is mostly white men. So it was a little frustrating for us, but that’s the truth of Wall Street, we had to do it.”

McKay’s response is interesting, because while Wall Street was and continues to be dominated by white men—a 2014 report by Vettery found that 77.5 percent of Wall Street analysts were men, and 65 percent were white—there certainly were women involved in the lead-up to the financial crisis, specifically former Oppenheimer analyst Meredith Whitney, who was mentioned prominently in the book on which the film was based.

In Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, as various articles critical of the film’s casting omission have already pointed out, Whitney was hailed as one of the soothsayers of the financial crisis; while a somewhat more controversial figure today, she’s known for launching a powerful critique of Citigroup in 2007 that led to the resignation of its CEO and a significant breakdown of its market value. From The Big Short:

Now, obviously, Meredith Whitney didn’t sink Wall Street. She’d just expressed most clearly and most loudly a view that turned out to be far more seditious to the social order than, say, the many campaigns by various New York attorneys general against Wall Street corruption … This woman wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt. She was saying that they were stupid.

If you’ve seen the film, this sounds pretty familiar. In fact, according to Lewis’ book, Whitney was trained by Steve Eisman, a version of whom is played by Steve Carrell in the movie; Lewis writes that Whitney actually gave him Eisman’s name on a short list of people who predicted the subprime mortgage crisis. Based on this information, it seems like it would have been pretty easy to include a character based on her in The Big Short, if having a somewhat heterogeneous cast was at all important to the people who made the movie.

There were a few women in the film who played minor characters. Adepero Oduye played a small role as a Morgan Stanley exec; Marisa Tomei played a small role as the wife of Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell; Melissa Leo played a small but gripping role as a representative of the corrupt ratings agencies. Margot Robbie appeared briefly in a bubble bath to explain the financial crisis. None were central to the story, and, by McKay’s telling of it, that’s the way it needed to be.

The Big Short was, in my opinion, a very good movie. I loved it, in fact. But the idea that it “had” to be cast in any particular way—that this story of white men profiting off the massively destructive stupidity of other white men had to be acted out almost entirely by white men, even though, again, there could have quite realistically been at least one meaty female role—is a remarkably evasive and oversimplified viewpoint coming from the creator of a movie about speaking truth to power.

Update, 1/27: We reached out to a rep for McKay for comment and didn’t hear back, but McKay has sent us the following tweet:

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Image via Getty.

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