Over the last few years, I've made a number of blogging buddies. KG of KG's Movie Rants is one of my favorites. He has a fantastic blog that I really admire. Mostly, he posts well-thought out and well-written reviews. Please check it out if you haven't already.
A few months back, he sent me a Direct Message on Twitter asking for me to do a guest post on his blog. I was thrilled he would come to me, but also a little selfish. Therefore I said yes, but only on the condition that he would do one for me. He agreed to my terms and here we are.
No guidelines were given by either of us on what we were to write about. We did, however, both decide that a simple movie review was not fit for the occasion. KG decided to dig into a topic that has been a very hot one, as of late: whitewashing in films. I'll say no more and let him take it from here.
I watched well over one-hundred movies last year – many of which were nominated for Academy Awards and others which the mass majority have said deserved nominations. I certainly feel that a number of performances and films were denied nominations owing to racial prejudice. That being said, I don’t think The Academy is the major villain in this story. They are guilty and fundamental players in this injustice but they’re lowly henchmen rather than the dark shadowy figure behind the curtain orchestrating the maniacal plan. The lead villain in this story is played by Hollywood Studios. They are the people who control the majority of stories we see told on film. They are the difference between a script just being a good idea in someone’s head or a feature film. Their motivations are singular and they seldom defer from them. These motivations are not justice or equality, they aren’t even the entertainment of the general public; what motivates studios is money.
You can’t blame them – filmmaking is a business as much as an art and no one begins a business with the intention of losing money. Now in order for your business to be successful you have to give people what they want. In film this translates to giving the audience stories and characters that they can relate to, believe in and admire. As with any product, it has to be tailor made to your target audience. If you’re selling dolls for girls, you’re going to make them pink and if you’re selling action figures for boys, you’re probably going to make them blue (if you take traditional constructs concerning gender identity as law, which is a topic for another post). In film, this translates to writing white heterosexual males as your lead character.
And this isn’t a notion that existed fifty years ago, it’s one still present in film today. Famed director had this to say about why he cast Caucasian actors to portray Egyptians in Exodus: Gods and Kings:
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
This marketing strategy is predicated on two flawed concepts: 1. That your audience is compromised of mainly Caucasian heterosexual males and that 2. That your audience is incapable of paying money to see a film if their particular ethnicity isn’t in the lead.
Now there are obvious moral obligations to this kind of thinking but morality isn’t a motivation for studios so let’s prove financially how bogus this kind of thinking is.
This is a chart published by the United States Census Bureau showing how the demographics of the labour force in the United States has changed from 1967 to 2009. As you can see, the number of working women has increased threefold. This means there are three times as many women with money to spend than there was fifty years ago. I know what you’re going to say next (well not you because I assume you aren’t a misogynistic racist but this what the misogynistic racists will say), women don’t go to the cinema - they go shopping and on spa days. I refer you to statistics published by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
Just in case you thought only white people watched movies
If you analyse all of these stats it becomes abundantly clear that females and people of colour are a major source of income for big Hollywood studios. On average, half of the people who go see movies are woman. 46% (on average) of people who go see movies are not Caucasian. Furthermore, I just read a paper – Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060 Population Estimates and Projections Current Population Reports By Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman Issued March 2015 – that states that over the next four decades, more than half of the US population will be foreign born. This means that diversity is not some politically correct fad that you can ignore; it’s an unavoidable fact. It’s a fact that’s true today and – if you believe the data – will remain true for the next half a century. These are figures for the United States – a country with a white majority; can you imagine what the figures are for places with white minorities like Africa and Asia. Furthermore, at least 3.5% of the American population identifies as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender. Diversity is not only the spice of life, it’s the reality of life and Hollywood needs to realise this.
