User:Annquin/Whitewashing in film

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Whitewashing in film is a controversial practice in the entertainment media, where a white actor is cast as a non-white character.[1] Although it normally involves white actors, it can also occur when a light-skinned black is cast as a dark-skinned black, or someone from one non-white ethnic group is cast as another. Generally it applies either when a film is made based on real historical events, or when a pre-existing book, tv show, comic, etc, is adapted into a film and a character's ethnicity is already well-known among fans.

It is distinct from concerns that it's wrong for a non-white actor to play a non-white character if that character is a stereotype or otherwise offensive, but casting Salma Hayek as a queer Latinx taco is still a bad idea.[2] But it all relates to issues of race and representations. And to casting, which by sitting at the intersection of movie star fandom and book/comic/tv/game fandom is the most controversial part of the movie industry, even if it's Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire or Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher.[3]

The opposite thing to whitewashing is colour-blind or race-blind casting, where an actor from a traditionally underrepresented ethnic group is cast in a traditionally white role.[4] A general rule of thumb is that you're much less likely to get in trouble casting Don Warrington as King Lear[4] than a posh British woman as a Tibetan monk[5]. But these days, when even casting a black actor as a new alien in a kids' movie provokes allegations of "white genocide" from idiotic white supremacists[6], you're probably better off making a film about robots. Just make sure they're blue or something.


There are several variations; see the list of notable cases below for examples.

  1. Rewriting so a formerly non-white character is white, and casting a white actor. This is fine until somebody finds out. Replacing a black actor with a white one, as happened midway through the Harry Potter movies, is more noticeable.[7]
  2. Casting a white actor as a non-white character but not mentioning ethnicity in the script or making any attempt to make up the actor to look like the correct race, although an ethnic name may be used.[8] Most people will either assume the character is white, or not notice, although some might spot the discrepancy and think it's Brechtian defamiliarization.
  3. Casting a white actor as a non-white character and using make-up to make them look black or Asian. This is really bad even if it's Mickey Rooney, and although it has decreased it's still more common than you'd think (see Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart, or more half-heartedly, putting Mena Suvari in cornrows).[7]
  4. Casting somebody from one non-white-European ethnic group as someone from another unrelated ethnic group. This is slightly different, in that it demonstrates a lack of interest or care in racial matters, more than any attempt to steal jobs from black actors, and it may not be classed as whitewashing.[9][10]

Why it's problematic[edit]

There are a number of distinct but related reasons why the practice is criticised:

  1. It takes work from ethnic minority actors. There is a shortage of work for ethnic minority actors[11][12] (although this varies between ethnic groups, and sometimes a little exoticism is good) and a job that could have gone to an ethnic minority instead goes to a white actor.
  2. Historical inaccuracy. This not only presents a false view of history, which is bad in itself for those who believe in truth, but has a social and political effect by potentially belittling the achievements of non-white people (thus leading to the assumption that black people never achieved anything) and depriving people from ethnic minorities of role models.
  3. Stereotyping. Sometimes, particularly when a white character "blacks up" or "yellows up", the result is a crude and offensive caricature, mocking foreigners or people of different ethnic groups, promoting racial disharmony and discrimination.[13] A portrayal this offensive is more unusual today but it should not be assumed that it never happens (particularly when a popular but lazy comedian like Mike Myers is involved), and ignorance can be just as bad as wilful cruelty.
  4. Actor's lack of experience. A white actor may be less able to play a non-white character, because they may not know what it is like to experience racism. This applies more strongly with contemporary, realistic subjects. On the other hand, it should not be assumed that a black Canadian or African knows any more about what it's like to grow up black in the US South than a white Southerner knows.[14]

Why it might not matter[edit]

On the other hand, a lot of people are not bothered by whitewashing or casting someone from an inaccurate ethnic group, or consider it a necessary evil.

  1. Without a white star, a film may not get made at all, or the budget may be much lower and the film restricted to a few screens or TV rather than getting a wide release.[15][13] Objectively, it doesn't matter if most films are never made, but with true-life dramas there may be a feeling that telling an important true story with a few changes is better than nothing. And some Asian actors, like Bruce Lee, have been very popular in the west.[16]
  2. There's a lack of talented, experienced actors from the relevant ethnic group. This is unlikely to be true with e.g. an African American role in California, but may conceivably be a problem if you need an English-speaking actor to play an Amazonian tribesperson. It might apply if the role requires specific technical skills like horseriding, stuntwork, mime, etc. It may also apply in a school, college, or local theatre production in a predominantly-white region, or if you're shooting in Estonian.
  3. If it's a made up story anyway, why does it matter who plays a fictional character from a book? This may also be relevant where historical liberties are taken with a factual story. On the other hand, in a book, a character's ethnicity may not be obvious, and there may be a tendency to assume everyone is white when it's not specified[17].
  4. Leading from the above, when a white author writes an ethnic minority character, it may not be a very good character. Ethnic fictional characters might be crude stereotypes, so rewriting as white may be less painful than casting a real Tibetan as a horrid stereotype of a Tibetan[5].
  5. Actors portray people who're not like them all the time, and it's only sometimes this is an issue. Nobody would complain if an actor isn't really a brain surgeon or mutant, there's only intermittent concern about posh actors playing working class people, and Canadians or English often play Americans. An Australian actor has even played the King of England, although it was only the fascist one and he didn't get an Oscar[18].
  6. Racial classification isn't a hard and fast thing; visual differences between different groups may be minor, and it may be complex to specify a character or actor's ethnicity. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is according to Wikipedia "Samoan-Canadian-American"[19] while Vin Diesel claims to be "of ambiguous ethnicity", though "definitely a person of colour", and was raised by his white mother and an African-American stepfather[20]. So it's not entirely clear if either could play any pre-existing character if rules were strictly applied, and nor is it clear that you need to exactly match skin tone and hair.
  7. Meta-ness: as with Ali G, some people can't tell if a white actor is pretending to be black, or a white character is pretending to be black.[21]
  8. There's an established practice of black (and other ethnic) actors playing characters who are traditionally white, e.g. Shakespearean north-European monarchs.[4] This is seen as giving black actors the chance to play classic roles and possibly offer different interpretations, and while it has different connotations to a white actor playing a black role (as often happened e.g. with Shakespeare's most notable black character, Othello) it clearly goes against concerns for realism and ethnically-accurate casting.

