Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Whitewashing in Hollywood: The Black and White of It All - a guest post by KG

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.

The topic of race in film is a hot one. From the outrage over the lack of cultural diversity in this year’s Academy Award nominations to the casting of white actors in roles that were originally intended for actors of colour, it’s a controversial issue and one that I’ve avoided airing my total opinion on. For starters I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough on the subject and thought that whatever opinion I did offer would seem crude and lacking the impactful insight I wished to impart. So as the whole #OscarsSoWhite campaign unfolded and various people from Hollywood Heavyweights to small-time bloggers used their voice to shame or justify the Academy’s actions, I remained silent – gathering information and forming my opinion.

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?
Now I know what the counter-argument to this is going to be? What about blackwashing i.e. when a black actor is cast as a character that was originally white? Here are a few examples

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.
You’re going to ask how can changing the race of a character be acceptable in one situation and not the other. The most important reason is justice. These characters were created in a racist time where many of the writers were possibly racist and were creating media for a racist society. So it was impossible to expect diversity and accurate depictions of society from these people. Therefore, there needs to be retroactive correction. Earlier in this post we saw that 46% of the movie-going population is non-white so how can all the characters in film be white? Society has changed and, therefore, the audience has changed so film also needs to change to reflect this. This means that casting ethnically diverse actors in traditionally white roles or ‘blackwashing’ is about upliftment and modernisation where whitewashing was all about segregation and malice.

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.


  1. I think those last sentences says it all. I understand that the film industry is a business and you need to cast whoever can help you bring in money and an audience. Unfortunately, Hollywood is just doing it wrong and it's gotten worse. Yet, we should note that the industry isn't really run by studio heads but these investors who will put the money into a film but.... you have to cast this person or that person for the role regardless if they can act or not. It's getting worse as of late.

    The case with Aloha (I'd rather gouge my eyes out than see that again) was bad as I blame both Cameron Crowe and Sony for not doing enough to cast an Asian actress or re-write the character with a different last name. Instead, what they did was just fucking lazy.

    I did see Orson Welles' version of Othello for last year's Cannes marathon as I was aware that the character was meant to be black. Yet, I think it's easy to forget that there weren't any prominent black actors at the time to play that character though I think the progress for someone of African descent to play that role was too slow. It took more than 40 years for a film version of that story to come out with a black actor in the role and unfortunately, audiences had moved on which is a shame since Laurence Fishburne managed to do great work in that role.

    1. The film industry is a business, but at some point, maintaining the status quo is bad business. I think we're reaching that point. People have always wanted to see themselves on screen, and for certain figures to be more accurately represented. We're in a time where people are able to vocalize this en masse and call them on their bullshit.

  2. Thank you for the kind words. Was really great collaborating with you, especially since we both tackled pretty prominent issues in films and society. Looking forward to when we get to do it again.

    1. Thank you for such a fantastic and thorough article. This is something we should definitely do again. Great work.

  3. I agree with almost every point here--there's a single exception I'll get to in a minute. There are, of course, tons of really awful examples of this sort of white washing--how many white actors played natives in old Westerns, for instance (not to mention Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger). How many major Asian roles in old films were handed to white actors, allowing the cast of bit players to be filled in with Asians who could have done the main roles? This really is the sort of thing that the movie industry should be beyond, and yet we're constantly reminded that we're not beyond it.

    The specific exception that I'm going to mention here is one I'll mention only because it was called up as an example in the article--Olivier's Othello. Why? Olivier made a great deal of his career playing great Shakespearean characters. He won an Oscar as Hamlet and was nominated as Henry V. In his case this may have been a case of a great actor wanting to tackle the great roles from one of the greatest playwrights in history. Could he have cast, say, Sidney Poitier in the role and played Iago? Sure, and that would have made more sense in terms of race. But in a case like this, I see this more as an actor taking a challenging, classic role. It has problems, but I find it a little more understandable in the same way I'd understand David Oyelowo wanting to play Hamlet. It may not be entirely justifiable; there are some roles you just don't get to play. I do understand the desire, though. At the very least, it's a far distance from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

    1. Omg, Rooney in Tiffany's is just beyond offensive.

      Glad you commented here and added greatly to the discussion. With regards to Depp, I'm not sure how to treat that one. The reason is, as I understand it, he is at least partially of Native American descent (can't remember if it's one of his parents or grandparents). I'd like to give him a pass. However, his portrayal of Tonto was made up entirely of stereotypes, so should we? I don't have an answer for that.

      As for Welles, his son is more forgivable due to the time in which it was made, but that doesn't make it right. My feelings come from the fact that race is actually an integral part of Othello's story. Granted, smearing black face of n a white dude is always the way it was done in those days, but it's still offensive when viewed through the prism of a (supposedly) more enlightened society.

  4. Really great post here, and this is totally out of control in Hollywood. Hollywood loves to reuse the same actors too instead of going out on a limb and finding no-names (regardless of race). We see the same people in movies all the time. Time for some new faces, more diversity and greater opportunity. It's all about the money tho :(

    1. Great point! It's one I wholeheartedly agree with.

  5. I think Louise Rainer did a fantastic job in The Good Earth but I also feel Anna May Wong was robbed of a chance to play a great character never mind Paul Muni also cast as Asian. I would love to see Paul Robeson as Othello as he is one of my favourites and was an excellent actor, singer, orator and, well, a genius even if he suffered from mental instability. I can't even imagine this blond chick playing someone who is supposed to be Asian/Hawaiian descent. It is all business and the executroids in charge make these decisions. Have we made headway, yes( thank goodness blackface is gone) but so much more could be done.

    1. Lots of good things in this comment, Birgit. That last sentence really says it all. We have come a long way, but still have far to go. And yes, Robeson was a genius.

  6. I'm glad you included the section that addresses the idea that certain characters can be changed depending on their context, although I think that most Hollywood studios don't really care much about your fifth point regarding justice. They are primarily motivated by money and are only starting to shift their attitude because of the massive amount of social pressure being put on them, and the fact that if they don't show that they are at least trying, they will start facing declining ticket sales as younger people who push these issues forward turn to other media such as Youtube for their entertainment.

    1. Excellent point, one I couldn't agree with more. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. A really well-researched and well-written article. And I couldn't agree with you more. The excuse that Hollywood often makes that white actors sell more tickets is just not good enough. If you are making a movie based on something you should have at least some sense of sticking to it, and that includes casting actors of their character's ethnicity

    1. Thanks to KG for his diligence in putting this together. I agree with you on the ethnicity issue in regards to historic figures in particular.

  8. it will change when people want change how many chinese people are watching fresh off the boat? Not many and the orientals that are watching it are Koreans. For Aloha there are whites that look white and are of mixed ancestry. How many young male chinese actors are there not many. How many openly gay actors who are TEENS out there not many. When there is black washing and whites who protest are called bigots that not equality or diversity thats destorying race relations. How would blacks feel if the cast of the Jefferson were all white hello

  9. KG - this is the most well-supported argument for not whitewashing films that I've ever read. You touched on everything that I would've said. My main point (which you write)is that movies, such as Annie are fictional. Those characters can be whomever we desire as society changes, but historical people, not so much. Whitewashing them only perpetuates (as you say) racist ideology.