“White-washing” is a big problem in Hollywood. The term refers to the overwhelming domination of white actors and characters in our current media. At the Oscars, over 80% of nominees are white; it has nothing to do with acting talent of minority actors and everything to do with the fact that minority actors are denied opportunities to act. Many times that minority actors are lauded for their performances, it’s in movies centered around racial struggles; it’s rare that a minority actor is given a chance to shine in a movie unrelated to race.
This is no new issue, either. If you look back at some of our great classics, you’ll see horrifyingly offensive examples: Laurence Olivier playing Othello in black face, for instance, or Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra, or Mickey Rooney and his awful performance pretending to be an Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We see these examples and shudder at how offensive they are, but we’re still casting white people as people of color today!
Take the film Gods of Egypt, for instance, which released in February of this year. The film takes place in Egypt, so you’d assume there would be a lot of people of color given opportunities in this film, right? WRONG. There are few non white actors in this movie. Why? Why is this movie, which supposedly celebrates ancient Egyptian culture, all about white people?
Still don’t believe we whitewash our media? See for yourself! Here are twenty examples of white actors playing ethnic characters.
20. Mena Suvari in Stuck
This one’s just embarrassing. Stuck is about a woman who commits a hit and run and then finds her life tightly revolving around the victim of her crime. It’s based on the true life story of Chante Jawan Mallard, a black woman. When you think about her story with the context of her race, it changes the explanation of why she was fearful to turn herself in for her crimes and why she ended up following this different path. Yet, in the movie, the main character’s name is changed to Brandi Boski and they cast Mena, who is half Greek and half Estonian – basically, as white as white can get. They even went so far as to put cornrows in her hair, as if that somehow inspired the idea that Brandi was marginalized or a victim of discrimination. There was no excuse to cast a white woman in this role meant for a black woman.
19. Russell Crowe in Noah
Oh, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. This is your second movie on this list. You two had better watch out.
Noah is the cinematic depiction of the old testament story in which Noah builds an arc at God’s command, loads it up with two of every animal, and saves his family from the flood that God creates to wash the Earth clean of unholy people. Theologists and professionals in biblical research believe Noah lived near the Black Sea, which resides in southeastern Europe and is surrounded by countries like Turkey, Romania, and Ukraine. Why is it, then, that Noah is played by an Australian who doesn’t look at all like Noah would have? The true answer is that Russell Crowe wanted to play the role and that was reason enough to make the movie. But could we for once see a Middle Eastern person playing a biblical role, since that’s where the WHOLE BIBLE took place?
18. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Speaking of biblical stories, we can’t forget the latest retelling of Moses’ story. In this 2014 spectacle flick, Christian Bale played the role of Moses and Joel Edgerton played the role of Pharaoh Ramses. As you likely know, the movie takes place in Egypt, where slave-born Moses, who was raised alongside his royal brother Ramses, leads all the slaves of Egypt away from the pharaoh’s clutches and into the promised land (with a little help from God). But we’ve got a problem: the Egyptian brothers are played by a Welsh (Bale) and an Australian (Edgerton). Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so offensive if the studio admitted to whitewashing for star power; instead, Bale and Edgerton (as well as many other white cast members like Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul) were made to look more Egyptian by using heavy eyeliner and skin tanner. Wow. We all love Christian Bale, but we can all see this was a misstep.
17. Carey Mulligan in Drive
Sweetheart Carey Mulligan played the innocent and loving Irene in this instant hit based on the book by James Sallis. She won our hearts with her heart-wrenching performance, but there’s still a problem here: Irene was written as a Latina woman in her late twenties. When she auditioned for the role, James Sallis reported that her chemistry with lead Ryan Gosling was undeniable and she felt perfect for the role. Perhaps that’s true, but imagine if a lesser known Latina woman had been given the role, as originally intended: the film was so popular that it would have rocketed her career forward and given her a real chance to take Hollywood by storm. Instead, it was handed to Carey.