Notable cases[edit]

  • Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Dr Strange. The character is generally considered as Tibetan in the source comic book (although as with any long-running comic book there's probably some issue where he's Swedish), but Swinton is white British with Celtic red hair and very pale skin. Also female, but Swinton's played men before. In this case, there was the added concern that the character's ethnicity was changed to avoid upsetting China which is sensitive about Tibetan nationalism, but on the other hand the character was viewed as a crude caricature.[5]
  • Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart as Mariane Pearl, who in real life was of mixed Afro-Cuban and Dutch parentage. Jolie appeared to wear dark makeup and have her naturally dark hair made frizzy for the role, although Pearl endorsed Jolie's casting.[13][22]
  • Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone, a real historical person who was black with dark skin; Saldana, who is of mixed black and Latina origins, used dark makeup and a false nose for the role. This is a comparatively rare case where a black actor is seen as not black enough and accused of "blackface".[14] Allegedly, Saldana doesn't know what it's like to be really black in segregation-era America, although that didn't stop race warriors angrily suggest they cast a Briton instead.[23]
  • Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo, playing a Mexican-American intelligence agent. The white Affleck made no attempt to portray the character as Hispanic (insofar as you could tell the difference if Affleck put any effort into a performance). Because it was based on an obscure historical event and took several liberties with the truth, many people may not even have been aware of who Affleck was depicting or the real Mendez's ethnicity.[8]
  • To take one example of how being vaguely non-white can lead to a wide range of ethnic casting, Ben Kingsley, of Indian (Gujarati Khoja Muslim, via east Africa and Yorkshire) and English parentage, played Indian (Gujarati Hindu merchant caste) activist Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi, as well as frequently playing Jewish characters (Bugsy, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Mrs. Harris, and many more), white English (e.g. as Dr Watson), Italian-English (The Love School), Russian (Crime and Punishment, etc), Polish American (You Kill Me), ancient Egyptian (A Night at the Museum: Secrets of the Tomb), Latin American (Death and the Maiden), and more.[24]

Related issues[edit]

A number of similar practices have also attracted criticism. These include casting a non-transgender actor in a transgender role, for instance Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl.[25] There are also sometimes complaints about non-disabled actors in disabled roles.[26] This is particularly complicated if somebody becomes transgender or disabled in the course of a film, though at least that issue does not apply with casting in an ethnic group, hurray.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Whitewashing in film.
  2. We Messed Up, Autostraddle, August 16, 2016
  3. How 11 Big Casting Controversies Turned Out, Den of Geek, May 1, 2015
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Colour-blind casting: how far have we really come?, Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, 13 Jan 2016
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Marvel Responds to ‘Doctor Strange’ ‘Whitewashing’ Criticisms Over Tilda Swinton Casting, Variety, 2016
  6. 'Star Wars is ANTI-WHITE' Twitter storm as fans boycott Star Wars over 'white genocide', Daily Express, 2015
  7. 7.0 7.1 100 times a white actor played someone who wasn’t white, Washington Post, January 28, 2016
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ben Affleck's Argo and the whitewashing of the Mexican-American, Al Dia News, 2012
  9. Interchangeably Brown: House of Cards Casts a Non-Latina to Play Linda Vásquez, As Others, 2014
  10. The Daughter of Q, American Jewish Life, 2007
  11. Hollywood’s ‘Race Problem’ Is Worse Than You Think, Huffington Post, 10/02/2013
  12. Lack of black actors in British film, says study, ITV, 6 Oct 2016
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Whitewashing Was One Of Hollywood’s Worst Habits. So Why Is It Still Happening?, Huffington Post, 7/10/2014
  14. 14.0 14.1 Nina Simone Biopic Criticized Over Casting And Skin Color, NPR, March 25, 2016
  15. Hollywood’s Asian Whitewashing: Why It Happens So Often, And Why It Must Be Stopped, Corey Gilmore, Indiewire, April 2016
  16. Doctor Strange’s whitewashing is part of a much bigger legacy of Hollywood’s racism,, 6 May 2016
  17. JK Rowling tells of anger at attacks on casting of black Hermione, The Guardian, 5 Jun 2016
  18. See the Wikipedia article on The King's Speech.
  19. See the Wikipedia article on Dwayne Johnson.
  20. See the Wikipedia article on Vin Diesel.
  21. Is it cos I is black?, Gary Younge, The Guardian, 12 Jan 2000
  22. Is Hollywood Whitewashing Ethnic Roles?, ABC News, 2008
  23. 7 Actresses We Would Have Cast As Nina Simone Instead of Zoe Saldana, Vulture, 2016
  24. See the Wikipedia article on Ben Kingsley.
  25. The Danish Girl director further explains lack of trans actor in lead role, Pink News, 6 Sep 2015
  26. Able-Bodied Actors and Disability Drag, Scott Jordan Harris,, Mar 7, 2014