The practice of casting white actors in non-white roles is still prevalent in Hollywood – despite widespread condemnation and protest. Why does it continue? Tom Brook reports.

This week Pan, the story of Peter Pan’s origins opens in the US. Already there has been controversy. The film-makers caused an outcry when it was announced that Rooney Mara, a white actress, had been cast in the role of Tiger Lily, a character widely viewed as being Native American. An online petition that now has 94,000 signatories has a crystal clear message to the studio: “Stop Casting White Actors to Play People of Color!"

The furore over Pan is one of several where studios have cast a white actor in a non-white role, which include the romantic comedy Aloha, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, where there were complaints that roles in the picture were ‘whitewashed’.

“There was not one Asian or Pacific Islander actor who had much to say in the whole film,” says Guy Aoki, head and co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). Aoki was also dismayed to see a white actress, Emma Stone, cast as a woman who has Hawaiian and Chinese heritage.

Emma Stone can play whatever role she wants, she’s not hurting for parts – Guy Aoki

Cameron Crowe wrote an apology on his blog. "I have heard your words and your disappointment”, he said, “and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice.” He then explained why he cast Stone for the part: “[She] was written to be a super-proud one-quarter Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one”.

Guy Aoki believes the casting was plain wrong. “As opposed to just hiring an actor who was part Hawaiian and Asian, he gave the role to a woman who has her pick of roles, Emma Stone can play whatever role she wants, she’s not hurting for parts.”

 

‘Whitewashing’?

The list of films in which white actors have played other races includes everything from romantic comedies to action adventures and fantasies to historical epics. Last year Ridley Scott found himself under scrutiny because his picture Exodus: Gods and Kings had non-Arab actors playing Egyptian roles. And in 2013 there were complaints over Johnny Depp’s casting as the Native American Tonto in The Lone Ranger. Jake Gyllenhaal also found himself in the midst of criticism because as an actor of Swedish and Jewish heritage, he had been cast in the lead in the 2010 film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Having white actors play other races, often in a ways that mock, is as old as the film industry itself. African-Americans have long felt the full brunt of the ‘whitewashing’ of roles as have other races, including Asians. “It was very hurtful,” says Guy Aoki. “The upshot of that is you are basically telling the audience ‘Don’t take Asian people seriously’.”

He recalls how white actors in ‘yellow-face’ would portray the ominous villain Fu Manchu in the 1930s or how Mickey Rooney played a buffoonish Japanese businessman with fake buck teeth and coke bottle glasses in the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Given that so many groups and individuals find having white actors replace those from different racial groups abhorrent, why does it continue?

Racism is certainly a factor contributing to the casting of white people to play other races

“I guess there’s a certain institutional force and memory that exists out there,” says Sony's film studio chief Tom Rothman, one of the top players in Hollywood. But he adds, “I think the industry’s improving but I certainly agree with those who say we haven’t come far enough fast enough.”

Jeffery Mio, author of Multicultural Psychology: Understanding Our Diverse Communities, thinks these casting practices have more to do with people in the Los Angeles film industry just hiring people who are familiar. “Part of it is that people cast people that they feel comfortable with and so if someone has a similar background you feel more comfortable with them. Here we are in America being a multicultural society and yet we still tend to be in our own silos,” he says.

‘Black doesn’t travel’

There is also the argument that white stars in Hollywood have the biggest pull at the box office, therefore a producer will cast a white actor in order to maximise returns. According to this line of thinking Rooney Mara is going to give Pan better commercial prospects than a lesser-known Native American actress in the role of Tiger Lily.

The myth that ‘black doesn’t travel’ would be laughable if it weren’t so damaging – David White

But many in the industry believe the argument that films with non-white actors don’t crossover or engage prized overseas audiences is fallacious. “The myth that ‘black doesn’t travel’ would be laughable if its perpetuation weren’t so damaging. From Will Smith to Denzel Washington to David Oyelowo, the work of black actors is consumed and celebrated in markets across the globe,” says David White, National Executive Director of the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA.

In fact Guy Aoki believes the potential for non-white actors to do well in Hollywood is now greater than ever given the changing world market for US cinema. “China has become the second biggest movie market,” he reminds us. “And so if you have more Asian-Americans in these films, they’d love to see themselves reflected. Why wouldn’t they embrace a movie that has a lot of them? So I think that’s a ridiculous argument that overseas would not accept Asian people.”

Audiences for authenticity

Media watchdog groups frustrated by years of intransigence are calling for an actor’s background to match the part as much as possible.

At least one studio head, Tom Rothman, agrees with that position. “I think it’s a balance between getting the very best actor for the part and being sure that diversity is properly represented on the screen”, he says. “I do think when you ask about Native Americans, when you ask about people of colour on screen in general, I think that the business has to do a much better job of representing the diversity of the audience on screen.”

Many argue that the preferred course of action would be for the industry to cast the most qualified actor for the role. But Jeffery Mio argues that approach often perpetuates the status quo. “That’s the argument that directors and casting directors make, but a lot of times ethnic actors will tell us that when they say we’re just choosing the best actor, they mean we’re choosing our friends, or people we’re used to.”

One problem in the battle to get Hollywood to change its casting policies is the lack of a unified opposition within the industry with a single clear voice. While some media watchdog groups might not want white people cast in non-white roles that doesn’t sit well with the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA.

“The laws insist that one’s race not be part of the qualifications for a job,” says David White. “SAG-AFTRA doesn’t advocate for the hiring of one person over another or one group over another.” But he does acknowledge that the diversity of roles available is falling short. “We absolutely find the continued lack of opportunities to be woefully out of touch with what audiences, both here and abroad, expect from producers in 2015,” he states.

Audiences are now demanding more authenticity

Audiences are now demanding more authenticity. They want to see a Native American play a Native American and audiences are quick to object using social media to make their protest known. Adam Moore, National Director of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity at SAG-AFTRA says that “more and more inauthentic portrayals are being rejected. More and more the creators of the content, those who greenlight the projects and those responsible for hiring the talent to play these parts, are seeking talent who can authentically tell these stories.”

Ultimately ‘whitewashing’ may decrease as the United States becomes more multicultural and in turn Hollywood – where white males call the shots – becomes more diverse. The second annual Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA published in February found that in 2013 94% of people in the executive ranks of the film studios were white. With minorities under-represented in all stages of production both in front of and behind the camera, it remains a white industry. Until that changes significantly – and there are signs that it has begun in television – many believe Hollywood’s decades-old tendency to cast white people to play other races in films will continue.

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