16. Analeigh Tipton in Warm Bodies
Based on the Isaac Marion paranormal romance novel, Warm Bodies was a comedic 2013 hit. Model and actress Analeigh Tipton played the ingenuous quirky and nervous best friend, Nora, and she did a fine job of it but she didn’t at all fit the character description. In the novel, Nora is half-Ethiopian; Analeigh Tipton certainly is not. Her heritage may not play a direct role in the overarching plot, but it certainly explains why she makes certain decisions and gives her a more dynamic background. Isaac Marion’s defense of the casting decision was that “[the casting directors] paid more attention to the actor’s personalities than to their physical appearances,” which is only a marginally valid argument.
15. Josh Hartnett in 30 Days of Night
In this 2007 horror film, Josh plays the small town Alaskan sheriff Eben Oleson, who attempts to defend his town from darkness dwelling vampires that have come to decimate the town. 30 Days of Night is based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles and IDW comics and, in the graphic novel, the character of Sheriff Eben Olemaun is of Inuit descent (which is fairly obvious, given his name). The studio insisted they wouldn’t be able to find a talented enough actor of Inuit descent, so they changed the character’s last name and cast Josh instead. But he just plays one character, right; it’s not like that casting choice takes that much credibility away from the movie. Here’s the thing: in Barrow, Alaska, where the graphic novel and movie are set, the population is overwhelmingly native American. To represent this town, they selected an overwhelmingly white cast. See the problem?
14. Jim Sturgess in 21
21 is about an insanely smart group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that trained themselves in counting cards and took millions of dollars away from Vegas Casinos. The movie is based on true events that happened back in the 1990s. In the movie, Jim Sturgess plays the lead role of Ben Campbell. In reality, the character he played was Jeff Ma (now a co-founder of the sports stock market site, PROTRADE); in fact, most of the MIT blackjack team was Asian (excluding only Jane Willis, known as Jill in the film). So why were they all white in the movie? The studio claimed there weren’t any “bankable Asian-American actors.” For shame, Sony Pictures. That excuse is pretty lame.
13. Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind
This 2001 award winning film was directed by Ron Howard and, though it doesn’t exactly demonstrate the disorder of schizophrenia correctly, it did a lot to bring attention to life-changing implications of mental health problems. The movie was based on a book, which was based on the real life struggles of John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in economics who suffers from schizophrenia. Jennifer Connelly plays John Nash’s wife, Alicia, in the film. However, Alicia is from El Salvador; Jennifer doesn’t look like she’s spent a day of her life in central America. Though the role was a very emotional and complex one, there are plenty of Latina actresses that could have handled the demands of the role. Instead, for purposes and reasons unknown, Jennifer was given the role. Perhaps Ron Howard simply recognized that Jennifer and Russell Crowe (who played John Nash) had great onscreen chemistry; perhaps Jennifer and Ron had a great working relationship that they wanted to utilize on a film project.
12. Natalie Wood in West Side Story
Sure, this example is a little bit more dated, but it’s just as offensive. West Side Story was made back in 1961 and starred the then popular actors Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Natalie played the Puerto Rican lover Maria, who falls in love with the rival gang member Tony and the two share a Romeo and Juliet romance that, of course, ends badly. Natalie Wood, however, is a Russian American – not at all Puerto Rican. What’s worse is that she can’t even sing; Marni Nixon dubbed over all of her songs! Natalie Wood was only given the role of Maria because of her star power, and she took the role from potentially amazing actresses of Puerto Rican descent. The real hero of West Side Story is Rita Moreno, who played Anita. The sensational singer/danger/actress is actually from Puerto Rico and made her country proud with her showstopping performance.
11. Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer
Speed Racer is a Japanese classic cartoon about a young boy who aspires to be the best race car driver on the circuit. When the cartoon had a live-action movie made for it in 2008, the cast was not at all what we’d expected (or hoped for). Speed was played by Emile Hirsch, a 100% white American actor. The casting choices continued to disappoint, including Susan Sarandon as his mother, John Goodman as his father, Christina Ricci as Trixie, and Matthew Fox as Racer X. While these actors are all very talented and performed admirably, it wasn’t theirs to perform. Speed Racer was and still is a beloved character in Japanese culture; he marked the beginning of an era in anime and manga whose legacy still persists today. Yet, the movie only incorporated a few elements of Japanese culture in its design aesthetic. This movie is practically an insult to Japanese culture.
10. Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
This movie, based on a classic video game, is another shocking disappointment. Obviously, the game took place in Persia and, when it was announced that it would be made into a movie, we expected to see actors of color in the cast; perhaps it would even launch the career of a new actor that at least looked Persian, if he wasn’t actually Persian. Instead, we got some of the whitest people possible: Bubble Boy and Gretel. Jake is a part Swedish/mostly American actor and Gemma is British; neither look Persian at all. Yet, they play a Persian prince and princess who save the world from mythical evils. Couldn’t we have given these heroic roles to people of color? It would’ve finally been an opportunity to have action heroes that aren’t white! Instead, we got more of the same old, same old casting – which may explain why the movie wasn’t very successful.
9. Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger
Do we even have to explain this one?
Johnny Depp wanted to make more movies that his children could watch, since many of his films have a darker, “adult,” and more macabre tone (think The Rum Diaries, Sweeney Todd, or Donnie Brasco). So, he went to Disney and told them that, if they made The Lone Ranger, he’d play Tonto. After all the money Disney has made off of Johnny Depp and his misadventures as the pirate Jack Sparrow, they were wont to saying yes to all he wanted. So the movie was produced, with the Kentucky-born, white, American actor playing a native American. The entire role is a horribly offensive appropriation of native American culture, and it’s honestly shocking that there weren’t riots across internet forums when the movie came out. Of all the roles Johnny Depp could have selected and brought to Disney, did he have to choose one that made a joke out of an entire culture?
8. Justin Chatwin in Dragonball: Evolution
Here’s another white-American appropriation of Japanese culture. Get ready for a lack of surprises.
Dragon Ball is a Japanese manga by Akira Toriyama, and the 2009 film Dragonball: Evolution was made at a time when the franchise was very popular and studios hoped to make a lot of money off it. Yet, the movie tanked in every way possible. Wonder what could have gone wrong? Perhaps it was some of the cheesy writing, or the horribly choreographed fight scenes, or the derived story line; it’s more likely, however, that it had something to do with the casting of white Justin Chatwin as the hero Goku (never mind Emmy Rossum also playing heroin Bulma). Really? The studios couldn’t manage to find any Japanese (or even Asian) actors to play the Japanese hero? The only Asian cast members were Yun-Fat Chow, who had a stereotypical Mr. Miyagi type role, and Jamie Chung, who played a hyper-sexed character who seems to do a lot of her scenes in skimpy pajamas, but the two main heroes were still white people!
7. Rooney Mara in Pan
Pan is another movie that pretty much tanked in theaters, but it sparked enough controversy and annoyance in the Native American community that it’s worth mentioning. The film was a sort of prequel to the classic Peter Pan story we all know and love. Certain characters were highlighted in this 2015 backstory, including Tiger Lily. Tiger Lily had a very small role in the animated film; she’s the native American (or wrongly named, Indian) princess that smokes hookah with Peter before kissing him (there are some serious moments of racism in this Disney animated film, but that’s another conversation for another day). In Pan, she is a heroin of grand proportions that propels the plot forward. Only suddenly, she’s a white woman: Rooney Mara played the role. Joe Wright argued for the validity of the casting decision based on the fact that Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie never stated that Tiger Lily was a certain race. Really? HER NAME IS TIGER LILY.
6. Ben Affleck in Argo
This 2012 film is lauded for many reasons, as it should be. It’s a great retelling of actual, remarkable, historic events, and we should all be proud of Ben Affleck for taking the initiative to make it. The movie depicts events in 1980 where a group of US hostages in Iran is rescued by a CIA Agent that stages an elaborate rescue involving the pretend making of a science fiction film. The film has an amazing cast and was made very well, winning it five Oscars. It was undeniably a great film! However, Ben Affleck fudged at least one major fact. The main character, who was played by Ben Affleck himself, is a CIA agent named Tony Mendez, who is Hispanic. Though the real-life Tony Mendez doesn’t identify strongly with Hispanic culture, per se, he is Hispanic. Since Ben Affleck already had the glory of directing and orchestrating such a remarkable film, could he not have cast someone in the lead role that was Hispanic? He could have launched some young man’s career to unreachable heights! Instead, he kept the glory and the role for himself, despite the fact that he wasn’t a perfect fit.
5. Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness
The character of Khan Noonien Singh was always written to be someone of Middle Eastern descent. The character was first introduced in Star Trek: the Original Series as a force to be reckoned with. Kirk defeats him and exiles him to a barren planet, where he grows and thrives despite the harsh climate and returns with deadly consequences in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (which had its own casting problems, since Ricardo Montalban was Mexican, not Middle Eastern). In the newest coming of Khan, super Caucasian actor Benedict Cumberbatch played the super-human character. When criticized, co-screenwriter Robert Orci defended the casting by saying he didn’t want to make a person of color, “especially of Middle Eastern descent,” a villain in this film, given the current zeitgeist. He didn’t want it to be about races fighting, but characters fighting. A decent defense, however it would have been awesome to see a great Middle Eastern actor take on this role that has been denied to them time and time again.
4. Emma Stone in Aloha
We all love Emma Stone. She’s adorable and quirky and lovable. However, even she will tell you that she should not have been cast as Allison Ng in the 2015 film, Aloha. The role of Allison was a Hawaiian Air Force watch-dog that is charged with keeping tabs on Bradley Cooper‘s character, Brian Gilcrest, as he returns to Hawaii for some soul-searching and to find love. The character was based on an actual woman who was 1/4 Hawaiian, half Chinese, and red-haired; she was meant to show the interesting mix of cultures one can find in Hawaii. Both director Cameron Crowe and Emma Stone herself have spoken out against the casting decision, though Emma performed admirably and did due research for her character. It would’ve been so cool to see a woman with these actual cultural backgrounds portraying the character, but the popularity and famous personality of Emma Stone could not be ignored.
3. Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone in The Last Airbender
This movie was disappointing for a lot of reasons, but we’re going to focus on the whitewashing for now. The 2010 M. Night Shyamalan movie was based on the American animated series that took place in an Asiatic-like world wherein telekinesis was used to manipulate elements. Though it was an American cartoon, it borrowed influence from anime and manga produced in Asian popular culture. Thusly, when the movie version came out, it disappointed us all. The main characters of Katara and Sokka, who were based loosely on Inuits, were played by white actors that looked nothing like the animated characters. In fact, all of the good guys were played by white actors; one of the few non-white actors was Dev Patel, who played ‘bad guy’ Prince Zuko, turning it into a movie of white people versus Indian people. It turned the movie into a battle between races where white people won.
2. Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell
This movie is set to release in 2017, but casting choices have just been finalized and we’re all pretty upset about it. Ghost in the Shell is based on a highly popular Japanese manga (which actually sparked its own media franchise, including video games and movies). This American movie, which will be directed by Rupert Sanders, is set to star Scarlett Johansson as the lead heroin, cyborg police officer Kusanagi. WHY? For so long, this celebrated franchise has given readers, gamers, and audience members a Japanese heroin that is a force to be reckoned with; it gave Japanese girls a hero to look up to. And now we’re taking her and making her white? Why? Because Scarlett Johansson is popular or a proven asset on set? Scarlett’s already gotten to be a superhero, multiple times now (Black Widow and Lucy); isn’t it about time we give someone else a chance?
1. Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
That’s right: Katniss Everdeen was originally intended to be a black character.
In the Suzanne Collins books, Katniss is described as having dark, olive skin. Love you, Jennifer, but you don’t exactly match that description; you’ve got more like porcelain white skin. Katniss was more than a hero to the fictional world of Panem, she was a hero to young girls reading the books and watching the movies and believing they had the power and strength to change their world. Katniss was a real hero. While Jennifer Lawrence did a great job playing the role, can you imagine how powerful it would have been to have a young actress of color playing this role? Inspiring efficacy and confidence in young women everywhere? Can you imagine how empowering and inspiring that would have been to young girls of color? Unfortunately, all we can do is imagine because the studios thought a white girl was a more marketable option than a black one.