What Went Wrong With… Ethnic & Racial Casting In Film & Television?

Makeup reference chart parody with blackface brownface yellowface tones by What Went Wrong Wuith

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.


19 replies »

  1. It’s white world man. It’s a white industry. The music industry is a great example too I think. How come no one had ever heard of all the old Blues greats until white artists started to mention them as influence? T-Bone Walker was around 10 years before Elvis. He didn’t really get any recognition for what he did until the late 1960’s. Same pretty much goes for the rest of the Blues guys. It’s pretty sad really that no one really knew who Albert King was until Stevie Ray Vaughan came out and was constantly talking about him as his hero.

    • Exactly, pretty much every sector of the media is dominated and controlled by white heterosexual middle-aged males. Anything achieved by black or other minority artists goes unnoticed until they are “recognized” by the white establishment themselves. Your knowledge of Blues music just shows me how many potential articles I could write about racial elitism.

    • You could write tons of articles using them as an example.
      Miles Davis once said back in a 1962 interview “white people want credit for discovering something in black music that we came up with many years ago” Bingo. That’s it in a nutshell, and he said this all the way back in the early 60’s.

      If you ever wondered why at the end of the day, they rather go on and on about Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton being the Blues rockers, and not bringing up Muddy Waters or Freddie King into the picture that’s why. It’s white dominated media.

      When the Allman Brothers Band first came out, many people actually thought they wrote the songs Statesboro Blues, Trouble No More, and Done Somebody Wrong, that was until they read the credits to the albums and seen the names on the tracks.

      Led Zeppelin was sued all through the 70’s and 80’s for plagiarism for covering those old Blues tracks and claiming they wrote them. There was a video series on Youtube over it. I think they are the best example of white dominated media. They were sued by Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and many others who wanted credit for the songs they were covering and claimed they wrote, and at the end of the day those guys won. If you take an old pressing of their albums and compare it to a new one, you see a huge difference in the credits section. All they did was change a few lyrics here and there, example Howlin Wolf: “How many more years” Led Zeppelin turned it into “How many more times”. And it goes back to what Miles Davis said when you read interview with Jimmy Page bragging about what he did to ‘When the Levee Breaks’ when he didn’t even write the song to begin with. And at the end of the day, they remind you that they are “the greatest rock band ever” despite all the plagiarism, and they remind you over and over that Page is a guitar god despite not writing the majority of his riffs.

      I first learned about Blues from Stevie Ray Vaughan. However I give him a big piece of credit, because admitted where all his stuff came from. “I got this lick from Buddy Guy” or “I used to love jamming to old Albert King songs”. The sad part is, it shouldn’t have took his arrival for the world to learn about those guys. You never heard ANYTHING about the Blues guys until the white rockers (Rolling Stones, Cream) came out and were talking about them

  2. Go for it! I actually was going to ask you to do one on Led Zeppelin. They would be perfect.

    BTW I wasn’t trying to sound like I have some grudge against the white blues players, I don’t. SRV is one of my all time favorites, and I think the world of the Allman Bros. But the difference is, they loved the old Blues players to a point, they were always giving them credit. Led Zeppelin tried to say they wrote all those songs themselves. I lost all respect I had for Page and Plant when they fought it in court. I have too much respect for the old Blues guys to let that slide. Forget the Beatles, Howlin’ Wolf had a lot more to do with creating rock music than they want to admit!

  3. spot on about Cliff Curtis . He will be working for the next 40-50 years.
    If i could buy shares in any actor , it’d be Cliff Curtis.
    He’ll never be out of work.
    Although i’d say central African , Chinese , Korean , Filippino and Japanese characters would be a stretch , but i’m sure he’ll find a way.
    He did play his own ethnicity in Once Were Warriors though.

    • You’re right! But after 1994 I don’t think he’s played a Maori ever again (I could be wrong). For the last 15 years at least, he’s been in a constant Middle Eastern/Latino loop. He should use his standing in Hollywood to get New Zealand/Australian native roles produced, but instead of pushing for change; he seems happy playing the “generic brown guy” in almost every movie he’s in.

  4. There is one unfortunate role which went horrifically wrong – Orpheus in “Jason and the Argonauts” 2000 year Tv movie. The role was played by a black guy!!

  5. Very interesting article, I can’t really talk about these movies (except maybe Tropic Thunder’s Robert Downey Jr. maybe) but you see it on television series (which I watch a lot), where you have the white cast and then you have one single black or minority actor there, who plays a small role of course. Yeah, it’s scary that Hollywood rather spends money for white actors playing minorities or other races and special fxs than casting an actor with an actor that is a native of that race. I have heard about the stealing of Led Zeppelin, but I’m not into that band much, so it was not a big shock but makes me like them less.

