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.



  • swarez

    Very true. But what I find more offensive is when Hollywood tries too hard to be PC. Case in point, the rainbow gang in Assault on Precinct 13. What a wonderful and open minded gang that was where men of all races could join. Whites, Hispanic, Blacks, Asians all joining hands to stick it to the man when in reality ethnic groups tend to stick to their own when forming criminal enterprises.

    And on the other hand it bothers me greatly that they are casting none whites in the Thor movie portraying Nordic Gods. 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. They were so white that Hitler formed his ideals on these mutton munching bastards.

  • Peter

    Couldn’t agree more. As much as I like Tom Cruise, I did think at the time that it was very telling it that the ‘Last Samurai’ had to be a caucasian American when in reality it should have been an Asian American playing the part. They’ve done a similar thing with The Last Airbender with yet another caucasian American taking over what should have been an Asian actor’s role. I hope that somebody some day will write a movie called ‘The Last American’ and have it played by an Asian actor with absolutely no word of english. I’m sure that would go down really well…

  • Phil M

    Whoa! Duane Johnson would be an amazing Superman!

    good casting

  • Ben

    Oh get the fuck over it.

    Why is it that this only gets pointed out when it’s going this direction? Did you bitch when The Honeymooners was redone with black actors or when Eddy Murphy did his stint of films where he played roles that were originally “white roles”? Are you infuriated that Jamie Foxx is playing Lynch in the Kane and Lynch movie?

    How about we get to a point where we don’t live in a bubble where we have to pretend that race doesn’t exist in order to not be accused of racism? Is it fucked up that Gyllenhaal is the lead in Prince of Persia? I really don’t care because he looks passable as a Persian (so does Kingsley). Is that the same thing as casting a black actor in a traditionally white role or vice versa? No. Black Spider-Man? Please no. Sorry, don’t want it. Cruise in Last Samurai? Isn’t it really just your interpretation of the film in relation to the title that leads you to assume the title refers to Cruise and not Watanabe?

    How about we all stop fooling ourselves and admit that film is a visual medium and these things matter when the visual difference is noticeable and they don’t matter when it’s not. If people like yourself are intent on turning it into a bullshit political debate then I’d suggest finding more important causes to take up.

  • Werner

    The “Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai” example is redundant: Cruise played an American military advisor – so no race issue here. And in reality the Japanese military was modernized by the Prussian General Staff – it doesn’t get whiter than that :)

  • Werner

    And the example with “Brad Pitt in The Mexican” also fails since: The movie title was referring to the ancient gun called The Mexican, which Pitt had to transport from A to B. That Paul Mooney guy sucks.

  • Ben

    Werner, but you’re expecting him to actually apply logic to his ill formed, cliched opinion. It’s much easier to just play the “if you don’t agree, you’re racist” card (which I’m sure is coming).

  • Henrik

    I would assume The Mexican part was meant clearly as a joke, not as satire, otherwise the comedian is retarded, yes.

    I’m all for letting everybody play anything, but casting a black Spider-Man seems like stunt casting. Might as well cast Jonah Hill and have him slim down, combining two of FilmJunks recent controversial opinions! I mean Hollywood didn’t cast Tom Cruise as Zorro either (although had Antonio Banderas not already been an established mainstream star, they might not have made a Zorro movie at all).

    While The Last Samurai was offensive, it was because it was a horrible movie, not because of it’s title, the title was just a gimmick.

    “They’ve done a similar thing with The Last Airbender with yet another caucasian American taking over what should have been an Asian actor’s role.”

    Now THIS! This is something that is close to my heart seing that Airbender is a fucking kickass show, and I’m extremely excited for the movie. In the show, not only does Aang speak with a thick american accent, but his eyes are big and lacks the physical deformity that Reed Farrington insists asian people have (any racism-objections can be directed towards his email address, I simply don’t know the words to describe asian eyes in english, without sounding EVEN MORE racist). The show was done in an anime style, sure, and it had martial arts, but it was produced in america, for american children. The guy in the movie looks more like Aang than I would imagine they could have found.

    They did change up alot for the movie though, race-wise. The fire nation are now indians, and the earth benders will be asians for some reason.

