Why Hollywood’s Lazy Whitewashing Must End

“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.

Daniel Feit is an American living in Japan, and a freelance contributor to Wired Game|Life and Bitmob. Follow him on Twitter @feitclub or visit his blog, feitclub.com.



  • Theman

    samual jackson as nick fury????

    Clearly you don’t read comics…

    Kung Fu with a Chinese actor? Stunt casting!!!

  • To be perfectly honest, it was irritating that Chinese actresses were playing Japanese characters, particularly ones that were so representative of Japanese culture. I was more frustrated by the lack of Japanese language in the film though, because everyone ends up speaking in a jumble of accents. However, if Robert Downey Jr. can play Sherlock Holmes (which I enjoyed very much) and Russell Crowe can play Jeffrey Wigand, I can’t gripe about Chinese as Japanese. The Chinese were plenty peeved though.

    If you want another example of whitewashing, how about 21 (2008)? Based on a true story of MIT students who counted cards at casinos, the film changed most of the team to whites and left two background characters as Asian. And I mean background, because at the end of the film the white characters literally walk in front of the two Asian actors and leave them behind. Others have mentioned the upcoming film The Last Airbender which has a predominately white cast despite the original series’ Asian themes.

  • “…the truth is simply this: Hollywood is lazy.”

    Nope, the truth is Hollywood believes the majority of people who spend money on films, who are white are racist.

    They don’t believe white audiences will spend their money to see people of color in starring roles.

    But *they will* pay to see white actors play primary roles in films supposedly about people of color.

    And, sadly audience have not proven the assertion wrong.

    I’m betting that when it comes down to it, white audiences will still spend money to see Airbender, regardless of the fact that every primary hero in the film is basically doing yellow/redface, without the make-up.

  • 50. “wah wah whitewashing, complain complain complain”.

    @Kasper,

    …And I’m sure you would have been perfectly fine with an all-Asian Lord of the Rings, except for the white background extras and villian, who would of course, be white, and a callsheet asking for “Asian or other ethnicities”.

    You wouldn’t “whine” at all about that would you? ;)

    And hey, that’s just drop a in the bucket compared to actors of color’s (lacking) history in Hollywood.

  • djangoscud

    Samurai is also the plural of the warrior. Last Samurai means they were the last ones. BTW fuck Paul Mooney

  • Sofia

    This is so true. It is really disgusting now, watching them looking all orange and fake. Prince of persia was a nice movie but it failed because of the actors involved. I mean come on, people need to stop supporting movies like that.

  • “I think everyone is a racist. I also think they should reboot “Kung Fu” with a Chinese lead actor.”

    Blasphemy!

    “I know it’s based on a comic book and as such shouldn’t be taken too seriously but the comic is based on the Nordic Gods and their stories and these motherfuckers were the whitest of the white.”

    Most if not all of the Norse Gods are of mixed race.

  • Mike Shields

    I do believe Hollywood is lazy as well as narrow minded. Example, Nacho Libre with Jack Black as a Mexican priest/pro wrestler? His performance was so stereotypical and offensive, it was embarassing. What? George Lopez or other Hispanic actor available?
    The studio big wigs also are narrow minded. It’s nice to see Hollywood recognizes the audience for African American, Hispanic, or Asian themed films. Unfortunately, they cast the same three or four actors.

  • April

    50. “wah wah whitewashing, complain complain complain”.

    @Kasper,

    …And I’m sure you would have been perfectly fine with an all-Asian Lord of the Rings, except for the white background extras and villian, who would of course, be white, and a callsheet asking for “Asian or other ethnicities”.

    You wouldn’t “whine” at all about that would you?

    And hey, that’s just drop a in the bucket compared to actors of color’s (lacking) history in Hollywood.

    That’s the thing though. That’d never would happen with Hollywood.

    Asian guys are harshly descriminated against in movies. Example name ONE movie where an handsome asian(not evil/bad guy) gets the girl.
    I don’t mind casting people of different races in roles originally not written for them.If they can do it justice.

