Sunday, 6 March 2016

Hollywood, History and Whitewashing (VOR)

Whitewashing - it's always been part of how Hollywood does business, but the practice has come under intense scrutiny in the past few months and years. I wanted to pour my thoughts on the issue into words and generate some sharing of ideas - so please give my column a read, and let me know your thoughts on the topic in the comments below.

As regular readers might know, I try to keep this blog as affable and whimsical as possible; originally born as a mildly diverting passion project to fill the space between stodgy university assignments, this blog has survived on a healthy dose of regular rambles about Star Wars and superheroes since it was conceived in early 2012.

But a relatively heavier topic has got my brain whirring over the last few weeks, and what better platform to digest those thoughts than this blog. After all, if this blog is to remain relevant and indicative of the current cultural and filmic zeitgeist, I guess it's important to offer some form of comment on the something that has gotten a lot of people, both inside and outside the industry, up in arms in the last few weeks. If there's been a John Oliver segment dedicated to it, you know it must be rubbing people the wrong way.

The topic is whitewashing. Yikes, what has gotten into me? Can't we go back to talking about shit comedy sequels or Deadpool? No, like I said - this is important.

I'm sure you're all familiar with the term whitewashing, but if you're not, you've definitely seen the fruits that this common practice has born over time. After all, it's quite literally been a practice ever since the inception of the Western film industry.

Now, I'm probably not the ideal candidate to offer any insightful thoughts on whitewashing. I'm 23, English and as pale as the moon. Up until a few years ago, the concept of someone like Gerard Butler playing an ancient Greek king seemed totally cool with me. It never crossed my mind that he neither looked nor sounded like the real King Leonidas probably looked or sounded.

But over time you develop an awareness to issues such as these, and in the last few years and months the cries of outrage have grown to a deafening cacophony of screams. Simply put, it's been hard to miss the growing discontent amongst audiences and cinema-goers.

Gerard Butler in Gods of Egypt
So, where do we start? Well, let's kick things off by talking about one of the most egregious examples from the last few months, Gods of Egypt. Other than being a complete and utter CGI crapfest (I assume, I didn't bother shelling out $13 to witness the awfulness for myself), Gods of Egypt received a lot of flak for its unashamed and flagrantly whitewashed cast. Rather than casting Egyptian actors as Egyptian deities, the film went with Caucasian actors like Gerard Butler (Scottish), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Danish), Elodie Yung (French), Courtney Eaton (Australian), Rachael Blake (Australian), Bryan Brown (also Australian) as well as Chadwick Boseman (African-American).

If you think whitewashing is a thing of the past and Gods of Egypt is just a random anomaly, you couldn't be more wrong; whether it's the perplexing decision to cast Rooney Mara as a Native American princess in Pan or Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Rameses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, whitewashing continues to pervade the industry on every level.

From The Rock and his band of allies in Hercules to Colin Farrell stepping into the sandals of Alexander the Great and Brad Pitt being macho as Achilles in Troy, it's historical figures or myths from the Old World that tend to get royally shafted when it comes to casting choices that accurately reflect their ethnicity.

An Hollywood depiction of Persians - Jake Gyllenhaal and
Gemma Arterton in Prince of Persia
Existing properties that intentionally centre on nonwhite protagonists also get screwed over when making the transition to the big screen - who can forget Jake Gyllenhaal playing the Prince of Persia in 2010's misguided adaptation of the classic PlayStation 2 game of the same name? Or every character in The Last Airbender transitioning from Asian to caucasian during the casting process - except for the villain of course, he can remain Asian.

I could go on, but let's be honest - it would probably be easier and faster to list nonwhite characters and historical figures who weren't done a great disservice. Instead, we have to examine why this practice is still seen as acceptable, and what we can actually do to create positive change.

First of all, where, or with whom, does the buck stop? Are actors to blame for accepting roles that don't mesh with their personal background or ethnicity? In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Rooney Mara spoke out about how she wasn't comfortable being at the centre of a controversy regarding her character in Pan. "I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation," she's quoted as saying. "I really do. I don't ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated."

I'm sure that she feels that way in hindsight, but did it enter her mind when she signed on for the film in the first place? Or when she cashed the cheque for a movie that she was miscast for? I feel somewhat sorry for Mara, being caught in the crossfire like this, but I can't help but think some degree of responsibility needs to be placed on actors. After all, they can think for themselves and are active part of the casting process.

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan
On the other hand, can we blame them for taking the work they can get? After all, if I were in their situation, I can't definitively say I wouldn't jump at the chance to play a character like Hercules, regardless of my skin tone. They have to make a living, just like the rest of us. It's just sometimes, the living that they make is inaccurate, misguided and misrepresentative of the characters and figures they're portraying.

