Hollywood Whitewashing

The issue of Hollywood "whitewashing" continues to come up, and it's important to continue the conversation. It refers to the unfortunate habit of movies casting white actors (usually males) in parts that should be for people of color. We're not just talking about what Shaun King mentions in his thought-provoking article in the New York Daily News about the predominance of white heroes in Hollywood movies. It's not just about a lack of diversity or imagination by writers, it's a more serious issue of actually casting Caucasians in roles that were originally written as different ethnicities. Sometimes the term can also be broadly applied to actors from Western cultures (white or not) playing Eastern or Middle Eastern roles.

First let me say that I'm of the opinion that actors are acting, and if they can do a credible job of making the audience believe that they are the characters, they should not be automatically denied an audition for a job, or even the job itself if they are the best and most talented for the part. Al Pacino is a fine example of someone who did memorable work as a Latino character in both Scarface and Carlito's Way. (Granted, some might disagree with me, and the argument still exists that an actual Hispanic actor could have and maybe should have been in the role instead. Plus, another issue is the fact that the lead characters are criminal gangsters, but negative stereotypes of minority characters are a topic for another day.)

The topic made headlines when Asian-American roles in the otherwise critically acclaimed film adaptation of The Martian were rewritten or recast as other races. In the original novel by Andy Weir, the NASA director of Mars operations is an Asian-Indian character Dr. Venkat Kapoor, who is religiously a Hindu. In the film, he is played by the excellent British black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and his first name is changed to Vincent, plus they make a point to mention that his father was Hindu but his mother was Baptist. A more obvious example is that white, blonde actress Mackenzie Davis plays the book's Korean-American Mindy Park, Mission Control's satellite planner. We're not suggesting that Ejiofor or Davis are not great actors -- they are -- but the question remains, "Why couldn't Asian actors play these roles as originally intended?" Plenty of qualified Asian actors exist.  Director Ridley Scott faced similar backlash in his movie Exodus: Gods and Kings for casting white actors Christian Bale as Jewish hero Moses and Sigourney Weaver as Egyptian Tuya, the mother of the Pharoah Ramsses II.

This is nothing new. Charlton Henson played Moses in The Ten Commandments and a string of Western actors have played Jesus in various productions. Some casting choices are more egregious than others.  While not too many were up in arms about Natalie Wood playing Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story, it's cringeworthy to see Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

It's hard to imagine that it was considered okay for Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier to play Shakespeare's Moor Othello. (Olivier even received an Academy Award nomination.) From the old days when John Wayne played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, Elizabeth Taylor starred as Cleopatra, and Ben Kingsley portrayed Ghandhi, to more recent portrayals by Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, the practice has been widespread. How can we honestly say it's not a problem when we see Justin Chatwin cast as Goku in Dragonball Evolution, Jake Gyllenhaal cast as Dastan in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, or Nicola Peltz as Katara and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka in The Last Airbender?

Again, acting is "make believe," so I'm not suggesting that every role needs to be cast exactly as written, otherwise only Frenchmen could play Frenchmen or only Australian women could play Australian women. That would be ridiculously limiting. Not all "whitewashing" is necessarily an example of racist motives, but it happens enough that casting directors and producers should be aware of it and every effort should be made to avoid it so that movies are not, as Shaun King writes, "a fictional, almost exclusively white world, composed primarily of white heroes, and white romantic leads, with a little color peppered here or there into some meaningless bit roles." It becomes more disheartening when even substantial non-Western characters are portrayed by American or British actors. The conversation about Hollywood "whitewashing" is hopefully opening some eyes so that eventually the stories being told on screen become a better reflection of our multicultural society, not in an effort to censor what stories should be told or what roles certain actors should play, but to more realistically depict all races instead of having it be an Anglo-centric distortion.