Whitewashing in film is the practice of casting a white Actor for a role originally intended for someone of colour. In a previous article I wrote about white Actors donning black, brown, or yellow-face to “accurately” play minority roles, but this time I thought I’d write about something much more insidious, an attempt by mainstream entertainment to completely remove any traces of colour from film. In my opinion whitewashing is much more damaging than wearing black-face, instead of merely mocking or stereotyping the character whilst acknowledging the actual race, with whitewashing the true ethnicity is completely ignored in favour of a white, usually European person. This has a long-lasting effect on society, take the role of Jesus as an example, he is frequently played by white Actors including Max Von Sydow, Willem Dafoe, and Jim Caviezel. Because white Actors are always favoured to play Jesus Christ, as an extension to Fine Art representations of him, over the years most of the public has been brainwashed into thinking the original incarnation was also white. This also applies to Moses (famously played by Charlton Heston) and Cleopatra (played by Elizabeth Taylor) but even in the present day we’ve had an Angelina Jolie version of Cleopatra in the works and Actors such as Christian Bale have played Moses. The fact that Jesus and Moses may never have existed is a whole different argument, but since a huge proportion of the world chooses to deify people from the Middle East and North Africa, why then can’t their filmic representations be racially and ethnically accurate?
Once we acknowledge that whitewashing happens just as much in the present as it does in the past, the excuse of an “ignorant” and “uneducated” bygone era can no longer be used. But why does whitewashing still occur today? In my opinion, whether the original character is fictional or not, whitewashing serves as a long-term propaganda method to remove people of colour from our history, and unfortunately for us, contemporary entertainment hasn’t given up this racist tactic of Caucasian self-promotion.
Take a look at films released in the last several years and it’s clear that whitewashing is definitely not something that only occurred in the past. We’ve had numerous occasions in our post-millennial so-called “modern society” in which whitewashing has been practised; in 2005 Christopher Nolan cast the white Irish Liam Neeson to play Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins despite the character being of Arabic decent in the comic books. In 2010 Jake Gyllenhaal played a Persian in Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time and in 2012 the olive-skinned, black-haired Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games was played by Jennifer Lawrence, the whole metaphor of real-life oppression, classism, and racial division being lost with the film adaptation. In 2013 Johnny Depp played the Native American Tonto in The Lone Ranger, in 2014 we had in an entirely white cast in Noah and later in the same year we had Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings in which white actors played Egyptians. In 2015 the Native American character Tiger Lily was played by the overrated rich twit Rooney Mara in Pan and serial offender Ridley Scott also cast a white Canadian to play a Korean American in The Martian. In 2016 we have Gods Of Egypt starring Gerard Butler who along with other white Actors is playing an Egyptian, and if you take a look at IMDb we have many more whitewashed movies in development.
Whitewashing also occurs outside of the world of fiction, in World Trade Center, Oliver Stone‘s “true story” concerning 9/11, Stone whitewashed the role of Marine Sargeant Jason Thomas who in real life is African American. A year later in the 2007 film A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie played the real life character of Mariane Pearl, an Afro-Cuban French woman. Then in 2010 in another “true story” David Fincher cast a white British actor to play the Indian American Divya Narendra in The Social Network and in 2012, Ben Affleck played a half Mexican CIA Agent in Argo. These real-life instances of whitewashing are much worse than casting white Actors in fiction, since the whitewashing of true stories conceals the key involvement and sometimes heroism during historic events by people of colour.
I have to point out that these aren’t the only occurrences of whitewashing that exist, these are only a handful that I’ve selected for this article, you can find many more online. But the amount of whitewashing isn’t the only offensive part of the equation, for me the excuses from the filmmakers themselves are the epitome of insulting, namely the idea of the “bankable” white Actor. When it came to defending Exodus: Gods And Kings for example, Ridley Scott said; “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up”. So instead of making sure that the script was well-written and entertaining, this prick instead put all his focus on receiving tax rebates? I mean what was the priority here, making an accurate and watchable film or saving some money? But hilariously, Exodus bombed faster than Tony Scott leaping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge, hopefully a sign to Hollywood to focus more on accuracy rather than propaganda and profit.
It’s always great to see films like Exodus, The Lone Ranger, and Pan turning out to be flops, the more this occurs the less they can use the excuse of “bankability” since in each of these cases a white saviour wasn’t enough to detract from these pitiful regurgitations of filmic trash. We’ll have to wait and see if Gods Of Egypt starring the über-un-Egyptian Gerard Butler is enough to save the film from dying an unprofitable death.
Despite a larger section of society bringing this issue to the forefront, there are still imbeciles out there who defend whitewashing. On certain IMDb forums for instance, you can still find numerous people saying that a white Actor is preferable because they’re either a. better at acting b. a bigger box office draw, or c. when it comes to Egypt in movies, since Ancient Egyptians were a mix of ethnicities a white person is according to them more “accurate”. When it comes to the Middle East and North Africa specifically, Hollywood and their supporters need to realise that regardless of which Egyptian Dynasty they’re trying to depict, nobody in the history of the country (or in the entire continent of Africa for that matter) ever looked like Mike pissing Banning, Bruce frigging Wayne or Jessie fucking Pinkman. To the defenders of this type of excuse I also have to ask, how the fuck can we ever have a bankable black “box office draw” if we never let a minority Actor act in a role intended for them? This article proves that if each of the roles intended for minorities were given to minorities, there might one day be parity between races in entertainment.
