An episode of Aziz Ansari’s critically acclaimed Netflix show Master of None recently sparked (or rather, re-sparked) a discussion about depictions of race in Hollywood. In the episode, aptly titled “Indians on TV,” Ansari’s character, Dev, struggles to find work as an Indian-American actor. First he is asked to do an Indian accent, and then, after auditioning for a role on a television show with a fellow Indian-American actor, he comes to the realization that the studios “just don’t want two Indian dudes starring in a sitcom.”
Not only is it difficult (even in 2015) for people of color to find good, well-rounded roles in Hollywood, playing real people instead of stereotypes, but there’s also the added obstacle of whitewashing, wherein white actors, through the use of blackface, brownface, and yellowface, play people of color.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia makes light of the situation through the ongoing debate between Mac and Dennis about whether or not it’s ever appropriate to do blackface. Dennis expresses his concerns about Mac’s use of blackface in Lethal Weapon 5, while Mac argues, “A lot of great actors have done blackface.” And he’s right. Some of the biggest names in the business have done blackface, yellowface, and brownface. With that in mind, let’s take a look at ten examples, some of which might shock you.
10 Emma Stone - Aloha (2015)
Critically acclaimed director Cameron Crowe cast fair skinned Emma Stone for the character of Allison Ng, who is one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian, in the film Aloha, which did not fair well with critics and audiences alike (you'll notice how that seems to be a trend with films that have examples of whitewashing).
In response to the criticism of his casting choice, Crowe offered an apology and explained that Stone’s character was in fact not supposed to have much resemblance to her heritage, but some still see it as an example of Hollywood’s inadequate representation of people of color.
9 Peter Sellers - The Party (1968)
Legendary British comedian and actor Peter Sellers was famous for immersing himself in his roles. And he did just that for the 1968 comedy The Party, wearing dark makeup and putting on an accent to play the role of Hrundi Bakshi, an Indian actor who is accidentally invited to a Hollywood party. The comedy of the film revolves around Bakshi’s misunderstanding of Western culture.
The use of brownface in The Party is often overshadowed by the film’s experimental nature and warm reception, but the stereotypes are no less prevalent. Like Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Bakshi is a bumbling figure who stands in comedic contrast to the rest of the mostly white cast.
8 Mickey Rooney - Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Legendary actor Mickey Rooney and his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese man, in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they think about stereotypical depictions of Asians in film. In the movie, Rooney dons goofy large teeth and thick glasses, with darkened skin and taped eyes, and he speaks in a ridiculous accent. He also fumbles around the screen, bumping into stuff and generally making a fool of himself while serving as the film’s main comic figure. His role in the film marks a disconcerting trend in Hollywood, wherein people of color serve as clown-like figures.
7 Fisher Stevens - Short Circuit 2 (1988)
Let’s continue with the movie that was discussed throughout the episode of Master of None: Short Circuit 2. It's a silly comedy from 1988 about an Indian scientist named Benjamin Jahrvi and his adventures with a robot. The problem is that Jahrvi is played by Fisher Stevens, a white actor from Chicago, Illinois. To play the role of an Indian, Stevens’s skin color was darkened with makeup and he put on an Indian voice. To his credit, Stevens played the role so convincingly that it took Ansari years to figure out the true race of the actor.
Ansari recently spoke with Stevens about the movie for a piece in The New York Times, in which he said that he felt as though his ethnicity had been mocked. While he did say that there are more Indian people on TV and in movies these days, he also acknowledged the fact that Hollywood still has a long way to go.
6 Angelina Jolie - A Mighty Heart (2007)
Although handpicked for the role by the person upon whom the character was based, Angelina Jolie’s role as Mariane Pearl, a journalist of Afro-Chinese-Cuban descent, in A Mighty Heart was viewed as yet another example of whitewashing in Hollywood. With slightly darker skin and curly hair, Jolie’s transformation wasn’t a very drastic one, but nevertheless Teresa Wiltz of The Washington Post at the time wondered if it wasn’t “the latest entry in the American canon of blackface - 21st-century style?” Sure, it’s not quite at the level of a minstrel show, but it’s yet another example of a role being taken away from a person of color and given to a white person.
5 Mike Myers - The Love Guru (2008)
4 John Wayne - The Conqueror (1956)
By no means a classic, and considered by many to be one of the worst films of all-time, The Conqueror tells the story of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire. And of all the actors in the world, John Wayne, who was born in Iowa and grew up in California and was largely famous for playing tough Americans, played the role of Khan. So it’s no surprise that his role in The Conqueror is considered one of the worst casting decisions in cinema history.
To make matters worse, some believe that the film indirectly led to Wayne’s death, as the film was shot near a nuclear weapons site and several members of the cast and crew (Wayne included) would end up dying of cancer.
3 Laurence Olivier - Othello (1965)
While he certainly wasn’t the first white actor to play the role (Orson Welles did it in 1952), English actor Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of the Moorish general in Shakespeare’s Othello is remembered by most, perhaps because of how dark he made his skin, which drew comparisons to Al Jolson’s infamous use of blackface in The Jazz Singer (1927), and because he used a much deeper voice than normal and acquired a different walking style. Rather than unanimous outrage (although there was certainly some of that), many critics lauded Olivier’s performance, and he was even nominated for an Academy Award.
2 Marlon Brando - The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)
In one of his less memorable films, The Teahouse of the August Moon, a 1956 comedy that takes place in Japan in World War II, American actor Marlon Brando plays Sakini, a Japanese interpreter. Like Rooney, Brando portrays the role with dark skin, dark hair, squinted eyes, and a stereotypical Asian accent, and like Rooney’s Yunioshi, Brando’s Sakini is a comic figure. He’s not foolish like Yunioshi, but he’s childlike and harmless, almost like a Japanese Uncle Tom.
Brando is a particularly unlikely choice for the role of the Japanese interpreter when you consider that, like John Wayne, he was known for playing tough guys.
1 Just about everyone in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, the biblical tale of Moses and the Egyptians, is an example of whitewashing in film on a large scale. Rather than cast Egyptians and Hebrews for the part of, well, the Egyptians and the Hebrews, they decided to go with Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, and Sigourney Weaver, who are English, Australian, American, and American, respectively, and, of course, all Caucasian.
And you’d think the studios would learn from their mistakes, but apparently that’s not the case, as Alex Proyas’s upcoming Gods of Egypt (2016), which stars Scottish actor Gerard Butler and English actor Rufus Sewell, suffers from the same lack of diversity as Exodus.