Home Entertainment Has Hollywood got a Whitewashing problem?

Has Hollywood got a Whitewashing problem?

4 min read


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


  1. Oh my God, James! You can’t just ask why actors in mainstream mediums are still white!


    • James Francis

      June 9, 2015 at 12:52

      Lol, it’s not even the first time I raised the subject on this site!


      • juzzlehizzle

        June 9, 2015 at 13:16

        On a serious note, it’s likely a case of money. I’d like to see the stats that prove that films with non-white leads fail so often that it is a valid trend.

        With Aloha tanking at the box office, what trend will that prove, given that it is near wall to wall white casting. Likewise, with the multicultural Fast 7 doing billions, what trend will that prove?

        Problem is that Hollywood assumes the most superficial facets of a film as evidence of broader trends. People come to a film because they want something that’s going to leave an emotional imprint on them. Yes, films require a logic and rationale, but if a film makes you feel something, anything, fear, exhilaration, upliftment, sadness, whatever, it’s left an imprint on you and you’re likely to tell others about it and depending on what you say, you’ll influence others into seeing a film.

        Analysing trends and adhering to them and a good marketing campaign will initially sell the film and get bums in seats in the opening weekend but without having an emotional effect on an audience, their are limits to the legs your film has.

        There is nothing so awful as a film experience that leaves one indifferent. Making people feel something is an extremely significant factor in a good experience for an audience and a good experience for an audience can’t hurt box office.

        I’ve drifted off topic from the race issue but that’s largely because race isn’t the issue that makes or breaks a film. That mainstream cinema constantly misses this is the problem


        • James Francis

          June 9, 2015 at 13:33

          I agree that the race angle is superficial and financial implications are hard to quantify.

          But there is a clear culture problem in terms of casting.

          Do this as an experiment: go look at the top 10 movies of every year for the past 10 years. Now count all the non-white leads or major supporting characters that were not hired for race-specific roles. For example, you can’t count Selma or 10 Years a Slave.

          You’ll find it is overwhelmingly white. If you disqualify actors who play a caricature (like the Korean shop owner or wisecracking street-smart black dude), the count comes close to nought.

          So I wouldn’t debate the economics of non-white actors. Instead the point of my article is that the habit of hiring white actors is still incredibly entrenched.


          • juzzlehizzle

            June 9, 2015 at 13:54

            Oh, I’m not debating the entrenchment of casting habits. I’m looking at why.

            As is ever the case in Hollywood, it’s likely driven by money, but my above point is that even if money is the case, it’s a misplaced concern that audiences would be turned off by casting of minorities.

            To be fair, white people still make up 62 percent of the United States so it’s a safe assumption they’d dominate on the screen if they dominate by mere spread of numbers alone.

          • James Francis

            June 9, 2015 at 14:02

            True, demographics does have a role to play. But I think it’s also a matter of attracting more non-white talent. Given how stoic and old school Hollywood’s powers that be appear to become around awards and such, I’d not be surprised if there is still a glass ceiling in the industry that few non-whites break through.

            For example, the UK is over 80% white, but has far more non-white actors in proportion to the US.

  2. RinceTheElfRoot

    June 9, 2015 at 13:24

    But, But, Avatar had blue people in! 0_O


    • Blood Emperor Trevor

      June 9, 2015 at 13:44

      Which is a primary colour, and therefore still racist. What about the secondary colours?


  3. Blood Emperor Trevor

    June 9, 2015 at 13:38

    I think they’ve got a problem, but I think Hollywood is ever-so-slowly realising that the global box office, especially the Chinese, is just as important than local (US) box office. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them though.

    Another thing I hate is every time this discussion comes up, you’ll get some white fools whining about “pandering” as if they’ve not literally been pandered too their entire life when it comes to the vast majority of Hollywood movies & TV. And it’s “politically correct”. Give me a break. The only thing I share with people like that is a lack of melanin.


    • James Francis

      June 9, 2015 at 14:04

      Not unlike the well-educated, well-connected executive who link their success with ‘hard work’.


      • Blood Emperor Trevor

        June 9, 2015 at 14:12

        Oh, don’t get me started. I’m already twitching just thinking about it.