Outside of Africa and the Middle East, and away from Biblical stories, we’ve also had the piss-poor excuse of “ethnic vilification”. The excuse of casting Benedict Cumberbatch to play Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness was that they didn’t want to demonise minorities. Co-producer and co-screenwriter Bob Orci said; “Basically, as we went through the casting process and we began honing in on the themes of the movie, it became uncomfortable for me to support demonising anyone of colour, particularly any one of Middle Eastern descent or anyone evoking that. One of the points of the movie is that we must be careful about the villain within us, not some other race”. Firstly, it seems that the Co-Producer can’t even tell the difference between an Indian and a Middle Eastern person, but this hypocritical stance seems to be just another way of deflecting from Hollywood’s penchant for whitewashing. People like Orci can’t seem to explain why mainstream Hollywood can make Islamophobic films like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty but Allah-forbid they cast a brown Actor to play a brown fictitious villain. The role of Khan by the way, was written by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960’s and it was based on an Indian friend who Roddenberry served with during the Second World War. The principle characteristics of Khan was intelligence and superior genes, so surely accurately casting this role was befitting to the writer’s intentions? But whatever the writer’s original intent, when it comes to ethnic minority characters being translated to film, these Hollywood pricks seem to constantly reach into their arsenal of bullshit excuses to justify their prejudice, whether the film in question is historical fact or fantasy fiction.
At this point you might ask, doesn’t this colour-blind casting happen the other way round? And the answer is yes, but Actors such as Idris Elba appearing in Thor or Michael B. Jordan being cast in the Fantastic 4 are few and far between. The list of minority Actors playing white roles is not only short, it’s also less important. You have to ask yourself what’s worse, a white man playing Jesus or a black man playing Jim West?
So let’s call this what is so obviously is… racism. I’m sick of the excuses, ranging from bankability to demonisation, if a Producer or Director chooses to cast a white Actor for a role intended for a person of colour it’s not only lazy it’s racist. In our contemporary society where we’re incessantly told that we’ve made so much progress, why can’t a simple piece of entertainment be cast correctly? The public wonders why people of colour aren’t nominated for the Oscars, some morons even saying that minority Actors were “out-acted” and therefore weren’t deserving of such awards. These same fools fail to acknowledge however, that Hollywood and the entertainment business as a whole only puts forward people of colour if the role itself reinforces stereotypes, they also fail to acknowledge that hundreds of famous white actors are marketed to the masses but only several black actors are promoted with the same levels of enthusiasm and financial backing. The lack of minorities in Hollywood isn’t because there aren’t as many ethnic minority Actors out there trying to make it, just that institutional racism keeps up-and-coming black actors from becoming famous and recognised, take a look at my article about The Academy Awards to see the stereotypical roles that resulted in a win, the whole system from casting to accolading is rife with prejudice.
You can either laugh at or be offended by the posters that accompany this article, but what’s the difference between these parodies and the films that have been made by Hollywood? The truth is that there really is no difference in Angelina Jolie playing Cleopatra or Rosa Parks, so why is there such little uproar when a whitewashed minority character outside of our grasp of history appears in the movies? What will it take for the masses to finally say they’ve had enough? Gerard Butler as Malcolm X?
In the early 1900’s, Peter Pan was written by J.M. Barrie and despite him writing that Tiger Lily was a princess of “a Piccaninny tribe” the character was still an ethnic minority. Around a hundred years earlier in the late 1800’s, Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and included a prominent Indian character (Captain Nemo) who had a hatred of British Imperialism. Hell, even as far back as 1603, William Shakespeare wrote Othello, in which the central character was a Moorish General. So even as far back as the 1600’s, white playwrights and novelists wrote about people of colour, even dedicating whole novels to them and making them central characters, but more than four hundred years or four centuries later, white Producers and white Directors can’t cast ethnic minorities not only in these old roles but as characters written this century? Oh, how far we’ve come.
Knowing who is in charge of the media and the entertainment business, it’s not surprising that whitewashing still occurs. A rich, old, white, heterosexual male will probably always be racist, and if you think that sentence is prejudice, then you know how we minorities feel when we’re confronted with a whitewashed film. If minority Actors have to constantly “prove” themselves to be worthy of casting, then these old white Executives in charge of Hollywood should also prove that they’re not a bunch of antiquated racists. If they’re not hateful bigots who get off on the idea of feeling superior, then maybe start casting films correctly, if not then stay the fuck away from the past. The next time they tell us tall tales about history don’t buy a ticket and don’t support their propaganda, at some point a string of unprofitable movies will be enough of a message.