Hollywood’s Colour Problem: How ‘Whitewashing’ Reveals The Dark Side Of The Film Industry

Posted on May 7, 2015

By Gayle Sequeira

Racism, much like the Lernaean Hydra, keeps finding new ways to rear its ugly head(s). The implicit prejudices of those in power repeatedly rendered explicit through new mediums do not immediately arrest the attention of the masses and thus, over time, become normalized and internalized. Whitewashing – the practice of casting white actors in roles that are canonically to be played by ethnically diverse actors, noticed in Hollywood as early as the 1930s is becoming increasingly prevalent in modern cinema. Here are a few examples of whitewashing in recent films:

whitewashing in hollywood

In January, Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the Japanese anime film ‘Ghost In The Shell’ based on a Japanese mange, set in Japan and featuring a majority of Japanese characters. The backlash was swift and immediate. A petition entitled “DreamWorks: Stop Whitewashing Asian Characters!” garnered 49,584 signatures on last count. This casting is problematic as it adds to the marginalization of an already under-represented group. A USC study discovered that in 2013, Asian characters accounted for only 4.4% of speaking roles in the top-grossing films.

Avengers: Age of Ultron’ whitewashed the Romani twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, scripting them as Caucasians, having them voluntarily work with a neo-Nazi organization (a slap in the face of their Jewish heritage and identity as the children of Holocaust survivors) and ultimately casting white actors Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson in the roles.

Exodus: Gods and Kings’ was considered to be one of the worst offenders of this kind, featuring an almost exclusively white cast despite being set in Egypt. Director Ridley Scott’s feeble attempts at a justification – “[If] my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such, I’m just not going to get it financed,” reeks of thinly veiled racism.

Benedict Cumberbatch found himself at the center of not one, but two whitewashing controversies when he took on the roles of Khan Noonien Singh (in the ironically titled ‘Star Trek: Into The Darkness‘), explicitly described as being Sikh in the episode script of ‘Space Seed‘, and that of Dr. Stephen Strange in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange movie. That’s the sixth character in the Marvel universe (out of six) to be cast as a white man.

Closer to home, films such as ‘Love Aaj Kal‘, ‘Mickey Virus‘ etc. that cast foreign, light-skinned actors/actresses as Indians further contribute to this problem of whitewashing.

Why is whitewashing wrong? Well for one thing, it is deliberate racism, characterized by a discrimination against specific ethnic groups, those in the minority. Such groups are rarely seen as main protagonists, they mostly do minor blink-and-miss roles. Even worse, stereotyping occurs when such groups are made to play the villains juxtaposed against white heroes. The best, or worst example of this would be M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender‘. Casting calls for this movie “indicated white actors for leads and people of colour for villains, secondary characters and background extras“.

In addition to this, whitewashing also radically re-writes history in a manner that is racially skewed, painting such groups as villainous caricatures of their real selves and trivializing their successes. Such films make it seem as though the only successes worth celebrating are those that feature the white man at the helm.

However, re-interpretations of classics such as ‘Annie‘, featuring African-American actors Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis in the leads, and the much-publicized social media campaigns promoting the inclusion of diverse actors in mainstream movies and television shows such as the campaign for a non-white Spiderman, and the petition for Idris Elba to play the first black Bond, show that global audiences are actively crusading against the erasure of minority cultures. What remains now is for the film industry to address its xenophobia and end racism on celluloid once and for all.

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