Nine times out of ten, studios and filmmakers justify their decision to cast white actors such as Mara in nonwhite roles because it makes more economic sense, supposedly. Driven by the desire to maximise profits on their investment, studios push for the casting of A-list celebrities in the hope that their name alone will draw a crowd. Ridley Scott summed it up rather bluntly when discussing Exodus: Gods and Kings in 2014:

"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 Mohammad 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 there you have it. According to studios, audiences won't turn up for a film if it doesn't have a big name adorning the poster. And whilst I'm sure that sentiment is somewhat true, and that Scott could have definitely argued this point in a more tactful way, it's not really that accurate, is it?

I mean, it's not like Exodus was a huge hit because everyone loves Christian Bale. It's not like Gods of Egypt made a fuckton of money because audiences adore Gerard Butler. Pan, Prince of Persia and The Lone Ranger all flopped harder than a fat kid in the swimming pool, which doesn't really lend any weight to the argument that big names bring in the big bucks. If anything, this pervasive anti-whitewashing sentiment overshadows each of these films like a stomach-churning funk that refuses to wash away. I'd argue that their commitment to whitewashing actually dampened any anticipation audiences had for these films - purely because the misrepresent the characters as something they aren't.

Don't get me wrong, these films flopped for other reasons also - Gods of Egypt looked like garbage regardless of who was starring in it, but the growing backlash towards films that whitewash certainly plays into their demise at the box office.

However, there is another facet to this issue that also got me thinking - and I can't wrap my head around the stink that this particular example has caused.

When black isn't black enough -
Zoe Saldana
The most recent film to be thrust into the spotlight over whitewashing is an upcoming biopic about American soul singer, Nina Simone. When the trailer debuted on the Internet, many commenters were up in arms at the fact that Zoe Saldana had been cast in the lead role. The general outcry concerned her skin tone and the fact that, despite being mixed race (Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico), Saldana isn't considered 'black enough' to play Simone.

This is where things get complicated. As this article suggests, there are a lot of other historical factors at play here concerning the casting of Simone that has people upset. And I'm not going to pretend that I have some vested interest in the casting choice; Simone isn't a figure with whom I'm overly familiar with.

But from the outside looking in, it does appear that casting now works on spectrum where even someone like Saldana, an actress who has done a lot to broaden the representation of people of colour, is considered not good enough, or not black enough. Where do we draw the line here? It's really easy to berate Gods of Egypt for misrepresenting its subject, but since when is it okay to attack an actor of colour for not being the exact right skin tone? Does every casting choice need to be held up to such scrutiny?

I could write more about whitewashing - even in the last few days, Tina Fey's upcoming Afghan war dramedy Whisky Tango Foxtrot has come under fire for a similar casting indiscretion. But to a point, I'd be saying the same things again and again. Whilst it seems clear to me that something is inherently wrong with how we cast white actors in nonwhite roles, it does feel like the criticism heaped upon choices like Saldana is shitting in the wrong direction.

Why pull an actress of colour down for being cast in such an iconic role, when more egregious targets like Gods of Egypt and Exodus are committing sins far worse? There are too few stories about nonwhite historical figures as it is - to what end does attacking Saldana serve? Sure, they could have cast a 'darker' actress, but isn't it more constructive to herald a film that aims to promote a person of colour than tear it down?

Like I said, I'm no expert. I'm coming at this topic from a very different standpoint to some of my regular, American readers who're naturally closer to the matter at hand. It's a very complex issue that comes burdened with decades of social, political and cultural context. So to conclude, I'd like to pass the torch over to you - I'd love to hear your viewpoints on the subject and to generate some positive discussion on whitewashing. Whether you want to talk about Gods of Egypt, the recent Oscar furore or Zoe Saldana, just get chatting in the comments below. Thank you for reading (and apologies for the length of this post!)


  1. Great column! As someone who watches a wide variety of films from all over the world and from all eras of history, I get really frustrated with this white-washing approach of modern Hollywood. There is not much I would add to what you have said, I'd agree with everything you said.

    It is interesting to note that once Asian characters were a prime example of white-wash casting (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or, going back even further, Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms (1919). We now see Asian actors cast (usually) in films. Clearly the economic weight of the Asian market has helped change this.

    1. Thanks! Nice to have some lovely feedback, much appreciated. Whitewashing and Hollywood casting is a tricky topic and it'll be really interesting to see how the practice evolves and shifts in the face of this growing backlash. Who knows, maybe one day it'll be a thing of the past...



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