Whitewashing has been a problem in big-budget Hollywood films since the beginning. The first true, feature-length narrative film, Birth of a Nation, used white actors in blackface for its African-American characters way back in 1915. While there has been some real progress made since then, with regards to female and minority representation in films—looking at you, Wonder Woman—we still have an incredibly long way to go. We’ve compile a list of recent excuses filmmakers used to justify whitewashing that really make no sense—just so we can take stock of how far we still have to go.
After critics lashed out at the American remake of Ghost in the Shell’s assertion that a Japanese anime would need to have its main character’s ethnicity changed into a decidedly un-Japanese Scarlett Johansson for the big-screen, the studio took the smart route and tried to CG Johansson into a Japanese person. Because that makes sense. Of course, when people heard about this, they freaked out even more.
In their defense, the studio claimed it didn’t try that hard, or for all that long to twist Johansson into a more Asian looking woman. Spending exorbitant amounts of money solely to avoid having to cast an Asian person didn’t fit into their long-term plans. So they just stuck with Major being white instead.
Then Max Landis came out in an interview and defended Johansson’s casting because there just aren’t any A-list Asian celebrities so it’s totally not their fault, okay?
The only reason to be upset about Scarlett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works,” he said, arguing that there were no “A-list female Asian celebrities” capable of getting a major Hollywood movie green-lit in 2016.
Moviegoers responded by watching everything but that movie, and Ghost in the Shell flopped harder than a professional soccer player.
After receiving backlash for using white actors to portray two of the primary Afghani characters in Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Fey explained to Mic that it was okay, because Afghani people are basically white anyway.
I try to make myself feel warm about it in the fact that, y’know, Afghans are Caucasians, it’s Caucasians playing Caucasians. If you really wanted to go to the mat on it, you could say it’s not any different than, y’know, an Aussie playing a Brit, although I’m sure people feel that it is.
Okay, but nobody hires Afghani actors. Just because you think they look pretty white doesn’t mean there’s no difference between them and white, British actors. But as long as you can sleep, we can too, I guess.
When Ridley Scott was asked by Variety why he decided to whitewash most of his lead actors for his Biblical epic, Exodus, Scott said it was just a smart, cost-effective way to keep the budget low. He didn’t even bother to ask his financiers about the possibility, because they’d never shell out money for a movie of that size if there was a guy named ‘Mohammad’ in it.
I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.
Seems like maybe a “Mohammad” would be cheaper than literally hiring Batman (Christian Bale), but I don’t know much about film finances. What I do know is that basically everybody hated that movie and it earned a whopping 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. At least nobody named Mohammad can be blamed for that failure.
Marvel’s recent Doctor Strange received backlash from critics when it decided to make “The Ancient One” Celtic instead of Tibetan, like in the comics. Marvel defended itself, claiming it’s not technically whitewashing because they full-on changed The Ancient One’s race, rather than have a white actor portray a Tibetan. And besides, who can tell the difference?
The writer helpfully added that they didn’t want to make the character Tibetan for fear of pissing off the Chinese government. Evidently, they could have boycotted the movie if they knew a character would be from Tibet which many Chinese feel should be independent.
According to The New York Times:
In response to an angry viewer’s question about the casting of Ms. Swinton, Mr. Cargill said: “The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.”
He added that there was the risk of “the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’
Either way, maybe you could ask first? Or, change the character from Tibetan to a different Asian ethnicity to keep it closer to the comics but still prevent WWIII?
When the producers of the forthcoming Urban Myths miniseries cast a white actor to play a latter-day Michael Jackson, many people understandably were upset. Michael Jackson himself had famously said he’d never want to be played by a white actor because he was proud of his heritage as a black man. Also, because that’d be weird as hell.
Joseph Fiennes, the actor who ultimately played Jackson, told the Washington Post it made sense for him to play the part because Michael Jackson looked pretty white there at the end.
Jackson “definitely had an issue — a pigmentation issue — and that’s something I do believe,” he said. “He was probably closer to my color than his original color.
See? It’s actually reverse whitewashing! If they’d had a black actor play the role, it would have been blackwashing, which is obviously something Hollywood has been struggling with for… never.
The episode was eventually pulled from the show and may never again see the light of day. The trailer still exists for those that wish to plumb the depths of madness, however.
The director of seminal gay-rights film Independence Day recently felt he needed to explain to People why his film, Stonewall needed a little whitewashing. The real Stonewall riots largely involved lesbian and transgender black women, but Roland Emmerich didn’t think that was very relatable. He made the lead character a “straight-acting” gay, white guy to help the audience out.
I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people. I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.
Thank goodness somebody out there is looking out for us straight people. Otherwise, what the heck would we watch?
Jordan Breeding is a current Paste intern who also writes for Cracked and the esteemed Twitter.