    “And on the other hand it bothers me greatly that they are casting none whites in the Thor movie portraying Nordic Gods.”

    I would be bothered by this, except that I’m not done being bothered by the two other major things about Thor:

    1. That apparently any american can find a hammer, pick it up, and become Thor. WTF?

    2. That Stan Lee is on film proclaiming that Mjollnir is just a word he personally made up.

  • Henrik

    I really don’t care for the Shakespeare comparison. Once something has survived for a good 500+ years, you’re allowed to play around with the elements while keeping the core, because for the past half a century, all generations have somehow agreed that the core is worth preserving. With something that’s 40 years old, you really don’t know wether something will hold up. Not saying it wouldn’t, just saying get some perspective.

    And also this…

    “Wolverine went from a diminutive man on the page to 6’2” in film”

    He really didn’t. At no point do you see him being taller than anyone he wasn’t taller than in the comics. He was played by an actor who was 6’2″, but that doesn’t mean shit, you might as well say that they gave Wolverine a wonderful singing voice for the movie.

  • Ben

    “That apparently any american can find a hammer, pick it up, and become Thor. WTF?”

    Where did you read that they’re doing this?

    “The show was done in an anime style, sure, and it had martial arts, but it was produced in america, for american children. The guy in the movie looks more like Aang than I would imagine they could have found.”

    Again, this would require someone such as the author of this article to actually do a bit of research instead of just making the most knee jerk assumption possible and climbing onto the backs of whatever other unqualified bloggers’ opinions he’s happened upon that support his. Hell, isn’t it kind of racist on his part to assume that, just because there’s martial arts in the cartoon, the kid must be Asian?

  • Henrik

    Actually I just looked up Thor on imdb, and it’s even worse than I thought. It’s like a satire, for no reason, they’ve cast one(!) god as black. Might as well change his name to Token!

  • Ian

    DTRJ can and should be the next Arnold. He has the humor and the build to be the big likable action star for all sorts of big action movies. Screw remakes and “the next”; hell “remake” Commando with Dwayne Johnson it wouldn’t be a remake because the premise of Commando is so perfectly simple (like a Platonic form) so I’m not really contradicting myself.

  • Henrik

    I’m pretty sure that was what they did in the comics Ben, but it seems for the movie (since I just looked on the imdb stuff for it), he is now Thor who for some reason gets banished to earth (?????), and suffers memory loss or something? Then becomes Thor again? I don’t know, it’s quite the sell to make to an unsuspecting audience either way.

    And be fair, if you’re going to quote me, I would like that you spoke more friendly. I’d hate to get associated with you, should a flamewar start out because you spew so much hatred. Just chillax, we’re all fighting racism here!

  • christopher Reed

    jim carrey as george jefferson. weezy!
    drew barrymore in the lauren hill story
    willem dafoe as tupac

  • Henrik

    And in comment 9, change half a century to half a millenium(!). Damn, so many comments, I haven’t gone on a spree like this in ages. I’ll calm down now.

  • Fatbologna

    Henrik,

    You’re wrong. Wolverine was shorter than EVERYONE in the comics. There were constant jokes about his size. Your other points are fine. That one is dead wrong, my friend. Trust me, I read a LOT of X-Men and Wolverine books when I was a gaffer.

  • Ben

    Yeah. I should chill out. This is just a topic that really irritates me. A major pet peeve of mine.

    As for Thor, it sounds like they’re going the Ultimates route a bit where people are going to assume he’s crazy for thinking he’s Thor and maybe even he’s uncertain at first. As for the comics, it’s always been that only a select few are able to even pick up the hammer and it’s based upon their virtue.

    Fatbologna, what he’s saying is that, within the movie, his height isn’t really important. Just like the hobbits in Lord of the Rings weren’t really 2 feet shorter than Ian Mckellen.

  • Henrik

    I know, they might have cut out the jokes for the movie, but at no point was it apparent he was 6’2. Look at the way he sits at the bar in the beginning.

    Also, they had James Marsden stand on boxes etc to make him appear taller, since he’s shorter than Hugh Jackman. They made an effort to avoid having it be an issue, they didn’t just go “yeah, he’s tall, who gives a fuck, we’re updating it!”

