Hollywood’s problem with whitewashing has been going on for several decades and continues to persist into the modern era. What is whitewashing? According to Lester Andrist, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, the term refers to “the tendency of media to be dominated by white characters, played by white actors, navigating their way through a story that will likely resonate most deeply with white audiences, based on their experiences and worldviews.”
The perpetuation of whitewashing in Hollywood not only severely curtails opportunities for people of colour in the industry, but also hinders the possibility of people of colour seeing themselves represented on film.
Here are some of the many cases of whitewashing in the entertainment industry.
The 2017 Netflix series “Death Note” was considered a whitewashing disaster.
Originally, “Death Note” was a manga turn anime series that Netflix decided to make into a live action adaptation. But instead of casting a Japanese actor to play the Japanese main character, the streaming service cast Nat Wolff, a non-Japanese actor, in the role. In fact, the Netflix adaptation included a majority white cast – and was almost immediately called out for it.
Tilda Swinton’s character in Marvel’s 2016 version of “Doctor Strange” is not white.
In the comic books,Ancient One is an elderly Asian man, so how did Tilda Swinton, a non-Asian, non-male-identified actor land the role in Marvel’s live-action film? In a statement to Mashable, the studio defended Swinton’s casting by saying “‘Ancient One’ is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character” –similar to James Bond. Nevertheless, Swinton and the movie itself were called out for whitewashing and continue to defend their casting decisions.
The ’60s musical “West Side Story” is a classic example of whitewashing.
In the 1961 film “West Side Story,” the character Maria, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was played by Russian-American actress Natalie Wood. Another character of Puerto Rican descent, Bernardo, was played by Greek-American actor George Chakiris. To make things even worse, Rita Moreno, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was forced to wear brownface.
Although it’s too late to change the original film, upcoming “West Side Story” revivals will reportedly be cast with actors of appropriate ethnicities.
The 2010 film “Prince of Persia” whitewashed its main cast.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who is not Persian, played a Persian prince in this 2010 film. But, Gyllenhaal’s character wasn’t the only one whitewashed in the film: White actress Gemma Arterton was cast alongside Gyllenhaal as Persian Princess Tamina. These casting decisions were criticised by audiences and fans of the story.
The only person of colour cast in 2010’s “The Last Airbender” played the villain.
M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” was a live-action film based on the anime show “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Although the TV series was not based on a particular culture, it was heavily influenced by East Asian culture and inspired by Japanese anime.
Shyamalan’s movie cast white actors as Asian and Native American characters. In fact, the only Asian in a main role in the film is Dev Patel, who was cast as the villain, a choice that many have called racist.
Shyamalan has defended his casting decisions, but claims of “yellowface” and whitewashing continue to follow the film to this day. Revivals of this popular show have promised not to follow in Shyamalan’s footsteps.
The 2007 film “A Mighty Heart” featured Angelina Jolie sporting darkened skin and a “corkscrew” wig.
Angelina Jolie played Mariane Pearl, who is of Afro-Cuban and Dutch descent. In the film, Jolie is seen with significantly darker skin than she normally has and a “corkscrew wig,” which many called cultural appropriation.
But, the woman Jolie was portraying, Mariane Pearl says race was a non-issue for her when casting Jolie for her role. The director also defended this decision, despite public outcry.
The 2008 film “21” is based on a real story — but was recast with actors that looked nothing like their real life counterparts.
The 2008 film “21” was based on a true story about MIT students who gamed Las Vegas casinos for cash and prizes. The real-life “team” of students were primarily Asian American, but in the Hollywood adaption of their true story, the actors were cast as all white. The film was called out for its whitewashing both by the general public and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.
Many viewers felt Johnny Depp shouldn’t have played his character in 2013’s “The Lone Ranger.”
In the film “The Lone Ranger,” Johnny Depp plays Native American warrior Tonto. Like other popular Western films, the movie casts a white actor in a role meant for a person of colour.Casting Depp was controversial, even though the actor claimed to possibly have Cherokee blood.Native Americans called BS on this excuse, saying that fact could be easily verified by Disney Studios.
Ben Affleck isn’t Latinx, but that didn’t stop him from playing a Latinx character in 2012’s “Argo.”
Tony Mendez is a real-life Mexican-American patriot, but in the film “Argo,” his character is portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is not of Latinx descent. The film was called out for whitewashing a Latinx-American hero, but Tony Mendez said in an interview with NBC Latino that he doesn’t consider himself “Hispanic,” and defended Affleck’s casting.
The 2015 film “Aloha,” starring Emma Stone, was called out for whitewashing Hawaiian and Chinese people.
Starring Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, and a host of other famous actors, “Aloha” came under fire for whitewashing pretty much the entire movie.
Although specifically called out for casting Stone as a person of Chinese and Hawaiian descent, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans noted that the film consists of mostly white actors, even though the state of Hawaii is over 70% non-white. Both Stone and “Aloha” director Cameron Crowe have since addressed the controversy.
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