“Hollywood is crazy. The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise? He’s the last samurai? Give me a break. That movie was offensive. I mean, Hollywood is crazy. First they had The Mexican with Brad Pitt and now they have The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. Well I’ve written a film, maybe they’ll produce my film: The Last Nigga on Earth starring Tom Hanks.” — Comedian Paul Mooney discussing movies on Chappelle’s Show
When it comes to casting, Hollywood has a problem. It’s a very old problem and much progress has been made over the years, but the matter is anything but solved. The practice of using white actors over and over again in non-white roles is an insult to audiences around the world.
The recent release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) starring Jake Gyllenhaal is but the latest frustrating example of so-called “whitewashing”, where a role clearly intended for a person of color is given to a white man. In this particular case, both the lead male and female roles have been taken by white actors despite Prince of Persia taking place in, you guessed it, Persia.
This is hardly an isolated incident. Excuses for whitewashing often include a need for star power to bolster the film’s box office performance or a desire to offer the audience a “familiar” face to identify with, but the truth is simply this: Hollywood is lazy.
“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” — Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry (1997)
We all tend to resist change and do things the way we’ve always done them in the past. As an industry, Hollywood is used to telling stories written by white men; be it summer blockbuster or art house indie picture. Most feature films are also directed by white men. I say this not to cry “conspiracy” but simply to point out the fact that whatever the demographics of the nation itself, the U.S. film business is very much a white majority.
Given these circumstances, any producer or director making a film is going to end up with a lot of white actors auditioning for every role. It takes effort to actually present a diverse cast of characters on screen, to say nothing of a all-ethnic cast to reflect a film’s foreign setting. Instead, the easy way out is to just hire whoever is available.
As I said, things are better now than they ever were before. Thirty years ago, Memoirs of a Geisha would have starred Faye Dunaway and Ali McGraw instead of Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li. Even twenty years ago, it’s hard to imagine Will Smith starring in expensive science-fiction films like I, Robot (2004), I Am Legend (2007) and Hancock (2008).
Ultimately, the goal isn’t merely to ensure that appropriately ethnic actors are cast in specifically ethnic roles. Rather, whitewashing will only truly be forgotten when non-ethnic roles are no longer dominated by white actors. One way to achieve that is to aggressively cast people of color in roles traditionally played by whites.
A perfect example is Spider-Man. In a recent post on io9, Marc Bernadin argues that the forthcoming reboot of the Spider-Man series should not star another white actor in Tobey McGuire’s place. As he puts it, “In no way is Peter Parker defined by his whiteness” and he rightly points out that “[he] will be in a mask for half the damned movie.” In the wake of this post, a campaign has begun to nominate comedian Donald Glover for the role, complete with a Facebook group and a Twitter hashtag (#donald4spiderman). I personally think his Community co-star Danny Pudi would be a better fit, if only because he already does a hell of a Batman impression.
In anticipation of retorts concerning Spider-Man’s race in the comic books, I should point out that many famous characters have undergone changes in their physical appearance. Bruce Wayne and James Bond have been played by blond actors, Wolverine went from a diminutive man on the page to 6’2” in film, and Shakespeare’s plays have been modified and rewritten to suit almost every ethnicity and time period imaginable.
Hollywood’s whitewashing legacy is an embarrassment that must be put behind us. It’s not enough to simply abandon the practice, it must be forcibly excised from future films through truly colorblind casting. Ideally, we’ll reach an equilibrium where it won’t matter that Jake Gyllenhaal is the Prince of Persia because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is Superman and Ken Watanabe is Professor X.