  4. Reidroc

    June 9, 2015 at 16:20

    Hollywood is still too often seen as a local US market. That has been changing due to markets like China, but I have seen movies from India, Hong Kong and Japan and the characters are still very regional there( whatever the local variation of whitewashing is). Hollywood and casting will change faster the more the box office changes and the US is no longer the primary market.


  5. konfab

    June 9, 2015 at 20:33

    Whitewashing is stupid if they deliberately make a character who was non white, white. That is wrong.

    However complaining that Jurassic Park doesn’t have any main characters who are POC is a bit nonsensical. It is an American FIlm, aimed mainly for an American audience. White people make up about 63% of their population. Hence it is to be expected that you will see more white people in American films than black people.

    If you complain about this whitewashing, then you should also complain about the blackout in the NBA which is completely disproportional to the population of the US.
    Maybe it is due to the fact that the black players are better than the white players. But that would be racist if it were applied to the reverse case now would it :^)


    • James Francis

      June 10, 2015 at 11:48

      Hang on, the NBA selects players based on athletic merit and Africans clearly had an early disposition for that. This is changing and there are far more white, latino and Chinese players in today’s NBA. But unless you can convince me that white actors have a better disposition towards their craft, I don’t see how the comparison holds. Their selection seems far more arbitrary.

      As for Jurassic Park, it was just selected as an example. I find that I can pick just about any blockbuster from the past 20 years and the white dominance will stand. So Jurassic Park is just endemic of a larger trend – and that’s the flaw I am pointing at.

      Proportionality of population doesn’t really work: the UK has over 80% white population, but feature far more non-white actors than any US movie or TV production. France has roughly an 85% white population, but also feature more non-white actors than the U.S.


      • konfab

        June 10, 2015 at 11:58

        So now it comes down to evaluating the merit of actors. So how do we do that?
        Do we look at how successful the films are commercially or do we use awards.


        • James Francis

          June 10, 2015 at 12:12

          You introduced the merit angle by citing the NBA. But I agree that it’s a poor measure for hiring actors, since we’ll then always end up with only stars who are known draws. I was simply pointing to the flaw in your comparison,

          Still, how is it that something like The Hunger Games or the new Spider-Man goes for a lot of new actors, yet still manages to pick largely white ones? Even outside of merit, it doesn’t add up.

          This CinemaBlend article for upcoming stars (http://www.cinemablend.com/new/10-Actors-Who-Huge-Stars-By-End-2015-68910.html) has ONE black actor in it. Everyone else is white. You’ll find that pattenr repeat with nearly every such list.

          Let’s take it further: take the Marvel movies. All of them. Go count the number of non-white leads and major supports. You’ll find you can almost count them on one hand.

          Neither merit nor proportionality explain this gap.


          • konfab

            June 10, 2015 at 12:44

            What would you prefer, that every film puts in the token black person to make their cast seem diverse. What would that say about the acting qualities of black actors?
            Or would you prefer a Laurence Olivier scenario, except we use white paint instead of shoe polish.

            With Marvel movies, they are trying to keep to the source material. Hence seeing a black hulk would look deliberately like a token role, which would be an insult.

            I really don’t know what is so offensive about the concept of a film being about a character who is white. The only thing that matters is whether they can do the job of portraying the intent of the film.

          • James Francis

            June 10, 2015 at 12:56

            You are misreading me here: I have nothing against white characters. I just don’t get why 90% of characters are white.

            This is not about token actors. This is about a clear bias towards white casting. There is a difference. I don’t want token roles. I want casting roles that aren’t so skewed towards white actors.

            Your Marvel rationale doesn’t stand. Black Nick Fury, Black Kingpin… there is clear precedent for changing creeds. In the comics Captain America was once also a black character. Thor is now female. I think Marvel has plenty of ground to justify changing character races and sex.

          • konfab

            June 10, 2015 at 13:12

            So we must not make historical films like the Imitation game, because they might exclude black actors?

            And having [insert non white male ] [marvel character] is blatant tokenism.

            Making a new character who is black is perfectly fine with me, Morpheus in the Matrix for example was perfect and defined that role better than anyone else.

          • James Francis

            June 10, 2015 at 13:25

            Historical films? Now you are just reaching.

