The issue of whitewashing in Hollywood has been a long and controversial one for the film industry. Whitewashing isn’t one single thing either. There’s a part of the issue that argues for the representing of a population equally on film. There’s the issue of casting white actors in a role originally written for people of non-white races, effectively rewriting the role to get someone white in it. And then there’s the issue of casting of white actors to play non-Caucasian characters and simply dressing them up in makeup or prosthetics—one of the most offensive traditions still kicking around.
Since it’s only been in the last few decades that whitewashing has really come under fire, there are countless films from the 60s (and before) that used white actors for almost every role. Because of that tradition in Hollywood, this list will put a much greater emphasis on films made more recently. These issues are better understood today, and there are plenty of qualified actors of all the different races to fill the required positions, so there are no more excuses—despite what some filmmakers might suggest.
Whether this is a casting issue or a studio financing issue, it is an existing issue, and there’s the rub. So many times we see a character and think, why is Tom Cruise playing a samurai? Or, why do all foreign people sound British? It’s a sad commentary on the current state of the industry as a whole that this list has any modern examples, let alone a dozen. The whitewashing issues that were left off of this list are enough to make you sick, and they weren’t even bad enough to make a top 15 list. Any example of whitewashing is ugly, and here are 15 of the most controversial cases of Hollywood whitewashing.
15. Mr. Yunioshi, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
While it wasn’t until about the 90s that movie fans and critics started to question Mickey Rooney‘s portrayal of the Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it has managed to keep up the controversy today, if only because of its status as a classic film. Rooney plays a squint-eyed, buck-toothed and clumsy Japanese man with a horribly offensive accent; there’s really nothing inoffensive about it at all. Rooney is on record as saying that he never knew he was doing anything offensive or he wouldn’t have done it. Even though this was done during an age that this type of thing wasn’t openly criticized, it still makes it awkward to watch.
14. Asians, Cloud Atlas
There is a lot of discussion about whether Cloud Atlas is racist or not because the entire thing is a discussion of the immateriality of race. Well, on the surface, dressing a bunch of non-Asian actors in eye prosthetics to show them as Asians, instead of, well, casting actual Asians is depressing. The argument about studio funding notwithstanding, the makeup is racist—no doubt about it. I don’t want to be the one to tell you, but when the guy who plays Jude and sings The Beatles in Across the Universe (Jim Sturgess) is playing a Korean in Cloud Atlas, we got a problem. It is a difficult issue to film though, so we can’t be too harsh. There’s a few different racial issues throughout and, at the end of the day, I think that Cloud Atlas is actually one of the least offensive on the list.
13. Khan, Star Trek Into Darkness
Khan Noonien Singh is the North Indian Sikh mastermind from the Star Trek franchise. When J.J. Abrams set out to find someone to play this ethnic role for Star Trek Into Darkness, it was decided that they should cast the most British person in the entire world, Benedict Cumberbatch. Why is he so British? Buddy’s name is Benedict, Benedict Cumberbatch. If that doesn’t scream North Indian Sikh than what does? Well, at least they rewrote the character and didn’t darken his skin or put a turban on his head. Honestly, though, that wouldn’t even surprise me at this point.
12. Everyone, Exodus: Gods and Kings
In 2014, when you’re looking for some qualified actors to play such classical Egyptian characters as Ramesses II, Moses, Joshua and Ramesses II’s mother, Tuya, there’s no need to look any further than Caucasian and U.K. born Christian Bale, Caucasian Australian Joel Edgerton, and Caucasian Americans Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver. Throw these white folk in a tanning bed and decorate them in Egyptian jewelry and you’ve covered your bases, right? Well, if you ask Ridley Scott, yeah, pretty much. Scott argues, however, that the only reason this whitewashing takes place is because the studios won’t fund projects without big name actors behind it, and the majority of big name actors are Caucasian. The only thing more offensive than Scott’s casting choices is actually in the flippant way he dismissed claims of controversy, as if those pointing out the very obvious issues were the crazy ones.
11. Genghis Khan, The Conqueror
In 1956, Howard Hughes got the idea to produce a film about the legendary Mongol leader, Genghis Khan, and call it The Conqueror. The movie had a number of controversies attached to it, such as filming it downwind of a nuclear testing site which many attribute to the nearly 50% of the cast and crew developing cancer later on in life. But it was the casting decision which caused many to scratch their heads because Hughes’ first choice for the role of the Northeast Asian Genghis Khan was none other than Iowa born John Wayne. Slap a Fu Manchu-style mustache on the Duke and call him Asian, that was the genius plan. Unfortunately for them, it was ridiculed even then and was named one of the worst movies ever. It’s worth noting here that Christopher Lee donned a similar getup in Fu Manchu like six times in his career, so John Wayne wasn’t the only one looking so silly.
10. Goku, Dragonball Evolution
The luckiest thing that could ever happen to the creators of Dragonball Evolution is that the film is just so bad that it is basically already forgotten. If it had a shred of quality in it at all, people might still care that the main stars for the anime story are Caucasian. It would be really interesting to see the minutes from the original casting meeting. Like how does it get to the point when they decide on a white actor to portray one of the most famous Asian cartoon characters of all time? And it’s not even like this guy is any good. The least the filmmakers could have done is get a white actor that allows you to make up excuses. It would be a lot easier to argue that getting Leonardo DiCaprio to play Mahatma Gandhi made sense because Leo’s movies make $200 million in a blink than saying, “we just had to cast Justin Chatwin.” Who
9. Othello, Othello (1965)
To look at the role today is a bit of a shock, but we have to remember that Laurence Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the black Shakespearean character, Othello. Since you can’t change the race of the famous character, what do you do? Well, you simply paint Laurence Olivier’s face and hands black. Don’t stop there though, paint his lips red, change his walk and develop an accent. Now you’ve got one of the most offensive characters ever filmed for the big screen. Wow is this one ever weird to look at. The off-coloring of the film quality makes Olivier look almost blue on today’s TVs, which only draws more attention to how bad this one really is.
