Most of you are familiar by now with Ridley Scott’s pretty racist defense of his pretty racist casting of Exodus. For those of who aren’t, or would love a cheerful reminder, Scott argued that the reason he hired only white leads for his Bible-based movie had everything to do with raci– sorry, tax rebates:
“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,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
It feels too easy to pick apart Scott’s statement (Mohammed so-and-so? The question didn’t even come up? Dude, you’re asking for it). And thankfully, most of the media, minus the three predictable lunatics on everyone’s Facebook page, came together to condemn the director. From Vince: “only the most historical context ignorant Logic Bro could fail to understand the implications of whitewashing and blackface.” From Mashable: “The whitewashed cast of Exodus is irresponsible – and its own demise.” From my grandma: “Please stop sending me these links I cannot open them.”
The problem with excoriating Scott, however, is that we displace the whole problem onto an individual, forgetting the culture that enables him. Just as Exodus joins a very long line of whitewashed movies, Scott joins a very large family of people in Hollywood (some of whom are otherwise very nice!) defending it. It’s so much easier for us to look at Scott as an outlier than to examine all the ways we as a culture and Hollywood as an industry have allowed movies like these to be made, and dudes like these to make them.
Whitewashing comes in multiple forms, some of them more explicit than others. On its simplest level, it involves the replacement of roles intended for people of color by white actors – usually for bogus reasons related to profitability, accessibility, the “appeal” of Christian Bale. Sure, it’s theoretically possible for Angelina Jolie to play a good Cleopatra, but in an industry where minorities are underrepresented by a factor of 3 to 1 in all read roles, you can’t help but tweet about it. Real history is replaced by real actors committing real voyeurism. Whitewashing also includes racebending (sometimes the two are even used interchangeably), a process where directors/producers strategically alter a character’s race, often grotesquely (i.e. blackface). While Scott is our most recent – and unsentimental – whitewasher, he joins a long line of people who, consciously or unconsciously, have defended the practice. Cool!
Still, it’s a trifle unfair to blame one single individual for the terrible things they’ve said, so in the interest of fairness, here’s a long list of individuals and the terrible things they’ve said. None of these people are bad people per se (with the exception of Christian Bale) but all are implicated in supporting an industry hell bent on not supporting others. And to keep things current, I’ve decided to only discuss movies made in the last thirty years. That doesn’t excuse Laurence Olivier’s Othello or Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer. But these movies were all products of a time that openly embraced whitewashing (in 1928, the Harlem-based Amsterdam News said of Jolson: “every colored performer is proud of him”). Now, I’m happy to say, we live in a time where whitewashing is at least considered a problem by most major publications, some minor blogs, and absolutely no Fox execs.
AHEM. The list:
The Last Airbender (2010)
For those of you unfamiliar with the critically acclaimed Airbender (currently rocking a 6% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), the story is based on the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar, set in a “fantastical Asian world.” The only problem with the “fantastical Asian world” part of Airbender is that there is no “fantastical Asian world” just “three Caucasian leads” and one Asian villain (Dev Patel). Shyamalan, who is Asian himself, directed, but his background appeared to have no (positive) effect on casting choices. The movie was subject to intense criticism both from the Asian-American community and critics everywhere, including lunatics at the Post. From Jackson Rathbone, a white actor and one of the movie’s main protagonists:
I think it’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan.
Further comment would be gratuitous on all of our parts.
The Lone Ranger (2013)
I’m sad to say that I missed this movie last year, because it looks magically, epically, awful. Johnny Depp, who said that his “grandmother was quite a bit Native American” but who does not, in fact, identify as a Native American, plays the part of Tonto. The movie was widely panned for embracing traditional stereotypes and throwing some new ones into the mix, such as this one:
Native American spirit warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid (Armie Hammer), a man of the law, into a legend of justice — taking the audience on a runaway train of epic surprises and humorous friction.
Now, I’m no historian, but I’d be very curious to learn what a “Native American spirit warrior” is: does he throw healing rocks? Tell fireplace myths? Craft clay bead jewelry? It’s unclear to me how Depp, who wanted “to take some of the ugliness thrown on Native Americans” and “turn it on its head,” allowed Native American spirit warrior to pass by. From Depp, via Entertainment Weekly:
I remember watching it as a kid, with Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore, and going: ‘Why is the f—ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?’“I liked Tonto, even at that tender age, and knew Tonto was getting the unpleasant end of the stick here. That’s stuck with me . . . I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way to . . . Eliminate’ isn’t possible – reinvent the relationship.”
Thanks for the pity, Depp. Next time, try a little less reinventing and a little more ‘never doing this again.’
In the script for Drive, the part of Irene (Carey Mulligan) was originally written for a Latina woman. But Director Nicolas Winding Refn hired Mulligan instead, claiming he couldn’t find “any actress that would click with me personally.” Via HuffPo:
“I couldn’t find any actress that would click with me personally. I couldn’t make a decision for some reason. I had all this talent in front of me and out of the blue I get a call from Carey because she wanted to meet me about doing a movie. She came by the house and she walked in and I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is what I was looking for. I wanted to protect her … And I knew that was the Driver’s motivation.”