  • Henrik

    I will say that I thought what they did with Thor in the Ultimates was pretty awesome, and I would love to see him hang out with treehuggers in the forests of Norway, but I doubt they’ll do it for the movie.

  • Fatbologna

    Ben,

    If you think Gyllenaal looks like a Persian you’re a retard. That point alone makes me discount all of your arguments. You need to settle down and take a good look at why exactly you’re SO passionately against this argument. While I’m not really into seeing established characters change race I’m more than open to seeing a more diverse stable of actors take form in Hollywood.

    Whether you like it or not, race issues are still that: an issue. I’m Canadian and the amount of full-on racism and ignorance I’ve seen and experienced in my life prove to me that these issues aren’t nearly dealt with. I don’t know what kind of bubble you live in where race isn’t an issue any longer but I’d sure like to live in it with you…. as long as you’re not Black, Asian, Jewish, Arabic, Indian, Native American or poor, that is…

  • Fatbologna

    oh, you agreed to settle. Never mind! :)argument closed…

  • Ben

    Fatbologna, I said Gyllenhaal is passable (especially when compared to the in-game model they’ve used for POP since Sands of Time. Although I guess that opens arguments up about racism in game design). I was merely attempting to point out that, in a visual medium, there’s a difference between that and say Michael Cera playing Malcolm X (or Densel Washington playing Abe Lincoln).

    Also, I’m not saying that race issues don’t still exist. I simply see issues like this get exacerbated by people all too often and, rather than focus on the aspects that matter, people focus on the superficial, pointless side of things. This isn’t just the case with race issues either; people seem to invariably focus on the one aspect of a particular issue that is really kind of benign when looked at in the grand scheme of things.

  • Oh crap! Daniel got another writing gig! Since I pointed this opening out to you, I get the next one, right?

    Oh, and awesome article! I agree, it’s just lazy.

  • Fatbologna

    I think that you underestimate that it’s the collection of seemingly small and insignificant things being changed one at a time that lead to bigger cultural changes. Fighting the biggest fight possible will often result in losing whereas picking your battles can win the war. Films have a huge impact on culture at large, to go from 2-3 bankable, non-white leading men to say 5-10 would be a pretty large coup for multiculturalism at large. Just because the war for Civil Rights and equality had a large victory 50 years ago does not mean we can fall into a pattern of thinking that racial issues are dealt with.

    If the medium of film can bring about a greater acceptance of other cultures than why not be more open to discussing it’s change?

  • Fatbologna

    Also, don’t get me wrong here, I’m not a bleeding heart Liberal. I hate loudmouthed, overly PC people as much as the next guy. I just think that discussing change shouldn’t be met with such ardent, hard-headed cynicism.

  • kyriacos

    Oh boy oh boy.. I cannot wait for Reed’s Comment on This one!!

  • Ben

    There’s nothing wrong with discussing it’s change. I feel that often times people lose sight of the fact that change is not always good especially when it’s change for the sake of change. Throwing black face on Michael Cera so he can play Malcolm X? Bad. Gyllenhaal playing POP? Don’t think it’s much of an issue.

    I simply say let the best actor take the role. This has both performance and visual factors in my opinion.

    Do you feel it was wrong for Ben Kingsley to play Ghandi? Or was it okay because both performance-wise and visually he was perfect for the role despite not being the “correct” race?

  • Ben

    And, as an addendum, my comment that “change is not always good” was not meant in a wide sweeping sense. I don’t want that to get twisted into meaning something like me having an issue with civil rights in general. Apply it to my Kingsley example and I hope my point will be clear. People have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water in an attempt to attain some fictional idea of “progress”.

  • Fatbologna

    I just think that in most cases the “correct” actor never ends up being anything other than a tanned white guy. I’m all for hiring the best actor for the job but can you name at least 4-5 cases where it’s gone the OTHER way? I’m not just talking black actors here, either.

    Also, your Michael Cera as Malcolm X example is pretty extreme. I don’t think we’re proposing any ludicrous choices for actors in roles here. Just a little more variation. I DO think that the Gyllenhaal choice was not only bad, but very telling of Hollywood’s unwillingness to take risks. There’s plenty of young, handsome Bollywood actors who speak perfect English(probably with a better English accent than Jake’s butchered brogue) that would have embodied that role. Hell, Naveen Andrews could have kicked ass!

