Film and television is a white-dominated industry, not only in your country, but across the globe. For many years now, we have been entertained by Caucasian actors playing Caucasian characters. Most lead roles in most popular films are white, but this is hardly a surprise since the major players of both film and television are centred in white majority or white-dominated countries.
There has been a slight effort in recent years, in giving some lead rolls to black actors but given that the world is filled with a myriad of races and ethnicities, it is hardly a great filmic appeasement to see Will Smith from time to time in a summer blockbuster, whilst all other races between white and black are casually ignored. What makes this situation worse is the fact that when a character does crop-up who is of African decent, native American, Latino, Asian, Arabic, or mixed race, nine times out of ten, they are played by a white actor. And because most white actors have had either zero experience with other races, or because they themselves are racist, they play these characters as caricatures. More offensively, when their portrayal is less than believable, they don yellowface, redface, brownface, or blackface in order to make the character more convincing.
In the early-to-mid twentieth century, we had to put up with the “Charlie Chan’s” of cinema; offensive stereotypes played by white actors. We had to endure Mickey Rooney doing his best racist rendition of a slant-eyed, overbite-toothed Asian in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and we had the likes of Peter Sellers in The Party playing an Indian with all the subtlety of a plastic explosive; his “Birdy, Num, Num” lines echoing every racist linguistic stereotype known to man. Mention any of these Hollywood faux pas, and most racists will tell you “that was the past, times were simpler” but this type of racism didn’t just happen in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s. In the ’80s we had Robert Forster As “Abdul” in Delta Force and Fisher Stevens in brownface playing Indian “Ben Jabituya” in Short Circuit 1 and 2. We had Robert Donner as an offensive Asian groveller “Swarma” in Quatermain & The Lost City Of Gold, and David Carradine was (and still is) a continual Asian interloper and replacement. More recently we have had Rob Schneider as an Asian minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, and more confusingly, we had Robert Downey Jr. playing a white actor in permanent blackface in Tropic Thunder.
On television too, we have seen in recent years, white actors in blackface. White “comedians” in the British TV Show Little Britain donned black makeup and entire black body prosthetics in order to portray overweight black females. Tracy Ullman was recently in brownface for her TV ads, as was the arsehole Ashton Kutcher for an advertisement that was later pulled. Comedians seem to make it their life’s work mocking cultural enemies. Sacha Baron Cohen seems to constantly parody the Middle-East and South-Asia, he even plans to portray Farrokh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury from the band Queen) probably in brownface. Because of the success of people like Cohen, It seems to be a growing modern trend to use “comedy” as an excuse to mock minorities (even though in most cases the result is devoid of actual comedy).
Every now and again there are more subtle examples of blackface in cinema. When an uninformed audience sees someone “close” to the ethnicity of the character, it usually goes unnoticed. For example, the Italian Al Pacino gave us a caricatured Cuban in Scarface and a lisping Puerto-Rican in Carlito’s Way. In Father Of The Bride 2 the Arab character “Habib” was played by Jewish Eugene Levy. Spanish actor Antonio Banderas played an Arab in both 13th Warrior & Black Gold. Black Gold also featured Austrian-Italian Mark Strong. Due to the calibre of acting, and the similar brown gamut between particular ethnicities, these portrayals go unchallenged. How hard would it have been to find a Latino actor in the ’80s and ’90s? And how hard can it be to find a middle-eastern actor in the present day? Jake Gylanhaal (and the rest of the cast) in Price Of Persia proved that Hollywood is not in any rush to accurately portray ethnicity or race.
Hollywood’s greatest miscasting achievement is their consistent avoidance in casting actual native Americans in anything. Aside from the Victor Mature and Rock Hudson portrayals of the past, more recently we have had Taylor Lautner playing native American “Jacob” in The Twilight Saga (and it was a saga), and later this year we will see Johnny Depp in Lone Ranger as “Tonto”. To help satisfy a dim-witted press, most of these Caucasian actors, in an attempt to assuage the public, claim to have “distant” and therefore unprovable native American ancestry. Thanks to the rape of the Americas, almost everybody has some “distant” native heritage, but not enough to convincingly play a native American.