Thank God Mulligan had Refn to protect her. What would she do without him? Live a normal life, have a great career, experience joy? What a hero! So glad he intervened.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
I would hate to judge anyone’s character by a single, 140 character tweet they posted over two years ago. Unless, of course, that person is white actor Jim Sturgess, responding to criticisms that he appeared in yellowface in 2012’s Cloud Atlas (via Racebending):
Yellowface? Blackface? Pinkface? Pinkberry? Blackberry? Crackberry? Blueberry? Strawberry? Bananas? Frozen yogurt? All the toppings?. Lovely.
Guys, I’ve been staring at my computer screen for over two hours, and I still have no idea what that means. Blackface is like – crappy ice cream with extra nuts? Someone help me here. And someone please help the directors of Atlas (the Wachowskis), who somehow thought they were above committing yellowface. Sturgess is indeed a white actor who plays an Asian character, both here and in (next page) . . . .
Jim Sturgess joins Kevin Spacey playing white dudes who love cards at MIT. And while no one commits yellowface, per se, the film is based on the book “Bringing Down the House,” about a real-life team of Asian-American students and their Asian-American professor. When asked why 21 didn’t cast more Asians, producer Dana Brunetti said:
“Believe me, I would have loved to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted… If I had known how upset the Asian-American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.”
Why is that Brunetti “didn’t have access” to bankable Asian-American actors? Were they locked in a shed? Someone please call the fire department! There are hundreds of Asian-American actors imprisoned in a basement, and Dana Brunetti doesn’t have access to them! Dana Brunetti, people!
Like The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, and ten thousand unbearable epics before it, Noah joins a long list of Bible-based movies that completely whitewash their origins. All the Bible characters lived in either the Middle East or Africa, so, using a highly sophisticated algorithm, you might imagine that the actors who played them would also originate from these areas. Nope! According to Noah screenwriter Ari Handel:
“From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. . . You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, ‘Let’s make that not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman.’ Looking at this story through that kind of lens is the same as saying, ‘Would the ark float and is it big enough to get all the species in there?’ That’s irrelevant to the questions because the questions are operating on a different plane than that; they’re operating on the mythical plane.”
I don’t know what plane you plebs are on, but Ari Handel? He’s operating on the mythical plane. Beautiful, magical things happen on this plane, like hiding under colorblindness, divorcing yourself from reason, and openly using the phrase “mythical plane.”
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
This was the year when white actress Linda Hunt decided it was totally cool to play a Chinese-American dwarf. And the year Roger Ebert applauded her performance with:
“What great acting is, a magical transformation of one person into another.”
Funny, most of us would call that transformation yellowface. But to be fair, the industry loves metamorphoses, which is why half of this year’s SAG noms went to able-bodied people impersonating people with disabilities.
Short Circuit (1986)
White dude Fisher Stevens plays Indian dude Ben Jabituya in this movie about robotic engineers. Critics at the time panned the movie for its “malapropisms” and rampant use of brownface, but Stevens felt differently:
“Back then, I loved it. I went to India and I studied Hindi. I got into yoga. And this is in 1985. I lived with Indian people. I really immersed myself. I used to be a total Method actor, so I was really deep in the deep end. And I had a great time. And the malapropisms, they worked. I thought they were great.”
Fisher Stevens is a method actor who got into yoga in 1985? Sounds like someone I would never want to be friends with.
From Christian Bale:
“I don’t think fingers should be pointed, but we should all look at ourselves and say, “Are we supporting wonderful actors in films by North African and Middle Eastern filmmakers and actors, because there are some fantastic actors out there . . .If people started following movies the region, then financiers in the market will follow.”
God, if only people in Oklahoma would drive 1000 miles to the nearest metropolis so they can attend a matinee screening of Iranian shorts, everything would change!
Ben Affleck, being Ben Affleck, cast himself as Latino CIA Agent, Tony Mendez. And while the actor was at least conscious of the potential for whitewashing, his heartfelt explanation was nothing but a heartfelt excuse:
“You know, I obviously went to Tony and sought his approval…[it] was the first thing. And Tony does not have, I don’t know what you would say, a Latin/Spanish accent, of any kind really, and… you know you wouldn’t necessarily select him out of a line of ten people and go ‘This guy’s Latino.’ So I didn’t feel as though I was violating some thing, where, here’s this guy who’s clearly ethnic in some way and it’s sort of being whitewashed by Ben Affleck the actor. I felt very comfortable that if Tony was cool with it, I was cool with it.”
Not to speak for Tony, but I imagine it must be pretty hard if a guy like Ben Affleck came up to you, offered to play the part, and you had to turn him down. “You, award-winning actor, want to play me, retired government bureaucrat, in serious award-winning film? Sounds TERRIBLE! Count me out, loser!”