Whitewashing: Bringing Color to the Screen

Earlier this year, movie audiences saw Scarlett Johansson, a Caucasian actress, play Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese girl-turned-cyborg, in the film Ghost in the Shell. In the past several years, they have also seen Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a character of Chinese and Hawaiian descent, in Aloha; Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time; Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale as Ramesses II and Moses, respectively, in Exodus: Gods and Kings; and Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan — all white actors in roles meant for people of color.

This practice of casting white actors as non-white characters, known as whitewashing, has become all too common in Hollywood. Whitewashing, however, is not a new phenomenon; it has endured for centuries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, minstrel shows, which featured white performers in blackface, inaccurately and derisively portrayed black people. More recently, roles such as The King in The King and I and Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — considered iconic 20th-century movie characters — were cast with white men in yellowface. While instances of whitewashing today are slightly less egregious, they still result in less representation for minorities, reinforce ugly stereotypes, and detract from an artistic work’s authenticity.

Despite the backlash against whitewashing, directors and filmmakers continually defend questionable casting choices with seemingly pragmatic excuses. They rationalize that blockbuster films need an A-list star as headliner, and unfortunately, the majority of A-listers are white. This concept does make sense, especially as larger movie studios are typically risk-averse and usually greenlight movies on the condition that big names are attached. At the same time, however, many films with whitewashed casts and “big-name actors” — including Ghost in the Shell, Aloha, Prince of Persia, Exodus, and Pan — have bombed at the box office. While these movies do poorly in part due to the protests and boycotting that accompany casting controversies, they are also just not believable, genuine works of art, and despite the popularity of lowbrow fare these days, audiences do respond to works that are good quality. With the growing popularity of sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, audiences are too sophisticated now to blindly follow any “big-name” actor in an ill-suited role and suspend their disbelief. Network TV shows like Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat have caught on and struck a chord with people, expanding the demographic of viewers, all the while addressing important issues of race and subverting stereotypes.

Another excuse that filmmakers use — the one I see as the most desperate — is the “best person for the job” pretense. Naturally, the people behind a project want it to reach its full potential. However, the proposition that only one person can be right for a role in a field as subjective as art is dubious. In actuality, people have their own biases and are drawn to certain kinds of personalities, usually those most similar to theirs. Because the ones in power are predominately white, their visions of the pivotal characters tend to mirror their own experiences. These feelings are natural, and in some cases, the creatives in charge have to just go with their gut because objective measures are unsatisfactory or impossible to obtain. That being said, in my experience as a Broadway performer, I saw a number of actors perform the same role, both from behind-the-scenes as well as from the audience’s perspective. Different performers elicited different responses from the crowd — laughs and applause in varying places, possibly more on one line and less after another. The theatergoers who had seen all of the actors performing the same part tended to be divided over whom they felt was best. Critiquing art is not a quantitative matter. Saying one’s own artistic interpretation is fact is simply wrong, and the notion that artists should be pitted against one another in competitive fashion is antithetical to the whole meaning of art.

The primary roadblock to greater representation for minorities is the idea in media that white is the default race. Too often, everyman is equated with the white male — meaning non-white romantic leads and action stars are few and far between. These portrayals only serve to perpetuate stereotypes and worsen biases; earlier this year, Steve Harvey made a joke entirely centered on the concept that Asian males could never be seen as attractive. Film and TV have reinforced certain racist attitudes — all black people are considered “thugs,” all people of Arab descent are seen as “terrorists,” all Asians are “nerdy IT guys.” Races have been identified with particular stock parts.

The best way to combat these types of ideas is to depict people of color as three-dimensional characters and cast them as a wide variety of roles. Placing people of color and their stories in the foreground — as the true focus of the narrative — opens up all kinds of possibilities. The film The Big Sick, for instance, stars a Pakistani man and a Caucasian woman as the central couple. At a larger studio, Kumail Nanjiani, the movie’s writer and lead actor, would likely never have been given the go ahead; executives would have contended that he was not “believable” as a romantic lead, despite the fact that the script was based on his real-life marriage. Fortunately, Nanjiani was able to star in his own movie, breaking an enduring stereotype in the process. This casting, and others like it, will hopefully lead mainstream viewpoints in a more progressive direction.