    However the majority of the time this is not true. Especially with movies from this year. (karate kid being the exception it was decent)Last Airbender through and through was plan terrible.

    As for Memoirs of a Geisha. That was an insault to Japanese culture completely.
    1. woman did NOT sell their virginity to become a full geisha, 2. They made it seem like they were high end prostitutes, 3. Last but not least the representation showed a severe lack of knowledge about the culture. Especially the dancing.

    P.S Don’t use lame excuses like what about how Asia doesn’t cast white actors. Or Bollywood not casting other races. (what’s the percent of other races especially whites in those countries, less then .0001 percent is most likely)
    THIS is America. We are known for being a melting pot of races. Our entertainment industry should reflect that.

  • I agree but it’s silly to try and force someone of another race into a role that was originally white. Like Peter Parker…. he’s white. Live with it. We don’t want Affirmative Action Action Cut. On the other hand, I think you have a point when I look at “Machete”. Why couldn’t they have at least gotten a good looking dude to play the lead in that movie? He’s a Latino action hero, why can’t be nice to look at? Danny Trejo is a great supporting actor but I don’t know if I want to look at him for 2 hours. They should have action heroes of every race and maybe it’s up to indie filmmakers to just go out and make these movies rather than waiting for Hollywood to do something about it.

  • Bozzutoman

    I’m soooooo tired of hearing that lame argument…Ken Watanabe and his crew were the Last Samurai; Tom Cruise’s character was a US Soldier… hired to destroy the last samurai.

    Hollywood does often miscast ethnic/cultural roles… because they tend to choose actors based on star-power or acting talent rather than limiting themselves to the necessarily “correct” race or nationality.

    If your going to try and enforce strict accuracy, then most movies/shows wouldn’t get a greelight.

    I doubt HBO would’ve produced Rome if they were limited to every actor being a Latin-speaking Italian.

    Movies are approximations.

    Yes, it’s better when accuracy is observed, especially in historical-based stories, but the expectations implied by this article are absurd.

    And focusing specifically on “whitey” is simply irresponsible considering such misscasting goes in *multiple* directions.

    Chinese actors play Japanese, Koreans play Vietnamese, Indians play Arabs, and countless different half-bloods play full-bloods. Similarily, other culutres play Americans, and Americans play other cultures, etc. and so on…

    If I’m watching Malcom X, I expect the primary cast to be black. If I’m watching Saving Private Ryan, I expect the primary cast to be white, but to bitch about Jake Gyllenhaal playing a Persian is simply ridiculous compared to something like Will Smith playing James West… in 1870s America.

    There’s quite a few other white characters that have been replaced with blacks… which completely undermines the “outrage” expressed in the article: Kojak, The Nutty Professor, Dr. Dolittle, Nick Fury, Kingpin… even Thusla Doom, who’s face in the Kull books was described as skeletal (white). [Even if you take the character to be derivative of Thoth-Amon… he’d be Egyptian rather than sub-Sahara African.]

    So while Hollywood makes goofs in casting… it’s not specifically a “white thing”.

  • Bozzutoman

    @59:April “Example name ONE movie where an handsome asian(not evil/bad guy) gets the girl.”

    Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon.

    Brandon Lee in Rapid Fire.

    Marc Dacascos (Polynesian & Chinese heritage) in several movies.

  • April

    I said handsome Asian Guy. Jackie Chan is not handsome, plus he’s only kissed or a relationship has been alluded to at best. Also the later two though they do have Asian heritage do not look Asian. Like Keanu Reeves. He’s half Asian, but does not look asian.

    Not trying to be nit picky, but the perception of looks based on race does matter. I have yet to see an actual handsome Asian looking man in Hollywood get (aka sleep with) a woman. Kissing is the farthest I’ve seen it go.

    It’d pretty much be like a middle eastern man always being portrayed as a bad guy instead of a hero. An actor may have the heritage, but it doesn’t mean it shows in their looks. People want to see racist portrayed fairly and not in stereotypical roles. People are smarter than to simply accept it now a days.

