Weighing in on the whitewashing debate

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

Casting is a tricky business.  It’s the only business where racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination is legal and expected.  A talented and accomplished actor can be passed over for a role because he’s not the right ethnicity, or he’s too tall, or too short, or even because he’s a man.  It’s an inherent part of the business.  Many moons ago, I fancied myself an actor. I was pretty good (not great), but I learned very quickly that if I continued to pursue acting I would be playing maids, whores, and sassy sidekicks for my entire career.  One of the reasons I started to work in casting was because I hoped to provide more opportunities for actors of color who often get pigeon holed into stereotypical roles. However, I have realized over the last few years that issues of race and ethnicity in casting go much deeper than I once thought. It’s not just about expanding beyond racial stereotypes: there’s an even more entrenched tradition in Hollywood of manipulating history and literature to remove people of color all together.  That brings me to the debate over the “whitewashing” of recent Hollywood films (in particular Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender) I thought the Hollywood practice of casting white actors in historically non-white roles had died out, but upon further digging, I realized that while the practice has become more subtle, very little has changed.

Elizabeth Taylor is one of my favorite film actresses of all time.  During her reign in

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Hollywood in the 50s and 60s, her grace and beauty were unparalleled. In 1963, she played the ultimate historical femme fatale, Cleopatra, in the film of the same name.  As a child, I loved watching the grand spectacle and sweeping romance of this epic film.  It was not until I wrote a school report on Cleopatra in my early adolescence that I realized that the Cleopatra of history was most likely of Egyptian, Nubian, and Greek ancestry.   Elizabeth Taylor is many things, but she is neither Egyptian, Greek, nor Nubian.  When I was younger, black actors in lead roles in film and television were still a very rare occurrence, but things were starting to change: watching The Cosby Show and Blair Underwood on LA Law were exciting events in my family.  It seemed like the days of Jeff Chandler playing the Chiricahua Chief Cochise and Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s were firmly in the rear view mirror.

However, recent casting decisions make it clear that although some progress has been made, there’s still a disconnect when it comes to Hollywood’s depictions of ethnic figures from history and literature.  Which brings us to Prince of Persia.   I haven’t seen the film, but I find it curious that not only the star (Jake Gyllenhaal) but the entire main cast is of primarily European descent (okay, Ben Kingsley is half Indian).  I wonder if it was even part of the casting process to consider actors from the Middle East, Northern Africa, or even South Asia? (For those not in the know, Persia is in modern day Iran and the film is based on a very popular video game)  With a video game as source material, historical accuracy is not necessarily the prime concern in the casting process, but it reminds me of the 1950s Biblical epics with actors like Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner playing Israelites and Egyptians.  I believe in an actor’s ability to transform into different characters from many walks of life, but ethnicity is a deep issue that not only shapes the way we see the world but impacts how the world sees us. Are American and international audiences comfortable watching Middle Eastern actors play terrorists but not accepting of those same actors in heroic roles? Or does Hollywood underestimate the audience?

When it comes to The Last Airbender, the issue of ethnicity in casting is even more complicated.  The source material is an American cartoon which features characters inspired by Asian art and mythology.  In the cartoon, the characters appear to be of a non-specific Asian ancestry (in my opinion).  The film was originally cast with four young white actors in the lead roles, and when Jesse McCartney dropped out, he was replace with Dev Patel (a British actor of Indian ancestry).  The fact I find most intriguing is that the director is M. Night Shyamalan (of 6th Sense fame) who is an Indian American filmmaker.  It might seem that Shyamalan might be more attuned to the issues of ethnic and racial “authenticity” at play in the casting of this film, but if there is one thing I have learned as a casting director is that the ethnicity of a director or producer does not necessarily influence the ethnic make up of a cast.  ( Just ask Safy Nebbou, the French film director who cast Gérard Depardieu as the mixed-race Alexandre Dumas in L’autre Dumas (The Other Dumas).)

The debate over ethnicity on stage and screen seems endless, but I can’t help but look back to my childhood to think of how thrilling it was for me to see The Cosby Show and Blair Underwood and Denzel Washington too, and I can’t help thinking that young Asian, Middle Eastern,  and (to a lesser degree) Black and Latino kids are missing out on an opportunity to see people who look like them portrayed in a positive way on screen. So please, actors and non-actors alike, weigh in and let me know your take.   Is “whitewashing” just good business?   Would you shell out money to see Prince of Persia with a Middle Eastern actor in the lead?  Do you care about the ethnic “authenticity” of characters on stage and film?  I love comments.

One thought on “Weighing in on the whitewashing debate

  1. Doug says:

    Great post, Destiny. I see both sides of the argument, and think it’s a sign that maybe our expectations for utter realism in all things film and television have gone too far. I ultimately don’t care if something looks authentic or accurate as long I can feel that it is true to the character and story, if that makes sense. So it’s great that Jamie Foxx looked so similar to Ray, but if Judi Dench had wanted to play it, I bet that take could’ve rocked my world too. Conversely, if Whoopi Goldberg could have done justice to The Queen, I’d want to see that too. In the last 30 years, realism has played a really important role in how we value our entertainment, and it has its place, but performance — what an actor or storyteller can express from within — will always be what impresses me most.

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