The past few days in La La Land have been eventful ones, with two very surprising casting announcements hitting the web, and pissing off a lot of people in the process.
Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) was just cast in a one-off comedy special for Sky Arts in the role of…wait for it…Michael Jackson. And then there’s the matter of Sons of Anarchy actor Charlie Hunnam, who was just cast by Legendary Pictures to play real-life Mexican-American drug lord Edgar Valdez Villarreal.
Whitewashing has always been a thing in Hollywood, but only recently has it earned the attention that it’s been getting.
So what is whitewashing exactly? Put simply, it is the casting practice of putting white actors in non-white roles. One of the earliest examples I can recall of this bad Hollywood habit comes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Mickey Rooney – a popular Caucasian actor at the time – played a Japanese landlord. More recent examples include Ridley Scott’s Exodus, and the upcoming Gods of Egypt, which features a Danish actor (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Scottish actor (Gerard Butler), as Egyptian gods.
When bringing this topic up in conversations, I do tend to hear the same old arguments in defence of white actors. It goes a little something like this:
Me: “I can’t believe they cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Peter Pan. The character is Native American and there are already limited roles for Native Americans.”
Other person: “Yeah well Johnny Storm is white in the comics but they cast Michael B. Jordan in the new Fantastic 4 which is WRONG! It belongs to a white actor.”
Let’s get super real for a moment; Johnny Storm’s race has literally sweet FA to do with anything. The character’s very personality and powers are not contingent on him being white. Michael B. Jordan’s casting was NOT taking an opportunity away from a white actor, nor was it changing the very fabric of the comics on which the film was based. Instead, the casting was a wonderful example of how more opportunities can be created for people of colour by simply being open minded and giving minority actors a shot.
I often hear the same argument when it comes to who should play the next James Bond. Idris Elba, a black man and damn fine actor, is a favourite, but because Bond was written as white and has always been played by white men, there are many who believe that Elba’s casting would spit in the very eye of Ian Fleming. Now let’s get real again; James Bond is a FICTIONAL character with a penchant for kicking ass and being a shady AF womaniser. Given that the James Bond films are always set in the present day, it shouldn’t be unthinkable that someone as gorgeous, talented, and sharply dressed as Idris Elba could play Bond. Once again, the character’s very personality, way with the ladies, and special abilities with weapons and hand-to-hand combat are not contingent on him being white.
Another argument I often come across is that the “best actor should win the role”, regardless of race. Now that is something I can get on board with. It just makes sense: the best actor wins. But what this fails to take into account is that minority actors aren’t often given the opportunity to audition for roles in the first place. The world is dreaming if it thinks that an Asian actor would be given the same romantic comedy script as Matthew McConaughey. Heck, an Asian actor would be lucky if he got to play the best friend.
If studios truly want “the best actor to win the role” then they need to be casting the net a heck of lot wider than what’s comfortable or familiar. Afterall, the similar faces we tend to see in rom coms aren’t the only actors capable of bringing a love story to life.
To demonstrate just how unfair the playing field really is, here are some cold hard facts courtesy of a study by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism:
- In 2014, 73.1% of characters in the top 100 films were white while. Only 12.5% were black.
- It’s worse for Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and Middle Eastern actors, who held only 5.3%, 4.9% and 2.9% of roles respectively.
- In 2014, only 17 of the 100 top films featured a lead or co-lead actor from an underrepresented racial and/or ethnic group.
These are mighty depressing statistics, and if anything is clear from the study, it’s that representation for minorities in film is piss poor. Not only is Hollywood failing to reflect the beautiful multicultural landscape in the US, but it is also failing a large slice of paying audiences (the Theatrical Market Statistics 2014 report found that 44% of frequent moviegoers in the US were made up of minorities including African Americans, Hispanic, and Asian/Other).
What I really want to know is this: why is it still acceptable to cast white actors as people of colour, but when it’s suggested that Idris Elba should play Bond, it’s off the table?
The bottom line is that white actors seem to be in no danger of missing out on brilliant roles, but the same cannot be said for actors of colour. And until the wave of whitewashing stops, and those in positions of power acknowledge these failings, I doubt we’ll be seeing much progress.
Sources: www.mpaa.org and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.