I have personally had to deal with derogatory preconceptions in my own life. As a male ballet dancer, I have been the recipient of a good deal of demeaning remarks. Thankfully, these comments have never slipped into violence or anything severe; most of the time, they simply come from a place of ignorance and a lack of exposure to the art form. Recently, I performed at a children’s hospital in New York for elementary school-age children. I expected to receive some mildly offensive reactions, but to my surprise, the kids appeared to admire my dancing — the athleticism of my jumps and pirouettes. I now realize that they had yet not been corrupted by society’s judgment of the male ballet dancer. Children are very impressionable and are especially influenced by the media they consume. As media forms become increasingly prevalent in our culture, sending the right message to future generations is critical. When movies and television shows reflect the diversity of the real world, they send the message that anything is possible. Kids of color should not feel as though they are constrained by their race.

While newer generations are more aware of ingrained and insidious racist stereotypes, progress toward inclusivity remains very gradual. In late August, the actor Ed Skrein stepped down from the movie Hellboy after learning that his character in the source material was Japanese-American. In doing so, he risked a great deal; he gave up a sizable role in a potential blockbuster and may have fractured valuable relationships with Lionsgate, a leading entertainment company, and Hellboy’s producers. However, if he had stayed on the project, he would have faced criticism — similar to that leveled at Johansson, Stone, Gyllenhaal, Bale, Edgerton, and Mara — for co-opting a role created as Japanese. What Skrein did was honorable, and very few actors would have been willing to withdraw from such a hyped project. Although his decision was a step forward, it did not bring about any systemic change. In a business as difficult and fickle as film, putting the onus on the actors to turn down valuable roles is unfair. The responsibility should fall on those in charge.

The solution to greater representation for minorities in Hollywood requires a multipronged approach. Network television and especially film have the most barriers to entry — countless executives have to approve every creative decision throughout the entire process. Hollywood is very much a hierarchy, and the key decision makers — the ones who say what is produced and what is not — are almost all white males. More diversity is needed at the top of the pyramid. One example is film producer Charles King, who within the last few years launched a new media company called Macro. The works that Macro helps develop and fund are stories told from the unique perspective of people of color. Although the backing of higher-ups is absolutely crucial, it is also important that people of color themselves have more opportunities to produce their own content. Critics and audiences alike can discern when a piece is authentic or not. The “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None, Indian actor Aziz Ansari’s comedian-auteur show, follows the journey of Denise (played by Lena Waithe), a black lesbian, as she grows up, becomes aware of her sexuality, and comes out to her family. Because Waithe (along with Ansari) wrote the episode and drew from her real-life experiences, the story received universal critical acclaim, even garnering an Emmy for best comedy series writing — making Waithe the first black woman to win in that category. Shonda Rhimes, a prolific television producer and showrunner, has her own highly-rated night of programming on a major network which includes two shows with black female leads. This kind of content has demonstrated the popularity of more diverse characters and viewpoints.

In other forms of media and the arts, however, people of color are a commanding force. In the music industry, black artists in particular dominate the charts and win a plethora of awards. This year’s Grammy nomination leaders are Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Childish Gambino, Khalid, No I.D., and SZA — all people of color. What accounts for this disparity between music and film is that black musicians and singers were given a voice much earlier. When Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown in 1959, he gave black artists an opportunity to have their music produced and distributed. Motown paved the way for other record labels that would support black artists. Once these artists reached a certain level of fame, not only did their success snowball, but they also were able to have greater control of the music they made.

Additionally, in general, music has fewer barriers to entry than film or TV. A singer-songwriter can upload original music online with no more than an internet connection and a camera. On the other hand, a self-produced movie will likely be noticeably amateur. On other platforms that are easily accessible — YouTube being the prime example — people of color are well represented. YouTubers Ryan Higa, GloZell, KSI, Germán Garmendia, Evan Fong, and Mariand Castrejon Castañeda all have millions of subscribers and views. Their channels run the gamut from comedy to music to gaming to beauty. All of these personalities expanded their subscriber base organically by putting up content that was authentic to them. They did not have to deal with rooms of executives and focus groups to determine their appeal.

What media bigwigs need to realize is that whitewashing is not a sustainable business model. Our culture, especially the younger generations, is becoming more enlightened and has higher expectations for media reflecting society at large. Not only do people expect more, but they are also willing to publicly call out whitewashing; social media has mobilized an activist army. Bringing in a diversity of voices and perspectives has resulted in both critical and commercial success. But without the production of innovative content and the support of decision makers, effecting a change will be difficult.



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