Whitewashing in film
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Whitewashing in film refers to countless examples of Hollywood using their movie-making wizardry to either ensure a white person plays a nonwhite character, or more recently, to magically turn nonwhite characters white for very good, understandable business reasons. It's often used as an example of so-called very liberal Hollywood being not so liberal after all. It has a long history, from the shockingly racist blackface of ages past to much more subtle examples today.
As with most racial issues, it is a topic that gets endlessly debated by race and social justice activists and their detractors.
The Bad Old Days
Performing arts and the film industry have a long history of putting white actors in very stereotypical makeup to avoid having to hire a nonwhite actor. Often it was simply done for comedic effect. While most people don't talk about these things when talking about whitewashing specifically, it can certainly be considered a precursor. Many of the arguments used back then to justify it are still used today. While white actors playing black characters did fade over time due to the backlash in the mid-20th century, many white actors (some of them quite distinguished, such as Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne, Mickey Rooney and Marlon Brando) were tasked with playing east Asian characters ("yellowface"), a practice that didn't end until, well…
Over time, Hollywood became much more progressive, and instead of having white people play nonwhite characters (often in a racist manner), they just removed the nonwhite characters from their movie altogether and pretended they weren't nonwhite. Whether this is better or worse is debatable, but what isn't debatable is that it continues to the present day. This problem persists most notably when movies adapt movies or real-life stories with Latino or east Asian characters (which means that many real people get whitewashed in the process). The harm of this of course is that it deprives minority actors of work as leading actors in major movies, relegating them to smaller roles, as well as disrespecting the real people and original artistic visions these movies are based on.
For the sake of brevity, this list only encompasses examples since the year 2000. Some of these are very well-acclaimed performances, and that the primary criticism of them is not of their acting skill. These also tend to focus on major and supporting roles, rather than more minor characters.
- Brandi Boski (real person), African-American woman in the real events that inspired the movie Stuck (2007), played by Mena Suvari. They literally put a white woman in cornrows and called her black.
- Eben Oleson (fictional), Alaskan Inuit character in a 2002 comic book turned white and played by Josh Hartnett for the movie 30 Days of Night (2007).
- Mariane Pearl (real person), mixed-race wife of Daniel Pearl, a murdered journalist and portrayed by Angelina Jolie for the movie A Mighty Heart (2007).
- Many characters (real people) in the movie 21 (2008). 21 is a movie about a real-life group of MIT and Harvard math students who learn how to count cards in blackjack and set out to strike it rich. Almost everyone involved in this real-life card counting club was East Asian, but of course the two leads and the teacher who guides them are all played by white actors. Two Asian characters are in the movie … but in comic-relief sidekick roles.
- Goku (fictional), beloved character from the Japanese manga Dragonball (1984–1995), was played by young, scrawny white actor Justin Chatwin in the live-action adaptation Dragonball: Evolution (2009). As a side note, this movie is also considered one of the worst ever made.
- Dastan (fictional), Persian protagonist of the popular video game Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) was played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a spray tan in the movie adaptation (2010).
- Many characters (fictional) in the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010). The original cartoon on Nickelodeon (2005–2008) was well regarded and loved, partially for its very multicultural cast, writing, and story. The live-action adaptation is known for turning most of these characters white and being one of the worst movies ever made otherwise.
- Irene (fictional), a Latina character in the novel Drive (2005) turned white for the film adaptation (2011).
- Many characters (fictional) in the 2012 movie adaptation of the 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. While race is not thematically important in the book, the filmmakers thought it would be high art to race-bend every actor in the movie at some point, with a black actress playing white, Asian actress playing a ginger Irish girl (which looks like a caricature as well), etc. In one part of the movie, most of the cast puts on eyeliner to play Korean, really taking the cake.
- Katniss Everdeen (fictional), the protagonist of The Hunger Games series of novels was described as having darker, olive skin. Hollywood read this and immediately thought of Jennifer Lawrence for the series of movie adaptations (2012–2015).
- Tony Mendez (real person), a Hispanic CIA operative who helped free a group of embassy workers during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis, was played by Ben Affleck for the movie Argo (2012). Also whitewashed a real-life Japanese-American who played a minor role.
- Nora (fictional), a mixed-race character in the 2010 novel Warm Bodies who was played by a white actor in the 2013 film adaptation.
- Khan Noonien Singh (fictional), a well-known Indian character from the Star Trek franchise, originally played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán in the Original Series episode "Space Seed" (1967) and film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and now played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).
- Tonto (fictional), prolific Comanche Amerindian character from The Lone Ranger franchise played by none other than Johnny Depp in the 2013 adaptation, which was not good. Unusually, an actual Amerindian actor, Jay Silverheels, portrayed Tonto in the TV series (1949–1957).
- Various Middle Easterners (real people) in more or less every Hollywood movie set in the Middle East. Older movies are famous for being set in ancient Egypt or Palestine (especially for Biblical epics) and casting almost everyone as white. Hollywood has made almost no real progress to this day, with every modern Biblical or Egyptian epic being filled to the brim with white actors, including everyone's favorite The Passion of the Christ.