  • John

    Just thought I’d post this since I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned it yet.

    The Last Samurai can be interpreted two ways:
    1) It refers to the entire group of Samurai, (Probably excluding Cruise) as the word Samurai is already plural.

    2) The title refers to Katsumoto, (Ken Watanabe,) the leader of the Samurai. Ultimately this IS a story about him and how he managed to change the mind of an emperor, and Cruise’s character is merely our narrator.

    Your point about hollywood not casting well is still pretty valid however.

  • yeah…i dont know what ur talkin bout.

  • K0

    Just wanted to mention the fact that they changed The Kingpen from a big white guy to a big black guy in the spiderman movies, and Daredevil if I remember right but that movie sucked so I could be wrong. And now Nick Fury is black?

  • PGH

    Donald Glover would make a damn good Peter Parker and that’s all I really care about.

    If you insist that Peter Parker must be played by a white man no matter what maybe you need to take a look at your own self.

    As it is we got a lanky brit who looks straight out of Twilight.

    Donald Glover would have been much better. But the new guy is white, so there you go.

  • Jsin

    Donald Glover would not make a damn good Peter Parker. He’s a tv actor. On a show that is not nearly as good as some people think it is. If he was decent, he’d have made some movies by now.

    And Jet Li in Romeo Must Die gets Aaliyah.

    The hard fact about all of this that no one wants to say but everyone wants to tapdance around is that this is a culture issue.

    Blacks segregate themselves from whites, and whites segregate themselves from blacks. Black people watch BET and CW. Whites watch Grey’s Anatomy, Friends and Seinfeld reruns, and Fox News. Blacks watch Tyler Perry and movies starring rappers. Whites watch Harry Potter and the Twilight series.

    Putting Glover in Spiderman and making it realistic in today’s America would mean either having a Tyler Perry style movie with all black actors, having some cheesy token jokes like in Not Another Teen Movie (only sincere) in a mostly white school, or an unrealistic movie where there is no reference to race whatsoever.

    You are not racist for not going to black bars. Film Junk is not racist for not reviewing Tyler Perry movies. But Hollywood is racist for not putting a crappy black actor in Spiderman. Go figure.

  • “White audiences won’t see a black lead??” The last time I checked the biggest box office star of the last 15 years has been a black man, Will Smith. Who I would love to see play Bishop in an X-Men movie. Nor would I mind if he was cast as Daredevil. He can’t be any worse than Ben Affleck.

  • Cronkite Moonshot

    While I agree wholeheartedly about things such as the Prince of Persia debacle, I think the idea of casting a non-white actor in a role like Peter Parker/Spider-man is just as ridiculous. The comparison to things like actors of different hair color playing Bruce Wayne is VERY week. Peter Parker has been white in every incarnation since his creation, and as far as I’m concerned the only reason for casting a non-white actor as Spider-man would be simply for the sake of casting a non-white actor as Spider-man. And I don’t think all of the outrage over things like the Thor situation is based in racism (though some of it no-doubt is because the USA is still a pathetically racist nation in many ways). What if they had cast a white actor as Blade, or Rhodes/War Machine? There would have been just as much outrage from comics fans/nerds angry over a pointless change to a well established character, and it would have just been multiplied by the people complaining that a strong black character was being changed into a white character. But to me a black Spider-man would be just as pointless as a white Blade or War Machine.

    They problem isn’t that they aren’t arbitrarily changing enough existing white characters into some other ethnicity. The problem is that there aren’t enough good original roles being created for minorities (on top of the fact that they ARE still casting white actors to play non-white characters (Prince of Persia) or taking the focus off of a foreign culture or peoples and making a Caucasian the main focus (The Last Samurai). How about creating some good original roles rather than pointlessly changing existing characters into something they aren’t?

  • Dan

    So… in order to stop white guys getting all the “people of colour” roles (we’re ALL coloured dumbass, pink or brown) you propose positive discrimination?

    That’ll go really, really well.

    Idiot.

