It would be churlish to say that Hollywood’s diversity problem has made no progress since the golden age of Hollywood. TV shows like Pose sport the biggest transgender cast of any scripted show in history (with most actors being of color), box office smashes like Crazy Rich Asians highlight the lives of East Asians and Asian-Americans, and generally, actors of more races, body types, and gender identities are considered for major roles. But despite these advancements, the issue of whitewashing in Hollywood has made fewer steps towards the ideal than we would like to admit, and these programs and films tend to be exceptions, not rules.
Hollywood whitewashing — or the practice of replacing the experiences of people of color with those of white people, via casting, storytelling method, or other means — is nothing new. In fact, back in that so-coveted Golden Age of Hollywood, it was often second nature. Infamous examples like Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s, John Wayne’s laughable casting as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror and Laurence Olivier’s use of blackface in Othello all illustrate Hollywood’s pure willful ignorance towards racial stereotypes and sensitivity. Film executives simply cast white actors in roles traditionally of color because they assumed it would reach a wider audience that didn’t know any better, and for the most part they didn’t. An original Variety review of The Conquerer even stated that “The marquee value of the John Wayne-Susan Hayward teaming more than offsets any incongruity of the casting.”
It’s easy to think we have gotten better, and in many ways we have. As a viewing audience we are far more culturally aware and willing to call out injustice, and more shows and movies tackle race and racism-related subjects. But even after the notorious #OscarsSoWhite uproar of 2015, the hashtag found its way back into circulation when just five years later only a single performer of color (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet) was nominated for an acting award.
While those older examples surely did cause some degree of backlash in their time (The Hollywood Reporter at least lightly stated that Rooney’s performance was “a caricature [that] will be offensive to many”), real meaningful opposition to whitewashed casting and cultural appropriation has only become truly widespread in the last decade or so.
Recent movies like Aloha, Ghost in the Shell, The Last Airbender and Death Note, amongst many others, have been criticized for casting white actors as characters of color. This is particularly harmful when these films are remakes or adaptations in which the original characters were non-white, as is the case with the latter three films. To cast white actors in the role of the traditionally Chinese and Japanese characters of these features not only diminishes the source material, but the original culture and lore from which it was inspired. Supposedly the creators asked the Japanese public for their opinion on the casting of Scarlett Johansson in GitS in particular, and as it seems many in the East didn’t take offense. While this does demonstrate a small degree of cultural thoughtfulness and good intent, intent is not a good enough excuse. What they failed to consider is the film’s predominately western audience; they should have given weight to the opinions of Asian-Americans, as well as Japanese viewers.
To counter recent accusations of whitewashing, many major studios have taken to attempting to diversify their casting, like several of Disney’s recent live-action remakes, in order to avoid the trope. However, these studios often fail to see (or just ignore) the other criterion that can whitewash a film.
The “white savior” narrative still plagues so many mainstream films, often without repercussion. The Help, lauded by so many at the time of release, in retrospect offered very little perspective on the experience of the titular Black characters that were so very based in reality, and instead focused on the white journalist who swoops in to end their plight. Lead actress Viola Davis said as much when discussing her regrets in starring in the film. A particularly egregious example is 2016’s La La Land, in essence a story about two white people “saving” jazz, which you would think would get some side eye instead of the heaps of praise from the Academy. For as we know, the only thing Hollywood loves more than dry biopics are films about Hollywood.
These films are showered with accolades year after year, like in 2018 when Green Book swept the rug out from under the more-than-deserving Roma to snag Best Picture. The film, based on classic jazz pianist (seeing a pattern?) Don Shirley, was made without consultation or permission from Shirley’s estate, and was widely criticized for not only a white savior narrative, but “redeeming a bigot.” Even animation is not free of such tactics, as Wes Anderson’s stop-motion comedy Isle of Dogs, featuring a white savior school girl character, demonstrates.
— stuart emmrich (@StuartEmmrich) February 25, 2019
Related to the white savior cliché, there are films that take place predominately in non-white locations but center on a white characters and their struggles, without tactfully presenting or even acknowledging the culture around them. A particularly notable example is 2012’s The Impossible, which follows a well-off family on vacation surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. While the film is based on the true experience of Spanish physician María Belón, it still diminishes the experiences of the majority of victims of the natural disaster by taking no time to highlight their struggles. 2010’s Eat Pray Love falls into this trap as well, highlighting the experiences of a white woman essentially flaunting her privilege in “exotic” locations and then having the luxury of leaving. These films often double-offend by also containing white savior storylines, as was the case with the Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall.
It’s tempting to blame Hollywood’s misgivings in this area as pure obliviousness. And while that might have been a passable excuse for most a couple years ago, in today’s age of political unrest and what could very well be the second Civil rights Movement, that won’t cut it anymore. Casting agents, writers and producers need to be more aware about the storylines they create and the narratives they wish to push. Don’t think of it as censorship, but guidelines. Tell the stories you wish to tell with the characters you want and in the settings you want to tell them. Just know that you can’t please everyone, and there are quantifiable ways to present your work respectfully. Despite improved casting for some studios, the fight against whitewashing still endures.