- The Ancient One (fictional), mentor of Doctor Strange in Marvel comics; typically an Asian man, but played by Tilda Swinton in the 2016 Doctor Strange adaptation. Marvel apparently thought they could get away with it, since they cast a woman in a typically male role. When they found out that they were wrong, they added an actual Asian character, because as long as you have one Asian person, you're fine. Oddly, some have speculated that this one may have been rooted not in Western racism, but Chinese racism. Specifically, the Ancient One in the comics was from a Himalayan civilization that is presented as a fictional version of Tibet, which is a very touchy issue in China. The idea is that they made the character white to get the film past Chinese censors who seek to erase Tibetan culture, downplaying specifically Asian/Buddhist elements of the mythology so they wouldn't get the wrong idea and interpret the film as a pro-Tibet statement.
- Major Motoko Kusanagi (fictional), Japanese protagonist of the Ghost in the Shell franchise of Japanese media (1989–1990) that Hollywood decided to adapt in 2017 after the other anime adaptations went so well. They got off to a great start when they cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead, and apparently considered using computer graphics to make her look more Japanese. Instead they just put her in a black wig and said it's okay because she's a cyborg, which is also their excuse for every other character whose race they changed.
- This is parodied in Tropic Thunder, a 2008 action-comedy satire in which Robert Downey, Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, a white Australian method actor who undergoes an experimental melanin treatment to darken his skin so that he can play a black man in the Vietnam War epic at the center of the film. His fellow cast member Alpa Chino, who actually is black, is having none of it, and frequently mocks Kirk over it. In addition to netting Downey a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (ironically, given his character's motivations) and mocking numerous other facets of contemporary Hollywood, the film is often credited with shining a spotlight on the issue of whitewashing by showing it taken to comical extremes.
Reasons for whitewashing
As with many of these issues, the primary reason for doing this is financial. Major film projects that cast minorities as leads can often have trouble getting the funding they need to be made, as the conventional wisdom is that they don't sell as much. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy over time, as only white actors get chosen for lead roles, so those are the only roles that make money, which means studios keep casting white people in lead roles, even when it contradicts reality or source material. This is similar to the cishet male pandering video game developers (as well as developers for other media) do in terms of female character design, with the popular phrase "sex sells".
However, as time passes, Hollywood really is becoming more and more internationally oriented, with the money to be made outside the US quickly outgrowing the money to be made inside the US, particularly as the Chinese and Indian markets open up more and more to western movies. The business reasons for whitewashing are quickly becoming irrelevant, leaving just the racism.
As with most issues involving representation in media, there are those the defend the practice. Even arch-conservatives tend to enjoy movies for what they are, and pointing out whitewashing means that there still might be some problems with racism in the US, something that many of them are not so ready to admit.
It's not racism, they're just trying to make money!
Many will deflect accusations of racism to say that it's really just about the money. This presupposes that doing something racist is okay so long as you stand to profit off of it in some way, when in fact that probably makes it worse. Keep in mind that no one is saying that everyone involved in these movies are racist dirtbags (though some of them might still be), only that they're making somewhat racist casting decisions not based on money that they will lose, but money that they might lose based on bigoted assumptions.
But other countries do it too!
Another popular argument is bringing up non-western film industries who may "wash" certain characters in their own race. This is true, but all roads lead to fallacy town. Many countries make movies in their native languages, and finding enough decent actors of different races who also know their language fluently is not only difficult, but impossible in many places, especially considering these industries only have a small fraction of the money and resources big Hollywood studios do. Comparing a country like Japan, which is 98% Japanese, to the US, which has no shortage of racial minorities who also enjoy acting, is a textbook false analogy.
And even if we are to accept the argument on its face, two wrongs don't make a right.
But they're just movies!
A popular argument when it comes to most issues regarding representation in media. The argument is self-defeating, as if they're unimportant, then why complain if others complain about them? Films are one of the biggest culture products out there, and few deny the effect media can have on culture. But most of this has less to do with representation and more about paying respect to the real stories and artistic visions these movies are based on.
But black actors are allowed to play traditionally white roles!
If you can't think of a real argument, just cry reverse racism. In any case, this falls flat because non-white actors playing these parts increases minority representation in films based on old source material that doesn't really have any, except maybe for some horrible racist caricatures, while casting a white actor in a typically non-white role does the exact opposite of that.
- 25 Minority Characters That Hollywood Whitewashed by Tanya Ghahremani (Apr 1, 2013) Complex.
- The 10 Worst Examples of Movie Whitewashing From the Last 15 Years by Katharine Trendacosta (Feb 24, 2016 11:00am) Gizmodo.
- Shaw-Williams, Hannah. "Doctor Strange's Erasure Of Tibet Is A Political Statement." ScreenRant, 30 April 2016 (recovered 19 October 2019).
- ‘Ghost In The Shell’ Fans Not Happy About ‘Whitewashed’ American Remake by Jeremy Fuster (April 14, 2016) The Wrap.
- Bauer, Kevin. "Ten Years On, Tropic Thunder’s Still a Brutal Kick in Hollywood’s A—." Rotten Tomatoes, 13 August 2018 (recovered 20 October 2019).