Has Hollywood got a Whitewashing problem?

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Is Hollywood still too fond of white faces? Whatever the answer, more people are starting to take notice…

A new row has been kicked up about some dubious casting choices in Hollywood. This time it’s Cameron Crowe’s movie Aloha. In it he cast the blonde-haired Emma Stone to play the role of Allison Ng, a fighter pilot who was parts Chinese, Swedish and Hawaiian.

aloha

It prompted a BBC article asking about the whitewashing of roles in particularly American movies:

Both Asians and non-Asians asked why they didn’t pick an Asian actress to play a character who is part-Asian.

One advocacy group called Aloha “a whitewashed film” that failed to portray the ethnical diversity of Hawaii.

Whitewashing is a dubious yet widespread industry activity, to the degree that you never see non-whites in main roles for most of 20th century cinema – even for roles featuring other ethnicities. Infamous examples include Joseph Wiseman as the Chinese villain in his namesake movie Dr. No, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi and most recently Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus, not to mention Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger.

tontoloneranger

The rationale behind those choices are almost always money-related: America’s audiences apparently don’t show up for a film that doesn’t feature a white cast. As such studios are weary of banking non-white leads that haven’t proven their financial draw. There are stars such as Will Smith and Denzel Washington, but it’s a very small group and even harder to name such stars when you look at Indian, Asian, Latino or other creeds.

It’s an idea that has sparked a lot of debate, but there is some credence. For example, it’s still an open question why neither Jackie Chan nor Jet Li could carry a movie on their own in the West. It may also not just be a simple race prism: white actors who brandish accents are also often not consistent box office leads in the U.S. – just ask Gerard Depardieu. Everyone from Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy to Charlise Theron had to quickly adapt to a yankee twang.

Whitewashing is not even new: Jesus famously appears in many paintings as clearly an Anglo white male. This only started shifting when artists such as Rembrandt started painting Jesus with more distinctly Levant-eqsue features.

rembrandtjesus

Still, the article does raise that there is also a reversing trend emerging:

“Whitewashing” casting differs from “colour-blind casting,” where a role is cast when factors of race or ethnicity are irrelevant to the character or plot.

This practice is increasingly popular and has been adopted in several movies, including Samuel Jackson’s turn as Nick Fury, originally a white character, in several Marvel superhero films, Lucy Liu playing Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ assistant, in the US TV series Elementary and Yasiin Bey portraying Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It also notes the rising backlash against the trend, as seen with Aloha. But the real change has always been money and culture: white actors still dominate the Hollywood landscape.

Just look at the films of the past year and going forward: Avengers has no non-white main roles other than Nick Fury, Mad Max and Jurassic Park have none at all. Ditto for Jupiter Ascending, Pan and so forth. Spectre, the new Bond appears to also still be short of less Anglo Saxon appeal – and it may continue given the outcry over suggestions to bring Idris Alba into the fold. The one black lead in Guardians of the Galaxy was painted green and Antman appears to not have any non-white actors in its main credits.

gamoraguardians

Yet there are standouts: The Wedding Ringer features a black lead (and notably not for a character that needed to be black), while Fast & Furious 7 spreads its racial quota quite broadly across white, latino, black and asian. Still, most movies continue having a problem of too much white and too little everything else.

Nakamura said the industry will start changing when casting decisions are made based on talent and character’s accuracy, but for now Hollywood will continue to cast famous white actors to bring in the audience.

“I think in the US this strikes a sensitive subject,” Nakamura said. “But casting is important as it represents how viewers see themselves and that still matters.”

PS. On a lighter note – the title image came from Spoek Mathambo’s excellent cover of Control. Enjoy!:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: June 9, 2015

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