The Cyclical Pattern of Hollywood White-Washing
Hollywood has long been known for and criticized for the numerous white-washed roles that cast Caucasian or Caucasian-looking actors in the roles of other races and ethnicities. The minority representation in movies is often stereotyped and thus perpetuates the racial and ethnic stereotypes that persist in greater America. We’ve all seen a movie with an African-American actor playing a slave, an Asian-American playing a nerd, and a Latino actor playing a drug-dealer, and there are all appropriate times when this should occur. But the African-American, Asian-American, and Latino experiences cannot and should not be whittled down to these tropes.
The earliest films historically cast white actors in non-white roles. Since the inception of the film industry, minority roles have often gone to white actors. Among the most recognized are Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in Dragon Seed and Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. One of the earliest films, Birth of the Nation (1915) employed blackface on white actors for African-American actors. While these casting decision might have been expected during an era of racial segregation and oppression, Hollywood has continued to make casting decisions that prefer white actors over minority actors. In the last decade, Jake Gyllenhaal was cast in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Justin Chatwin as Goku in Dragonball Z. Films and marketing often go hand in hand and in order to produce revenue, the roles are given to people who not only act, but can produce revenue for the film. Based on the cyclical nature of the film industry, well-known actors are given more roles and few well-known actors are minority, so it is difficult for minority actors to become established in the industry. Films have acted as social barometers, producing what sells to make profit and pushing the boundaries of society. Films have normalized interracial and LGBTQ relationship much more than in the previous decades and they have the potential to continue to be progressive. The difficulty is progressivism breeds controversy and controversy doesn’t always sell.
The Academy Awards and Cinema, though it claims to be, is not a universal institution at this time. The award ceremonies make that clear. Only 1% of Best Directors have been female (Kathryn Bigelow), none have been African-American and this year, and Alfonso Cuaron was the first Mexican to win the award. Since many movies are produced in the hopes of either being a blockbuster hit, or an Academy award winner (or both), producers lend towards making films that will please a predominately-white, predominately-male voting demographic. Only nine Best Actor awards have been given to African-American men. The pandering for awards has led to a movement towards writing characters that will be able to win awards and given the Oscar’s history, minorities have not been favored. It is possible that an unconcious bias from the voters, to prefer characters and storylines that are more relatable sways the winners towards that of the voting demographic.
One of the justifications, of the film industry is to fill roles with well-known actors to help increase the revenue of the film. Due to the limited knowledge of many minority actors, fully capable of playing the roles, bigger named stars are often given preference. Because of the dissonance of white actors playing non-white role the stories are sometimes completely appropriated to “fit” into the American culture. While there was an earlier, Japanese version, the United States’s remake of Hachi: a Dog’s Tale featured Richard Gere as the protagonist, now named Parker Wilson instead of Hidesaburo Ueno. The movie is filmed and set in Rhode Island and the only things remnant of the original story is the name of the dog, Hachiko, and the general storyline. Other than the fact that Richard Gene is more well-known than most Asian-American actors, there was no need to set the story in the United States, nor was it necessary to have a white protagonist.
The casting of a white man instead of an Asian or Asian-American actor shows an appropriation of the Japanese folkloric tale. Other than the dog’s name, there is little reference to the real owner, Hidesaburo Ueno or the Japanese culture or location. As in many white-washed movies, the story is removed from the native culture and transplanted into the Hollywood setting.
Even more caustic, however, is when biographical roles with stunning achievements are white-washed and attributed as a white achievement. One of the notable instances of this was in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center film (2006). Both of the two characters who rescued the protagonist, Sgt. Jason Thomas and Sgt. Dave Karnes, were cast as white actors. Sergeant Thomas is played by William Mapother, a white actor, however, in real life, he is an African-American man. Biopics like World Trade Center, have a moral obligation to get the facts right in order to preserve and educate the audience on the facts of the event.
Oliver Stone’s careless and unprofessional casting of William Mapother as Sergeant Jason Thomas rewrote a lesser known part of 9/11 history to favor whites. Instead of celebrating African-American heroism, the acts of Sergeant Jason Thomas are incorrectly and unjustifiably attributed to the white narrative. More disturbing than the white-washing of fictional characters, the casting decision has redefined this man’s identity and changed his race.
The necessity of stopping white-washing stems from the simple fact that everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in film to show the endless possibilities that life can offer. The roles written by and for minority actors need to be broadened to not only have the stereotypical roles, but demonstrate all possibilities and narratives of these communities. It is time that cinema progresses to reflect all people and not just the minority that it currently reflects.
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