Word is out that Netflix’s Marvel universe has finally dropped the ball with Iron Fist, a lacklustre attempt to raise a middling character from obscurity. Likewise, if our word is anything to go by – and, trust us, it is – then Ghost in the Shell is (perhaps inevitably) lightweight and forgettable. More important than the critical reception of these two properties, however – and there may be space to read the indifference towards them as more than just coincidence, but as a “last straw” from critics fed up with cultural appropriation and a failure of representation that continues to occur in mainstream media – is the controversy that continues to orbit key casting decisions made in each.
For the purpose of this discussion, we can define whitewashing as the matter of casting white actors in non-white roles; a controversy for the fact that it fails to admit non-white actors into Hollywood’s fortress of whiteness, and the fact that it emboldens white people as “authorities” in the telling of non-white narratives. Discussing the matter of whiteness, Richard Dyer writes that “other people are raced, [white people] are just people.” His criticism seeks to address whiteness’ cultural ubiquity and invisibility; whiteness, according to Dyer, does not draw attention to itself as it is the standard against which other ethnicities are measured and represented.
Is Hollywood to blame for all this? Of course not; but it does hold a mirror to a world that privileges some and fails to acknowledge others. Is it ScarJo’s fault that she was cast in the lead as Major Motoko Kusanagi? Of course it isn’t. But should the industry as a whole be held accountable for the innumerable times it has failed to properly acknowledge the diverse cultural leanings of its properties? Should it stand trial for privileging white stories and white stars? Should it answer for its plain-faced refusal to challenge the status quo? Should it be held responsible for perpetuating the reign of whiteness across popular media that should be responsible for governing ideas about the human experience but nevertheless excludes the narratives of so many? Absolutely. If not now, then when?
If you’re tempted to roll your eyes at the suggestion that whitewashing or white privilege exists, or are going to whinge about political correctness gone mad, or prattle on about film diversity as shameless pandering, then save your breath and don’t. Instead, you should go and see Get Out, a genuinely insightful satire that draws attention to these problems with eerie accuracy. In fact, if you fall into any of those camps listed above, I’m going to go on the record and say this: you’re wrong. End of. It’s the 21st Century and if you’re reading this you are clearly making some smart decisions; no Brexit debacle or Trump pantomime taking place beyond these walls has the authority to legitimise narrow-mindedness. So there, case settled.
And if you need evidence, here you are: a (brief) history of whitewashing in film:
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
D.W. Griffith’s technical masterpiece is simultaneously an ideological shit-sandwich. Come for the film history, leave for all manners of bullshit contained therein. President Woodrow Wilson’s remark that Griffith’s film is “writing history with lightning” is partly fair for acknowledging in some latent way that the film is “writing”, not reflecting, history, albeit with a particularly mendacious, reductive, and destructive agenda that was responsible for inciting a second-wave resurgence in the KKK. So, yeah, thanks for that Griffith. You dick.
It’s worth noting that last year Nate Taylor and co. unsuccessfully attempted to chip away at the imposing legacy of Griffith’s film by reclaiming the title in order to tell a story of emancipation rather than oppression. Sadly, after the mixed reviews that followed, it’ll still be Griffith’s film that’s remembered next century. Well, at least, blackface would soon be a thing of the past. Oh, wait… (That’s right, I’m coming for you Short Circuit.)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Was there ever a better buckler of swashes than Douglas Fairbanks? Perhaps not. So who better to play the titular thief of, um, Bagdad… ? It’s perhaps here, in the midst of the glitz and glamour of 1920s Hollywood, that that catch-all excuse that Western performers are more bankable than other actors first emerged. True as that may be, such is the case for the fact that white actors were, and continue to be, afforded opportunities denied to everyone else. A Denver tan was deemed more than enough to make Fairbanks passably Arabian. Also see Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and its sequel.
Charlie Chan Carries On and sequels (1931-)
In the distastefully murky midst of “yellow peril” came a dichotomous imagining of the East that was configured in two opposing Western versions of Chineseness. On the one hand there was Dr. Fu Manchu, criminal extraordinaire, who was illustrative of the “dangers” posed by the “mysterious” East (not to mention the template for Flash Gordon’s nemesis Ming the Merciless). On the other hand, there was detective Charlie Chan, a benevolent, quick-witted hero of a franchise of films.
Both characters, incidentally, were played at one time by Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor. Much like the “red peril” that followed, “yellow peril” fashioned a discursive fear of the East that emerged in the late 19th century; while Charlie Chan was no doubt a revisionist portrayal of Chineseness, he nevertheless remained an occidental creation (over to you, Edward Said).