    I’m not even saying that Hollywood is racist in any way, just, as the writer of the article said, lazy. You can’t really argue THAT can you?

  • Fatbologna

    Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that when the guys in suits get scared of appearing racist they can be heavy handed in their attempts to remedy that image. I think there’s a tasteful and tactful way of fixing the problem without getting extreme.

  • Ben

    Hence my biggest issue with this article aside from the logic fallacies being the idea that “One way to achieve that is to aggressively cast people of color in roles traditionally played by whites.”

    (Also, I came up with the Michael Cera idea specifically as an extreme. Although, is it also telling that you didn’t say that the Densel as Abe example was extreme also?)

    And what do you mean by the “OTHER way”? Actors of non-caucasion ethnicities being cast in a role “traditionally” intended for a white person?

  • swarez

    @Ben. “Do you feel it was wrong for Ben Kingsley to play Ghandi? Or was it okay because both performance-wise and visually he was perfect for the role despite not being the “correct” race?”

    Ben Kingsley is half Indian. He was born there and his real name is Krishna Bhanji.

  • swarez

    No wait, he was born in England but the rest is true.

  • Ben

    People are bitching about Johnny Depp playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger and he’s part native American. So, the question stands.

  • Ben

    People bitched about Kristin Kreuk playing Chun Li and she’s part Chinese. So, again, the question stands.

  • This post is horse shit, and not something typical of this site.

    Hollywood is concerned with one thing: making money. Studios won’t cast a black guy or an asian guy as Spiderman– not because of racism, but because they believe that it wouldn’t make as much money for them.

    Now, that my be inherently racist, but if that is the case, the blame can be laid at the feet of the paying audience.

    PC bullshit is so boring.

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

  • Phil M, I can’t take credit for that one. The Rock once played Superman on Saturday Night Live and the image has just stuck with me all these years.

    To those suggesting colorblind casting in biopics, I think it’s too soon for anything that radical. Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln were real people and their lives were very much shaped by the race politics at the time. To fundamentally change their appearance and pretend like it doesn’t matter is ignorant.

    That said, there have certainly been plenty of films over the years where prominent American figures have been played by European and Australian actors and vice versa. With the right actor, some makeup/dialogue coaching and some healthy suspension of disbelief, audiences can accept anything. I’d watch Denzel Washington play a white man.

  • Nick Robertson

    BULLSHIT!!!!!!!!!!

    The Last Samurai is ‘samurai’ in the plural. The samurai of the title are the group of samurai being driven out of existence.
    The Mexican is the GUN in the movie, not Brad’s character. Asshole.

    Who cares? Fuck.

  • Dumb

    You should focus more on cast mismatch rather than whitewashing…..there are so many movies where the casts were mismatched and sucked horribly….I don’t think Chesty Jake looked “very white” for his role anyway so I do not see too much of a problem, besides he at least performed better than the stiff Hayden Christensen could ever dream off….Hayden ruined Anakin Skywalker for me….no whitewashing there, just a guy being sucky.
    Make an article about actors who suck but are famous for no reason instead of weird articles like these.
    Btw, while Dwayne Johnson maybe awesome, he will not be an awesome Superman….we need a person who can appear uber nerdy and superhuman the next minute, only Christopher Reeves could do it, and I do not want a dude who arches his eyebrows to do it honestly, and again it’s nothing about skin color…it’s just about the eyebrows ;) ….so don’t talk about casting Dwayne Johnson just for the sake of countering so called “whitewashing” in the industry.

  • Darksiders

    The Last Samurai titled wasn’t referring to Tom Cruise’s character but was referring to Ken Watanabe’s character. As in, he was “the last samurai,” fighting against the industrialization of his country.

  • BigHungry

    (36) Jon Rocks – you are so correct. It is all about the money.
    It is all about how much should they pay the actor/actress and if they will get the return on the investment. FYI on the documenty of “Superman the Movie/dvds/bluray” they say Muhammad Ali was even given a green light to play superman back in the 70’s.

