If we work on the basis that whitewashing is defined as a situation where someone is cast to play a certain ethnicity, of which they aren’t, we can start with some obvious examples :
- Johnny Depp as Tonto in the Lone Ranger = bad.
- Jake Gyllenhal as Dastan in Prince of Persia = bad.
- Mena Suvari as Chante Mallard in Stuck = are you actually serious?
- Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunoshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s = really fucking bad.
- Rob Schneider in pretty much everything!
I think I need to interrupt this train of thought and put a caveat out there that I am in no way a student of cinema, the arts or anthropology. I’m basically a punter who sits in a front of a screen stuffing his fat face with popcorn.
Here’s where I start to get confused
Is it whitewashing when they change the ethnicity of a character from the original story? I mean, that’s not casting a character per se, but it is changing the character to suit the actor. Scarlett Johannsen in Ghost in the Shell is a great example of this.
Even more so Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. Here we see Marvel taking the Ancient One, who in Doctor Strange lore is a Tibetan Man, and turning him into a bald white woman. Why? Because China is a big market for these movies and there is no way the Chinese are going to accept a Tibetan Monk being the mentor of the hero in any story. Marvel aren’t stupid enough to do something that will cut them off from the second largest movie market in the world.
This has nothing to do with people and everything to do with profit. Recent activism has forced studios hands at the early stages of filmmaking largely because of the fact that investors pump a lot of money into productions and if they flop, like Ghost In The Shell, then there is no profit. If the risk to invest becomes higher, an entire industry suffers; writers, directors, lighting staff, camera people, special effects artists, even caterers. Everybody loses.
Asians and whitewashing
Look at what happened recently with Ed Skrein being cast as Ben Daimo in the new Hellboy movie. Skrein backed out of the role after he was confronted on social media about whitewashing because in the comics Ben Daimo is a Japaese American. Skrein is not. The role has since been re cast with Korean American Daniel Dae Kim . Does it set a dangerous precedent? Maybe? Dae Kim is KOREAN-American, not Japanese, close enough though right? Really?
Here lies a pretty big problem in my opinion. I think the push to cast people of appropriate ethnicity relating to their characters is just and right, absolutely. But the example of Dae Kim sends a message to me that the people behind this really just think all Asians look the same don’t they? Are they just applying band aid solution in order to get the PC internet outgrage brigade off their back?
Black people in blackface
When Zoe Saldana, a black actress of Dominican and Puerto-Rican descent, was cast as Nina Simone in the film Nina she was completely vilified. Why? Because she was “not black enough”. They applied makeup to make her skin darker and a prosthetic nose, as a result, she was accused of playing the character of Nina in blackface. It’s not that I can’t see how this can cause people to be upset, I absolutely can, but where is the line?
I have thought long and hard about how I carry this article. I want to vomit when whiteys use the ignorant and vile “White Chicks defence” in regards to blackface, which is not a defence by the way, blackface is fucked. We all know this and if you’re trying to present another side to the argument you’re wrong. Was Zoe Saldana performing in blackface? I’m almost too terrified to make a call on that out of fear for the repercussions.
What about Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder, playing an Australian actor who was going full method in blackface as preparation for a role as an African-American? Is that racist or wizard level satire? Personally, I think the latter.
White on white crime
If we move from race to nationality for a second you can take the example of the characters Chuck and Hercules Hansen in the film Pacific Rim, who are supposed to be Australian.
I like the movie, I’m a fan of Guilermo Del Toro but I have never, in 41 years of life on this planet, ever met any Aussies named Chuck or Hercules. They were played by American and British actors Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky respectively and their accents and dialogue are diabolically bad. Personally I was more amused than offended. However, we have actors in this country that are pretty good and would have loved the work—Ryan Maloney from Neighbours for example!
Also, how often do they actually get German actors to play Nazis in movies set during WW2? Is is inappropriate to even suggest that?
Sidestep across to race for a second and—because of Australia’s chequered past with the treatment of our Indigenous people and assimilation—we have people living here who are as white as I am but identify as Indigenous because that’s who they are! With that in mind, if they decided to make a movie about Woollarawarre Bennelong, you can bet that a lighter skinned Indigenous actor won’t land that role. I’m not saying that to be cruel, they have to look like who they’re playing, particularly if the movie is based on a real person. We wouldn’t want anyone to be accused of being not Indigenous enough would we?
Transparency about gender identity
Let’s sashay over to sexuality and gender identity for a sec.
Jared Leto was initially praised for his portrayal of trans character Rayon in Dallas Buyers club, however there was criticism for casting a straight male actor instead of someone who identifies as trans. This is new and scary territory for a lot of people, particularly conservative straight people, but we are learning thanks to trailblazers like Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox.
Sexuality and gender identity is a very private thing for some people, should an actor be forced to out themselves as trans in order to play a trans character? That doesn’t seem fair.
On a lighter (skinned) note
Finally, what about gingers? Margot Robbie is going full ginger to play Queen Elizabeth in the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots biopic. There are plenty of natural redheads who could take that part.
Am I being ridiculous? I don’t think so. I know a lot of ginger folk (that may be an offensive term, if it is I’m very sorry) that have copped shit for most of their life because of their complexions and hair colour. Now they’re being shut out of roles made for them by blonde hair, blue-eyed, master race-type actresses!
What I think
Acting is about pretending, character development (wether you like it or not) is about type. Is a white male actor allowed to play something other than a white guy if they pour their heart and soul into it and deliver an amazing performance? Not if they’re in blackface that’s for fucking sure. Blackface is dead and buried among decent human beings, and if you’re still arguing the White Chicks defence you’re just a massive dickhead.
Asians have borne the brunt of jokes for as long as I can remember, and I’m glad they finally have a voice against whitewashing. But the gingers, looks like we’re leaving those guys behind.
I’m not a prude. I don’t feel guilty for laughing at things that are inappropriate but I would definitely feel bad for unknowingly supporting a film that had deliberately shut out and hurt a minority, especially if there was absolutely no doubt as to who was best suited to the role.
Racism exists, everywhere. A lot of comedy is founded on racist themes, like I said before characters and stories are underpinned by type. It doesn’t mean we should take up pitchforks every time a non-PC joke is made. However, I think if the intent is to hurt and it feels wrong, chances are we don’t want or need it in this day and age. I feel like we all have decades (possibly centuries) to go before we can truly transcend the ingrained prejudices that have been drilled into us by whatever society we grew up in.
Maybe it will never happen?
The movie business is a business like any other, funded by popularity. If suddenly the opposite were to occur where outrage culture was no longer a thing and racism, misogyny or homophobia became ‘on trend’, you can bet your arse that we’d see Mr Yunoshi make a massive comeback with the sole purpose of turning a buck.
Those on the fringes, the real artists pushing the boundaries will remain largely unchanged by all of this commercial nonsense. Or at least until they’re picked up, paid off and their characters are swept up in this mess.
And I’ll continue to sit in front of a screen and stuff popcorn into my fat face.