When Katherine Hepburn donned slanted-eye makeup to play a Japanese woman in 1944′s Dragon Seed, the United States was embroiled in a war in which Japan was one of the aggressors. Laurence Olivier played the Moor Othello in blackface for the titular 1965 movie adaptation of the Shakespeare play, which came out at a time when America was waist-deep in the Civil Rights Movement.
While it was unfortunate that studios likely didn’t even consider talented actors of the appropriate ethnicity for either role, both are examples from a foregone era of racial intolerance. What’s truly incensing is that not much has changed over half a century later, even with a black man in the Oval Office and historically underrepresented minorities holding professional and political positions that were unattainable not so long ago. Even in the Twitter Era, when no one lets anyone get away with anything, it’s mind-blowing that studios like to keep their lead roles as European as possible in damn near any film that’s not a period piece, a biopic or starring one of maybe four or five truly bankable black or Latino movie stars.
The upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings is catching justifiable heat for its cast of white actors in lead roles of a film based on a “true” (if the Bible means anything to you) story set in ancient Africa, while featuring a slew of unknown black actors in either servile or antagonistic roles. The controversy has caught so much attention, it even has its own Wikipedia paragraph.
The whitewashing of films like Exodus in recent years has been subtle and not-so, and the examples are too plentiful to list here exhaustively. Some high-profile ones: Jake Gyllenhaal — he of the broody, punchable face — was tasked to play the titular character in 2010′s crappy video game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Yes, the prince of Persia (a.k.a. modern day Iran). And his love interest, the Persian princess, is played by Gemma Arterton, a woman so British she’s probably got a tramp stamp of the Union Jack.
Angelina Jolie has twice played roles not suited for her German-Dutch ancestry: once in 2008′s Wanted, where she played the lead role of Fox — who is unambiguously black and modeled after Halle Berry in the comic book source material (a non-controversy since not enough people were familiar with Mark Millar‘s book) — and also as Mariane Pearl, who’s brown-skinned and of mixed race in real life, in 2007′s A Mighty Heart.
It’s even been argued that Hollywood sweetheart and delightful awards show goofball Jennifer Lawrence represents the whitewashing of Katniss Everdeen, who is described in the Hunger Games book as an “olive-skinned” member of the lower class; author Suzanne Collins‘ allegories of the race and socioeconomic dichotomy in the book series are quite manifest, which makes casting natural blonde Lawrence as the rebel leader of a movement with clear racial undertones pretty ironic. (Also ironic: the racist bulls**t that reared itself as a result of Amandla Stenberg’s casting as Rue)
I understand that Hollywood has a vested interest in the financial bottom line, especially in a zeitgeist in which an ever-increasing buffet of media options is only partly to blame for a steady decline in box office. And given the planet that we live on, it’s no surprise that the most bankable actors (not named Will Smith) are white.
It doesn’t make it any less painful to watch talented black actors like Viola Davis relegated to roles in garbage-ass Tyler Perry films when she deserves the profile of someone like Jolie. Or less disheartening to open my Entertainment Weekly magazine week after week and not get to read that Lupita Nyong’o, fresh off an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, has Hollywood breaking her door down for lead roles like they did with Lawrence after her Oscar (though I am excited to see Nyong’o take on a lead role in the film adaptation of Americanah, one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years).
And then there are the inherent issues with the lack of a high profile that most minority actors have. Indie films like A Mighty Heart benefit from a marquee name like Jolie’s, and even she couldn’t save it from crashing and burning at the box office. I’d like to believe that the real-life Mariane Pearl hand-picked Jolie for the role to help boost its profile, not for the reason she provided: “It is not about the color of your skin. It is about who you are. I asked her to play the role—even though she is way more beautiful than I am—because I felt a real kinship to her.”
Whatever. I’m sure Hollywood is stocked with a bunch of talented Cree Summer-lookalikes who’d kill their mother for a breakout role like that.
The whole thing is something of a chicken-egg issue: Does Hollywood make a conscious effort to cast more ethnic minorities in lead roles in an attempt to make them more mainstream? Or do we raise hell every time Exodus happens, threatening boycotts and using the always-effective Twitter to voice our concerns? We can’t expect the handful of rising minority actors to be ultra-picky if they want to have any kind of career, so is it really up to us, the consumer?
Unfortunately, completely eradicating the whitewashing problem in Hollywood is tantamount to solving much larger, pandemic issues with race in America. I’m afraid getting people sufficiently pissed off at seeing a pretty, white Katniss on the big screen is like Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill.
I, for one, will start by not shelling out dough to see Exodus. Which sucks because swords-and-sandals epics are totally in Ridley Scott’s wheelhouse.