The fact that the majority of lead roles in film and television are written for white actors, it is surprising that they would muscle-in on the few minority roles on offer, especially when a movie concerns the portrayal of a real life or a historical person. In the past we have had Elizabeth Taylor playing “Cleopatra” and the detestable John Wayne as “Gengis Kahn”. We had hoped this kind of whitewashing was a thing of the past, but both these roles are back in development; and what a surprise, Hollywood wants Caucasian actors to play both of them. A few years back Mickey Rourke was set to play Gengis Kahn and Angelina Jolie is set to play Cleopatra in an upcoming film. Angelina Jolie herself is a repeat offender; she played the role of “Mariane Pearl” in A Mighty Heart in brownface in 2007.
Of course there are times when roles are cast correctly, films like Life Of Pi was a recent example of this, but in the same Oscar year we also had Argo in which Ben Affleck played “Tony Mendez”. Surely Affleck could have stayed behind the camera and found a Latino lead?
It seems that film and television companies do not “trust” lead roles with ethnic actors. For example Keanu Reeves (Hollywood’s favourite ethnic amalgam) will play the lead in an otherwise all Japanese Samurai flick 47 Ronin. Hollywood prejudicially assumes that an audience won’t relate to a minority actor, and so cast a brown-looking white actor with subtle makeup. This in turn keeps minority actors from becoming A-List, and perpetuates the construct of a white Hollywood.
As I write this article, there are two versions of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in pre-production, both of which have yet to correctly cast an Indian as Captain Nemo (as Jules Verne intended). Hollywood’s past efforts have seen Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Lom, Michael Caine, and Patrick Stewart playing this role. Only Omar Sharif came close by being the brownest Nemo on film.
Maybe if a more concerted effort was made in casting roles correctly, we wouldn’t have a complete whitewashing of the moving image. Maybe then we could watch a film which is memorable and truthful instead of being another forgotten payday for a rich white actor.
For many years now, a person of colour has had to see their race stereotyped by the media, and it has to be noted that most depictions are the creation of white minds. A character like “Long Duk Dong” in Sixteen Candles can even come from a talented screenwriter like John Hughes. While audiences glaze over the obvious prejudice for the sake of entertainment but I prefer to call these occurrences what they truly are: racist and xenophobic.
If for example, you cannot see that The Simpsons character “Apu Nahasapeemapetilon” (an ex-illegal immigrant Kwik-E-Mart worker, with a double entendre forename, an unpronounceable, made-up surname, and a PhD in Computer Science) as racist, then you’re most likely a racist yourself. The fact that Apu is voiced by the constant stereotyper Hank Azaria and created by a team of Caucasians is offensive in its own right, but alongside Harry Shearer doing his best deep “bassy” black voice for Dr. Hibbert, this just adds to The Simpsons’ masked-racist bullshit.
Parallel to all this, we have an industry which appropriates minority culture for Caucasians. Any historical film like Gladiator and Alexander usually features incorrect British (white) accents. Then we have the suppression of the black race from mixed race characters like “Alexandre Dumas” being played by Gerard Depardieu. We could predict that with only film to tell our history, future generations will know Caucasians to be the important and prolific in society and civilizations past. They will know Charleton Heston as “Moses”, Jim Caviezel as “Jesus”, and in contrast Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni as “Satan”. They will only know minorities as slaves or savages.
There are plenty of minority actors and actresses around the world to accurately and believably play all of the minority characters in existence; it just takes some balls to cast them without resorting to any blackface tricks. I wait for a day when both fiction and non-fiction roles are played by their closest correct race or ethnicity, regardless of whom is in power and who is the majority. Until then, Cliff Curtis with his brown complexion will continue to play every ethnicity on the planet except his own.