  • White people making themselves look superior and god like it’s not new. White people fooling and truth bending to favor them is the American way be it by films or texts books of what is percieved as “American history”. In the opinion of white Americans they are inferior to anybody who does not have European ancestry. They are never to blame in fact they are always victims of opperssion from the minorities be it African American, Mexican , Asian, Arab. To prove this all you have to do is read the response from closet bigots like Ben who I can guess is a Tea Party member or a Sarah Palin fan. Ben is the type of guy that says it was the Jewish people fault for letting the holocaust happen not Hitler or the nazi fault while he is taking off his white pointed hood and the glare of burning cross fire hits his pale face and his swaska.

  • Yeah Dan we are all have colour that is why we are alll treated equal. So your family were slaves? Did they steal your land then kill you and your children rape your women. Did they come to your country for “WMD’s” not oil? Yeah Dan youpink guys have it tougher then anybody else it’s hard to get rich off of free labor and stealing. It’s a hard knock life for pinks. Like that I’m going to call you guys pink instead of white crackers. Pinks makes sense since your all pussies anyways.

  • Yeah Jsin it was blacks who segregated themselves not pinks. It was the the blacks who but up blacks only signs. Man it’s the 21 century and you pinks still have plantatio mentality like it’s mississippi circa 1890. Atleast back then pinks admitted there bigotry not defend it

  • RideThisHandsomeBlackCowboy

    And you wonder why we life-size Brett dolls-i.e.,boyishly hand-
    some older guys (in my case,57,said to resemble a handsome black cowboy)can’t get any REAL WORK in Hollywood?It’s because we don’t fit into their black side-kick of white stud/pathetic crim-
    inal/mental defective/pedophile/thug/pimp mold for black actors!!

  • OMG WTF

    I think its a double standard. if a white role is given to a non-white there is an uproar but when a role is given to a white person that is meant for another race it’s ok because it’s been happening for so fucking long.
    Yeah people complain about token this and that because we are not dumb. we shouldn’t have to feel like someone did us a favor by casting a non-white. There should be more roles created for everyone and not stereotypical roles like black= thug/angry Hispanic=thug/hoe Asian=fighter
    Indian=arranged marriage/ white guy be with me so no arranged marriage Native American= land stolen from them/thanksgiving
    So I guess if you are non-white you don’t exist nor do you have the capability to portray emotions and say lines because that’s all you do as an actor

  • Zzz

    Honestly this article could have used a lot better examples of whitewashing in Hollywood. What about Hollywood’s intention to cast whites as Tetsuo and Kaneda in the Akira movie? Or how they were going to cast a white guy to play the Chinese-American main character in The Weapon?

    And honestly, I think giving established white characters like Spider-man to POC’s, isn’t really the way to go about it. Instead, Hollywood needs to stop giving PoC roles to whites. And, movies with non-white characters as the lead role should be put out there. Instead of a black Spider-man, there should be a Luke Cage or Black Panther movie. There should be a Heroes for Hire movie featuring Misty Knight. Akira and Tetsuo should be Asian. Etcetera.

    The idea of “just being colorblind” is a nice one but it will never happen, at least not any time this century. So instead of being “colorblind” Hollywood should be conscientious to provide diversity in its films.

  • truth

    What about diversity within FEMALE reprentation? The fact is that male minorities get FAR more screen time than their female counter-parts. If minority women got as much recognition as there male counterparts, there wouldn’t be a shortage of minorities in the media.

    So why is it that when white women are overwhelmingly over-represented, nobody seems to care?

    It seems that almost every show I see on tv is a group of white women surrounded by a group of diverse men. Where did these men come from? If my view of reality was based on what I saw on tv I would be left with the belief that minority women don’t exist, minority men just appear out of thin air.

    More TRUE diversity please. Not this fake Hollywood “diversity”.

  • rjschwarz

    You should do a page on American characters added into movies where they don’t belong because Producers don’t think Americans will see movies without American characters. For example the Bridge Over the River Kwai rams an Yank in there. Heck U571 had a ship full of Yanks doing something the Brits actually did (more than once) during the war.