            And I’ve read Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. Nowhere does it state the characters’ races. Yet they all ended up white anyway.

            Look, I laid out my views quite concisely and you are now just yanking at any thread to try and support your bag of ideas. If you want to perceive every attempt at reducing white casts as tokenism, so be it. I don’t agree. I believe most scripts and stories have a colourblind basis – the race comes in when they cast roles. You’ve said nothing to address that aspect, simply thrown out random arguments around the topic.

            If you want to continue a proper debate, I’m all ears. But not by flinging stuff in the hope that something sticks.

          • konfab

            June 10, 2015 at 14:19

            Harry potter? How freckled black people with blue eyes do you know 🙂
            As for the Hunger Games, I would rather eat my hair than read those books or watch those films.

            I do disagree with you on your belief that stories and scripts don’t determine the race of the characters. If I read Game of Thrones, part of the flavor of the book was how the character’s visual appearances (and yes skin colour) was used to build a mental picture what the characters looked like.

            I cited the NBA to show that using merit to pick a person for a particular role is not a bad thing. I made that argument to point out that it is only used when it benefits non whites, hence pointing out a little bit of hypocrisy on your behalf. There is an absolute silence when it comes to politically incorrect views, no consideration is given to the argument that white people MIGHT just be better actors. The article which probably ignited this whole discussion:
            http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/Racial%20Inequality%20in%20Film%202007-2013%20Final.ashx, quotes “In conclusion, top-grossing films do not fully represent the audiences they target.”
            So where is the complaint when this is made against a sport like the NBA?

            The next argument I made regarded the population proportions, using the same article, it shows that there are simply more white actors than black actors. Which is probably more indicative of the wealth conditions of the demographic than perceived biases. Also what helps is having parents in the biz.

            I made the historical film argument because it precisely refutes your argument that you want casting roles that are not skewed. Would you complain that making a film about Martin Luther King requires black actors(unless you want a bastardization of Shakespearian proportions ). Hence making a film about Hawking requires white actors.

            The tokenism argument really annoys me because the aim of tokenism is not the development of an interesting character. It is to make a politically correct statement. Hence the only reason in making a black lesbian spider(wo)man is to make the statement that your studio is politically correct. Did I perceive Morpheus as a token role? No. I saw an actor filling out a coherent role.

            The only numbers that would give merit to your skewness in the casting hypothesis would be the race
            ratios(I detest terms like this btw) of the actors who either auditioned
            for the role, or who were shortlisted by the casting process, that
            would at least give an indication of what is being used to determine the
            race of a character in a film.

          • James Francis

            June 10, 2015 at 15:44

            I never said no book define the races of their characters, just that many things don’t – yet white actors are favoured for those roles. Finding one or two examples that dispute my point isn’t the same as showing a different trend to what I am talking about.

            Your NBA argument doesn’t stand as you yourself actually disregarded merit as a measure for choosing actors.

            If you want to argue that population proportions can reflect acting demographics, then how does a 60% white demo end up with a 95% white acting demo? Doesn’t add up. Also, I have disproven your proportionality argument with statistics from France and the UK.

            Historical films have no standing in this argument. Obviously it would be smart to keep historical characters within their context. So there won’t be a black Lincoln. But the entire genre – outside of the very specific example of whitewashing – is irrelevant to this conversation. Confusing the point is not the same as refuting it. Historical films are a red herring and I won’t take the bait.

            Your position on tokenism is based on your preferably context for the use of the term, but you represent it as some overarching objective action. Basically, you appear to pigeonhole tokenism into the argument when it suits you. So I am not interested in engaging you on that topic any longer.

            I have made several arguments that display skewed casting, none of which you have managed to refute and some you don’t even tackle. So if you want to attack my perception of skewed casting, actually do that. Go look at the examples I have quotes in these comments and argue against them. But instead you are just rolling with assumptions and you think you’ve made a point.

            Like I said – you are just throwing out ideas and hoping something will stick. You have not presented a coherent opinion and you are attempting a straw man argument here. I’m not interested. Get your ducks in a row or let’s call it quits.

          • konfab

            June 10, 2015 at 16:01

            Since you bothered to respond to my wall of text, I will at least give you the courtesy of calling it quits.

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