  • Dane

    I agree this is bullshit. To actively and aggressively cast non-whites is nothing more than “acceptable” racism. It’s trying to make up for a problem that at some point would swing in the other direction and need to be reversed so it’s a slippery slope. In ten years then would we try to make up for our folly by casting Zac Efron in the long awaited Black Panther adaptation. Sorry, but all the comic creators in the 60’s when these characters were created were obviously racist. So these characters are white, sorry but there are going to be characters that are of one race and we should be okay with that. I find it more racist to try and shoehorn in a person of color in an attempt to appear more accepting. It’s disgusting. I work in advertising and often when placing stock images into ads, I will be asked to find new art using “minorities” instead. This never comes from a place of actual concern about discrimination but from fear. To the point where now no white people are being used at all in some cases. Is that not racism as well? What needs to stop, in Hollywood and everywhere else, is this empty pandering to appease special interest groups simply for the sake of meeting quotas. Boo this shit.

  • Matt

    Daniel,
    I certainly would not have cited Mooney’s quote in order to make a strong argument against Hollywood’s “whitewashing”, because he was either joking, or has no idea what he was talking about. Cruise was an American civil war veteran and The Mexican is a gun, not a person. Even the example of Prince of Persia isn’t as strong as you might think, because in ancient times Persians were a lot more “Caucasian” than they are today, because darker skinned Arabs had not invaded yet and interbred with the original Persians. Personally I’m a lot more confused by the fact that everyone seems to have British accents in that movie. You also seem to be fine with Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li appearing in Memoirs of a Geisha, when both of those actresses are Chinese playing Japanese roles. Why didn’t that bother you? Is it alright because the eyes of both Japanese and Chinese people are slanted? It didn’t bother me because they did a fine job playing those roles. And isn’t that what it should ultimately be about? And when do you draw the line? Should Italians be able to portray Greeks? What about Nigerians portraying South Africans and the other way around? I didn’t hear too many complaints when Cate Blanchet and that black kid portrayed Bob Dylan. And rightfully so. They did a great job and it fit with the movie.
    How about we let the directors and casting people decide who is right for a role, and not try to demographically shoehorn actors into roles where they really do not belong? That goes for white actors in black roles and black actors in white ones, but since you have not provided as single example of modern Hollywood “whitewashing”, I’m going to go ahead and infer that this really isn’t as big of a problem as you claim it is.
    To be honest, I think this was just an attention-grabbing feature, designed to get posts and hits without much regard to what is actually being said. I understand that you’re new at Filmjunk, Daniel, but there are better ways at making your mark than this one. If you’re unsure about how to go about it, please consult with Sean. He’s very good.

    And for the record, I would welcome Donald Glover playing Peter Parker, because he seems to fit the part, is very charming and endearing, and has a nerdy-ness about him that is essential for the character (much more so than race is.)

  • Big Hungry

    Reed – Kung Fu does need a reboot… too bad Bruce Lee got cut from the original..
    I miss shows like that… I even think they should bring the hulk back to tv but still use a guy in makeup (that way he can be played by any race)…

  • kyriacos

    @Reed
    Actually there was a study by some Italian scientistguys that revealed that we are all genetically programmed to care more for the people of our own race..
    ..
    That is why I believe black people in movies should be played by white guys with make up..

    :)
    ..someone had to say it..

  • Andrew

    I agree that Jake playing a “Persian” is not really appropriate. I think it has more to do with perceived potential payout then anything though. I also don’t understand why he speaks with an English accent in the movie.

    But I would like to point out that Will Smith’s kid is reprising a role originally played by a white actor, at the same time a Chinese actor is taking on the role originally written for a Japanese actor, in the Karate Kid. I don’t mind these as much, since the story is pretty much a complete rewrite from the original and Jadyen Smith isn’t pretending he is white on screen. I think that is the biggest problem with white actors taking parts like “the Prince of Persia” he isn’t playing a white Englishman who is in Persia, he is pretending to be Persian. That is a big difference.

  • Mike

    He should play Venom…(rimshot)

  • mark

    samual jackson as nick fury????

  • Kasper

    “wah wah whitewashing, complain complain complain”.