Now I’m a lowly blogger with nothing but Google and common sense and I can see that it makes perfect – and more importantly financial – sense to diversify the kind of movies you produce so why can’t big studios? Now there is obviously a large pool of diverse stories out there, so why aren’t they being told? Matter of fact, they are being told but studios are obligated to remain true to form and never veer too far off the beaten path. This brings me to the point of Whitewashing. For those who don’t know, whitewashing is the process where a white actor is cast to play a role originally intended to be a non-white character. This is often accompanied by make-up or prosthetics to make the white actor seem more ethnic. Here are some famous examples:
|Emma Stone portraying Captain Allison Ng in Aloha – a character who is of Chinese and Hawaiian descent|
|Justin Chadwick starring as Goku in Dragonball Evolution – a character who while being an alien was a major character of a Japanese manga series and largely identified as being Asian.|
But it’s not just bad movies that whitewash.
|Ben Affleck as Tony Mendes in Argo – most upsetting about this is that it’s a true story and that Tony Mendes is an actual person. A person of Mexican descent unlike Affleck who is of Irish descent.|
|Jake Gyllenhaal as Prince Dastan – a Persian who was portrayed by a Caucasian of Swedish descent.|
And whitewashing isn’t a new thing either
|Laurence Olivier as Othello – literally one of the few black characters in the works of Shakespeare so why bother casting an actual black guy to play him?|
|Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie in the 2014 remake.|
|Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch|
|Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers|
|Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman.|
I truly hope Hollywood embraces diversification but I know that – as with all new advancements in film – diversification will be over-utilised and this will lead to resentment. It’s akin to what happened with 3D. 3D was used amazingly well in a few films and then every film felt it had to be in 3D and this led to misuse of the technology and lacklustre productions. This caused people being angry with the idea (3D) instead of its inappropriate use. So not every character needs to be Black or Asian or Hispanic but a lot of them can be. To decide I think you only need to answer one question: is the race negligible? In other words, if you changed the race of the character, would it change the nature of the character?
Here are a few examples to help you decide:
1. Is Superman’s race negligible?
Superman is probably the most iconic character in all of film history. He’s lived in print, pop-culture and film – he’s a titan and it’s almost impossible to see him being portrayed by anyone other than a white actor. That being said there’s no reason for Superman to be white. He’s an alien, his powers are genetic and there’s nothing in his story that calls for his race to be exclusively white. His race might never change because he’s such an iconic character but there’s no reason why he can’t be black.
2. Is Batman’s race negligible?
Batman is a very different character from Superman, with his circumstances being much more specific. Bruce Wayne needs to be incredibly rich and that kind of family money comes from generations of wealth. So the traditional Batman story calls for a white character. However, if you tweaked the story slightly and had Bruce Wayne’s dad be a Internet billionaire or have Bruce be adopted it opens up the doors for racial ambiguity.
3. Is the race of a historical figure negligible?
No! This is probably the only instance when the race of a character cannot and should not be tampered with. This obviously also means that the actor portraying the character needs to be racially appropriate i.e. you can’t have Christian Bale playing Nelson Mandela or Idris Elba playing Thomas Edison.
4. Is Annie’s race negligible?
Annie is a great example of situational race. If I was to describe a rich, handsome man, you’d probably imagine a white person. If I was to describe a poor, homeless person, you’d probably think of a black person. Is it racist? Yes! But that also means there’s leeway in which the character can be depicted. Spider-Man is a story about a poor kid from Queens who’s bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a superhero. ‘Poor kid from Queens’ can be a white or black and this makes the race not a factor.
5. If the character was originally ethnic, is their race negligible?
NO! Why? Because of justice. Diversification is about tipping the scales and having them be more inclusive of previously disadvantaged minorities. So taking away the few chances minorities have for feature films is counter-productive
The point of this post is not to alienate white people or make them feel that their stories and talents are less valuable than those of non-whites. The message I want to bring across is that there is a need for authenticity even in fantasy. It is not possible that 46% of the people who pay for an industry are not represented by that industry. It is not ethical to tell the stories of a culture without the presence of people from that culture. In the beginning of this post I announced that big studios were the villains because they’ve created a system where ethics and justice are second to profit; but there can be no profit without a willing consumer. Yes, we are complicit in the institutional racism that exists in film. Every time you hand over money to a film guilty of whitewashing, you are guilty of whitewashing. We are the true villains.
I’ve watched several films with whitewashing – enjoyed quite a few of them – and I didn’t see anything was wrong until it was pointed out to me. Well now I’m pointing it out to you. Studios may be incapable of making decisions based on morality but we as individuals are not. It’s time we not only take responsibility for our part in this injustice but also realise the power we have to change it. If we don’t go watch a movie, studios lose money and when studios lose money, they change things. Next time you hear a movie has whitewashing, don’t go watch it. Tell your friends not to watch them and have them tell other people not to watch it. Start the change.