If we work on the basis that whitewashing is defined as a situation where someone is cast to play a character of a certain ethnicity, of which they actually are not, 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 really quickly 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 and consuming.
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 Johansen 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 gonna be receptive to 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
Then you get situations like 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”. She wore makeup to make her skin darker and a prosthetic nose and, as a result, was accused of playing the character of Nina in blackface. Fuck me! A black person being accused of performing in blackface! This blows my mind!
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 and you 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 was diabolically bad. Personally I was more amused than offended. But you know, 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 back into 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, basically because they are! However, if they decided to make a movie about Woollarawarre Bennelong for example, it’s a pretty safe bet that a lighter skinned Indigenous actor is not getting that lead 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 skip 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 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 into outing themselves to the public as trans in order to play a trans character? To me that doesn’t sit right.
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. Surely there are plenty of natural redheads who could take that part? Am I being ridiculous? Have I derailed this article in an attempt to be funny at the expense of a minority? 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 colour of their hair. Now they’re being shut out of roles made for them by blonde hair and 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 pretend to be something other than a white guy if they pour their heart and soul into it and deliver an amazing performance?
It would seem they can’t anymore, I can totally see the reason why in some cases but I also see rampant hypocrisy in others.
Asians have born the brunt of a lot of jokes for as long as I can remember, and I’m kind of glad they finally have a voice against whitewashing. Blackface is dead and buried and if you’re still arguing the White Chicks defence you’re just a massive dickhead. Gingers, they’ve still got a long way to go. Won’t somebody please think of the gingers!?!?!
The movie business is a business like any other, funded by popularity, if suddenly the opposite of what has happened recently 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. It certainly still exists as long as Rob Schneider keeps getting work. In fact, a lot of comedy is founded on all of these themes to varying degrees.
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 a minority, especially if there was absolutely no doubt as to who was best suited to the role.
Those on the fringes, the real artists pushing the boundaries through film will remain largely unchanged by all of this commercial nonsense. 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.