How and Why Hollywood is More Whitewashed than You’d Think

By Guest Blogger Anubhav Proothi
Back When Racism was ‘Cool’
While the practice of “whitewashing” is as old as cinema itself, only recently did I discover the proper usage of it outside of the world of home painting (yes, I work with a Paint-décor company). In Hollywood, it seems, this practice of casting Caucasians as characters that are originally written as being racially diverse goes as far back as 1920s. The world was certainly a little messed up back then; the imperialist nations were woefully recovering from the World War they’d waged while planting seeds for the next, Indians were non-violently practicing Civil Disobedience on weekends, and Fidel Castro was being conceived. At such a time, one tends to ignore such benign acts of racism as casting white actors to play Arab characters in movies like The Sheik (1921) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924).
Then something oddly unsettling happened in 1937. White actress Luise Rainer donned the metaphorical yellow-face to play a Chinese farmer in The Good Earth, and thus became the first documented American to steal an Asian job. She went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for this otherwise challenging role. One “Bravo!” moment for her, and a huge backward leap for humanity. Again, given the complicated politico-cultural context in the US in 30s, we can discount it, albeit reluctantly. What we cannot quite excuse, however, is when Mickey Rooney literally taped his eyes narrow to play this Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961):
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Yeah, But That is Old News Right?
All of that is history now, one might think, and one might like to put this behind them, especially that face. Yet this ever scavenging bird called controversy keeps finding new prey even without trying, and it sure has found plenty to eat in the recent past. Let’s make a list. Where do I even begin? Yes, in China.

  • The Great Wall (2017, projected release): This period epic is based in ancient China, where a bunch of ancient Chinese soldiers battle ancient Chinese creatures. Matt Damon is one of them (soldiers, not creatures). It’s interesting that a nation that invented at least 7 different forms of combat disciplines should require help from the US, the proud inventors of McDonald.
  • Ghost in the Shell (2017): An adaptation of a Japanese manga series by the same name, it features the American actress and the love of my life Scarlett Johansson playing Major Kunasagi, a Japanese cyborg, basically everything a man wants in a woman. Also, it appears they’re whitewashing the name too, and just calling her The Major.
  • Strange (2016): When Marvel Studios and Disney finally released the official trailer, it revealed spectacularly white actress Tilda Swinton playing a character whose agency brief was “a Tibetan Sorcerer. Oh and also, male.” And this happened.

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(Side note, the trailer is epic and I am pre-booking my tickets)

  • Aloha (2015): This romantic comedy set in Hawaii saw an all-white cast. Emma Stone, an all-through American actress, played Allison Ng, a character that was meant to be one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter native Hawaiian, and one-half Swedish. For totally different reasons, the film sort of bombed at the box office.

There are many, many more of course, but I don’t get paid by the word so you can just go ahead and wiki it.
Is It Just Me or Did That Make No Sense At All
Let’s play a game. The rules are simple: we jot down some of the more popular and recent attempts at a defense (that I’ve come across during my pretend-research) offered by any member of the production house, or the director, or by the society at large to justify these casting choices. Then we consider each through a lens of logical judgement and classify it as either ‘That Makes Sense (TMS)’ or ‘*Cough Cough* Bullshit *Cough* (CCBC)’. In our minds, of course, not out loud.

  1. ”I can’t mount a film of this budget… and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I’m just not going to get financed.”  Director Ridley Scott, speaking on Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

While it’s one of the more politically incorrect statements I’ve heard in a while, you can’t deny a bit of intuitive wisdom in it. You invest big moneys in a film, you need returns, which means you need international audiences, and which, in turn, implies you need a cast that virtually the whole world recognizes. So you spray tan Christian Bale to play a Middle Eastern Moses, follow the Ten Commandments and cross thy fingers. We are with him up to this point, until a) you whitewash the rest of the major cast with actors nobody outside of the US really knows, thereby contradicting your original claim; and b) you still make a mediocre film that earns little profit and is disliked by some and ignored by others.

  1. ”There have been multiple [Ancient Ones], even if this one has been around for five hundred years, there were others. This is a mantle, and therefore felt we had leeway to cast in interesting ways.”- Kevin Fiege (President, Marvel Studios), speaking on Strange (2016)

Broadly, that’s dirty talk for “we want creative freedom during casting,” which is an oft-used justification, and quite frankly, is understandable. It would be even more understandable if this freedom to transcend the scripted character on a creative whim worked both ways. So how many times did a white role get painted brown, yellow or black? I can’t say for sure, because it’s hard to search for things that don’t have a name, but I sense it must be insignificant enough not to deserve a name. Yet, I have found 79 documented times when a coloured role went to a white actor. Hollywood creativity appears to be a restricted and unidirectional concept.
Here’s something else that’s trippy: as the trailer came out and we got a glimpse of this “interesting” Ancient One, it doesn’t look as if they’ve really tried to tweak anything about the character. The setting is clearly Asian (a temple on top of a hill) and the combat discipline looks a lot like martial arts. This looks like a serious case of a Tibetan trapped in Tilda Swinton’s body.

  1. ”The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.- Robert Cargill (co-writer), speaking on Dr. Strange

Dear Mr. Cargill,
I think it’s time we break to you that the Chinese don’t deny the existence of Tibet or Tibetans. When people from Tibet come up to them and say hello, they do not pretend they didn’t hear and walk right past them. They just think, politically, that Tibet should be governed by China. So unless your “one billion people” are Indians, this argument is never going to win you the seat of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

  1. There are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level.”-  Max Landis, (Screenwriter), speaking on Ghost in the Shell (2017)

 That is arguable, but one has to admit, not far from true.
However, this argument raises a deeper rooted question on institutional racism: why, after all these years, do we still not have top-rated, internationally recognized actors of Asian descent, or any non-Caucasian race for that matter, who can justify huge film-making budgets?
It’s rhetorical, yes, but you’re free to attempt an answer.

4 Comments

  1. Something i came across while googling discussions about japanese anime character traits, which speaks to the perception of some of the target audience of hollywood movies (even though the point about stereotyping ethnicities is being made by, well, stereotyping):
    “If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being. For them to think it is a woman I have to add a dress or long hair; for Asian, I have to add slanted eyes; for black, I add curly hair or brown skin. Etc.”

  2. That’s quite a thought. Race lies in the eyes of the beholder.
    Interestingly though, there is no minimal stick description for a Hispanic, or an Indian. Should we create one? How about a soccer ball at the feet and a computer screen showing code next to the figure, respectively?

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