Anna and the King of Siam/The King and I (1946/1956)
Why get it wrong once when you can get it wrong twice? After casting Rex Harrison (of My Fair Lady fame) as the king in question for the film adaptation of Margaret Landon’s kinda-biographical novel of the same name, Hollywood went and whitewashed it all over again just 10 years later by casting Russian-born, and pointedly not Siamese, actor Yul Brynner in the title role. The film was a critical and commercial success and bagged Brynner an Oscar. The man was on a roll that year, having been painted Egyptian in order to play Ramesses II for Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical blockbuster The Ten Commandments.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
… : Or How I Learned to Stop Denying and Acknowledge Whitewashing. Mickey Rooney’s Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi is an infamously offensive caricature, not to mention a crystalline example of both the American film industry’s tendency to cast white actors in non-white roles and of the destructive influence that those representations can have. While no doubt intended as a “comic” performance, Rooney’s ill-conceived depiction of a Japanese man has rightly been selected as a translucent case-study of a terrible thing that should never be done again… (Still coming for you, Short Circuit.) And, after that, having learned nothing, director Blake Edwards did it again by casting Peter Sellers as Indian character Hrundi Bakshi in The Party.
The ’60s and ’70s
I don’t mean to imply that for 20 years whitewashing on film was a thing of the past, but it certainly did improve for a while. 1962 saw both Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia and the release of To Kill a Mockingbird, a film that cannot be separated from the context of the Civil Rights movement that was finally gaining momentum by the early 1960s.
Furthermore, important films like Lilies of the Field and the masterpiece Nothing But a Man were finally bringing blackness to American film, with the former being responsible for Sidney Poitier’s emergence as a major star of the 1960s and the latter an essential film text of the Civil Rights movement. The New Wave instilled an injection of liberal-mindedness in American cinema which coincided with the rise of Blaxploitation, a problematic but important genre that paved the way for wider representation in the following decades.
Short Circuit (1986)
Riding the crest of the wave that was the newfound tolerance, film had clearly emerged from the 1970s with a fresh perspective. Oh, wait, hang on. Step up, Short Circuit. Having been brought to attention by Aziz Ansari’s thoughtful and quite brilliant Netflix show Master of None, the truth that Indian scientist Ben Jabituya was in fact played by white Chicagoan Fisher Stevens with Mickey Rooney levels of racist buffoonery was enough to put several jaws on the floor. That’s right, in 1986 (and in the 1988 sequel), the man on the left played the character on the right. Despite Ansari displaying admirable understanding on the issue, it doesn’t stop Fisher Stevens’ performance being very much not OK.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Without intending to be inflammatory, Jesus Christ was not a white guy. While Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel remains a thoughtful commentary on the complex nature of suffering and sacrifice, it doesn’t change the fact that the casting of Willem Defoe in the title role is evidence of an American attempt to whitewash not just film, but Christianity itself. Similar examples include Jim Caviezel’s portrayal in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Russell Crowe’s casting as Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 biblical epic, and pretty much all casting decisions made for Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Because blackface isn’t a fucking joke. Trust me, I get satire, but we don’t live in a post-racial utopia and for as long as non-white actors continue to be denied work, we have no right to laugh at this.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
So has anything changed in the almost-century since Fairbanks and Valentino got away with playing Arabian characters? No, it seems. In fact, Disney placed white actors in pretty much every major role for their forgettable adaptation of Ubisoft’s popular game franchise Prince of Persia, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton in the leads. While it’s only fair to acknowledge Disney’s more recent attempts to be more diverse (Zootropolis and Moana are clear steps in the right direction), they did do this again in 2013 with their decision to cast Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger’s Comanche associate Toto in their catastrophic reboot.
The Great Wall (2016)
One thing must be made clear about The Great Wall: the fact that the decision to cast a white actor (Matt Damon) in the lead role was made by the Chinese production company does not stop this from being an example of whitewashing. Firstly, the debates surrounding the problem of the white saviour narrative are, in respect to this film, inconsequential. The greater issue is the implication that for any international film to be considered globally viable, a white star must be present. There is no greater indication of the discursive capital afforded to white stardom than when a major film industry (here Chinese) acknowledges and embraces the amplified value of whiteness as currency in a bid for the global film market. (Incidentally, a similar problem arises in regards to anime, and adaptations of it, when whitewashing sceptics claim that the characters are Western-looking in origin. This stands as evidence that there is a common belief operating across media platforms that whiteness sells better. That fallacious belief does not provide an excuse for perpetuating the problem.)
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Should ScarJo be blamed for her casting in Ghost in the Shell? No. But the question remains that if non-white actors are not being offered non-white roles then when can they ever hope for a post-racial industry in which roles are not white-by-default unless otherwise stated? The same can be said of the 2008 adaptation of Speed Racer, the confusingly-titled Edge of Tomorrow/Live. Die. Repeat (an adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill), and Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. ScarJo’s performance as Major Motoko Kusanagi is, by all accounts, fine – even if the film is about as soulful as an empty stapler – but that doesn’t change the fact that that role should never have been hers to begin with. (That said, one recent article has eloquently expressed that this is perhaps a more complex issue than a mere matter of white/non-white casting). Personally, I’d have gone with Rinko Kikuchi.
So there it is, our (kinda) brief history of whitewashing in film. Are there any that you passionately disagree with? Are there any examples that you feel we have missed out? Please do let us know.