8. Divya Narendra, The Social Network
The Indian-American Divya Narenda, one of the original founders of HarvardConnection, the inspiration for Facebook, was one of the characters that needed to be casted in the 2010 film, The Social Network. When trying to fill that role, you would expect to hear a number of Indian actors read for it, but that’s actually not what happened at all. For this particular role, the filmmakers thought it best to cast an actor with Italian, Scottish and Chinese in him, Max Minghella. Why cast an Indian actor when you have Minghella? If you didn’t recognize Minghella in the film, it’s probably because he was significantly darker than he usually is, even though the people responsible for The Social Network said that he was not artificially darkened in any way. I don’t who to believe but something about his coloring doesn’t feel quite natural.
7. Chante Mallard, Stuck
Some films today are going above and beyond when it comes to whitewashing a film. In 2007, the filmmakers for Stuck had an idea. Instead of casting an African-American woman to play the African-American Chante Mallard, the Texas woman who hit a man with her car, lodging him in the windshield, drove home and left him to die in her garage, they simply changed the name of the character to Brandi Boski and cast Caucasian actress Mena Suvari—bingo bango, not whitewashing, right? Er, not quite. Not only is the story so clearly about Chante Mallard, they just gave Suvari some cornrows and called it a day. Taking a well-known story and changing it to fit in a white actress only makes this more awkward. It’s not like Suvari is crazy bankable, either. This is no Jennifer Lawrence here. Not even talking about the whitewashing issue, it’s just painful to look at Suvari with cornrows.
6. Minister, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
Rob Schneider‘s grandmother is Filipina, so it seems that makes him comfortable donning makeup and prosthetics to make him appear Japanese in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Surprisingly, and maybe luckily for Schneider, this film is so offensive for so many different groups that Schneider might actually be able to live long enough to see people forget all about it. For the film, Schneider puts on a brutal accent and looks about as foolish as you can get. For someone so offended about racist remarks made about Jewish people, you would think he would think twice about performing something so racist. But, alas, that is not the case.
5. Aang, Katara and Sokka, The Last Airbender
When casting Asian and Inuit characters, don’t use Caucasian actors instead; this is the lesson we’ve learned from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. This is a film that was boycotted by Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, while many other groups rallied against it. The movie isn’t as bad as many claim it to be, but the casting decisions are truly horrible. Shyamalan has argued that his multiethnic cast should be celebrated and not condemned, but it’s the lack of an Asian presence that is concerning for most people. Even though it is not really specified what race everyone is in the original story, it takes place in an Asiatic world, so to completely erase an Asian presence in favor of Caucasian populations is a problem.
4. Dastan and Friends, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Ahhh, the Prince of Persia, Dastan, played by none other than the long-lost Persian son Jake Gyllenhaal, Swedish and Polish-Jewish descendant Jake Gyllenhaal. When the makers of this film sat down to discuss what Iranian actor would play the main character, Dastan, it must have been an awkward discussion that led to them settling on Gyllenhaal. Like who was the first one to suggest his name? I would have loved to hear the reasoning behind it. Then, after you choose one non-Iranian actor, you might as well go all in and just give every major role to non-Iranian actors—there’s just no need to go halfway when you’re rewriting racial history. You got to at least give the Prince of Persia team points for commitment.
3. Tiger Lily, Pan
Tiger Lily, the daughter of the Native Chief in Neverland, was one of the stars of Pan, the 2015 Peter Pan film, so who better to play the role of an indigenous female than Rooney Mara? Mara has a rich heritage made up with just about every Caucasian population you can think of. In Mara’s defense, she does seem quite regretful of her inclusion in the whitewashing discussion. The director, Joe Wright, argued that casting a Native-American might have started an entirely different racial discussion, so he decided to cast a multiethnic group of people, and by multiethnic, he meant an all-Caucasian primary cast of course. Bravo Mr. Wright, way to dig the hole you live in deeper than anyone thought possible.
2. Everyone, Gods of Egypt
Gods of Egypt has taken it on the chin for their casting decisions, probably as much or more than any other film on the list. It doesn’t help that the film is pure garbage, but casting an almost all-white cast to portray Egyptian gods might have even been funny if it wasn’t so sad. It might be that the only thing more offensive than casting Caucasian actors to play non-Caucasian characters is casting Caucasian actors to play non-Caucasian gods and religious figures. Why in the world would the Egyptians worship white people? You can compare these casting decisions to those made in Noah and Passion of the Christ. It seems that in Hollywood all-white casts tend to be the stand-in for all religious figures, regardless of what region you’re portraying.
1. Ben Jabituya, Short Circuit
This whitewashing really gathered some steam from Aziz Ansari’s Master of None when he talks about Indians on TV. For many, the character of Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit was just an Indian guy playing an Indian character, but we were mistaken; that was actually Fisher Stevens, a Jewish actor from Chicago. Instead of casting an actual Indian actor for the role, they cast a virtual unknown in Stevens, put him in brownface, give him an Indian accent and let him run with it. Was his performance so convincing that it fooled everyone or was it just a case of disinterest because of the time the movie was made? Whatever the answer, it makes me feel a little dirty that I never recognized this case of whitewashing until Ansari pointed it out to me. Well, he didn’t point it out directly to me, but you know what I mean.
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