    I did a quick search and saw that Ben Affleck had cast himself on Argo, not sure if I remember correctly but somehow I remember that he was asked to be the leading actor because of his name but maybe I’m wrong. Anyway, you see how it’s more important for a movie to have well known actors than to give us realism, that’s what your acticle shows very well. I admit that I am not from America, so maybe I don’t see that or whatever, didn’t think about it. I like how you mention different angles of racism in the media industry but would like to read more about it since there is more material.

    • The Ben Affleck/Argo thing is a great example of how Hollywood is more concerned with “Star Quality” than realism. But if Hollywood keeps perpetuating the stardom of white middle-class heterosexual males, then minorities themselves will never be elevated to “A List” status; and in turn mainstream movies will suffer in terms of accurate casting. I had to edit this article heavily, as there are many more examples of ethnic and racial miscasting. This post could have been double or triple the size. I cannot believe it’s 2013 and movies (and television as you said) are still casting minorities as supporting “token” roles, rather than leads. Thanks for the comment.

  6. “Film and Television is a white dominated industry” Really? Have you ever been to India? Home of the largest movie industry in the world. Perhaps you have not been looking hard enough to find movies with a non-white cast.

    • Maybe read the entire article before giving your two pennies worth.

      Firstly, You don’t see Indians whiting-up in order to portray Caucasians. The largest output of films are created by Bollywood (quantity wise), but since their films are very closed when it comes to target audience, this has nothing to do with mainstream Hollywood ethnic and racial miscasting (which affects the entire English and non-English speaking world) and which is the topic of this article.

      Just like your comment on the MOBO’s article, please get the context and the gist of the entire article before rushing to comment.

  7. Ever heard of the adult animated series ‘Boondocks’? If you havent then I dont blame you. Its one of those adult-orientated animated satire shows, and its bloody brilliant. Oh, and the characters are black.
    Aaron McGruder’s show mocks both whites and blacks in america, and good gosh did it criticise america in general.

    The plotlines are original as is the character ensemble. Instead of the typical token family we have just two young children and their grandfather.

    However as the show went on and it gained more and more popularity, it turned out that the producers werent happy with a black man criticising america. Shit shows like family guy and its cunt creator Seth Mcuntlane were allowed to use satire (because you know, claiming that instead of hating gays we should just laugh at them instead totally does wonders for gay rights amirite?) but not a good show by a black person

    The fourth season finally came out and with no input from McGruder himself, and it damn well shows. What use to be a show that full on criticised the legal systems, social espectations and invasions suddenly became a season about the Kardashians and special olympics, gee so modern and edgy….

  8. Theres a Hip hop Turntablist band from France named… Birdy Nam Nam.

    @ Davy D
    Re: Indian Cinema & Global white supremacy.
    Take a look at the Ponds White Beauty / Ponds flawless White… Skin bleaching cosmetic range which dominates the Asian markets..

    The mini series adverts were very popular..

    • We have this kind of bullshit thanks to the British Colonialists. The modern day use of chemicals/creams in Asia, South Africa, and the Caribbean is directly because of White Rule and Global White Supremacy. Being light-skinned is now universal in the idea of beauty. Look at globally “recognised” beautiful women of colour; Beyonce, Rihanna, Aishwarya Rai. All light skinned, all with straight hair, and all with blue/green eyes. You can now even get surgery to change your eye colour, but this is another topic entirely.

  9. The most recent example of cultural Reappropriation would be the Exodus movie ..Which is supposed to be a historical movie about the Egyptians…Yet Christian Bale is cast as Moses & Joel Edgerton is Ramses.

    The irony is that in the same week a non fiction movie remake of Annie beat Exodus at the box office & many complained because the non fictional Annie character was Black.. Yet they were content to watch a culturally , scientifically anthropologically & historically innaccurate movie..

    The Hegemonist Rupert Murdoch also made a fool of himself when trying to justify the casting…

    Link in my signature.

    Did you create that colour scale , are you aware of the Von Luschan scale ?

    • Yes, the scale was a parody of the Fitzpatrick Scale & The Von Luschan Scale.

      Exodus proved that the powers that be to this day are attempting to rewrite history with white faces. They’ve been doing this since Jesus, and with movies like “Gods Of Egypt” with Gerard Butler coming next year, this bullshit isn’t going to change any time soon.

      When Ridley Scott made that racist remark (he said he wouldn’t get backing for Exodus if he cast “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such”) it showed that the whole institution of film and entertainment was prejudice.

  10. Hollywood wants a white saviour, enough said!!
    I’m not surprised if they make a movie about Malcolm X and have a white guy play him.

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