The tradition of white actors playing characters of color is costly
THE SANTA CLARA
April 21, 2016
Using special effects to make a white actor look Japanese? No problem. Using a Japanese actor to play a Japanese role? Unthinkable. Scarlett Johansson signing on as the Japanese lead in “The Ghost in the Shell” has once again added fuel to the fire started by #OscarsSoWhite.
The uproar around ScarJo’s casting is not a rare occurrence. Whitewashing in Hollywood is a time honored tradition, from Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra to Keanu Reeves’ Siddhartha to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Prince of Persia. This type of casting takes roles away from people of color when there’s already a lack of diversity in films and television. Rather than cast an actor of the character’s same race, studios will disguise a white actor’s features to make them ethnically ambiguous.
In Scarlett Johansson’s case, the studio did visual effects testing to make her look more “Asian.” This shows the great lengths studios go to just to avoid casting Asian actors for Asian roles—going so far as to border on yellowface, a harmful practice historically used to mock and take away the agency of Asians. The intent of whitewashing today is not to mock, but it nonetheless robs minority actors the chance to overcome stereotypes through their portrayals.
Naysayers argue cross-racial casting goes both ways—as in, minorities get casted as originally white characters. But this happens very rarely. “Hamilton” and Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny Storm are the only examples that come to mind. And it’s not the same thing.
In the overwhelming majority of films, white audiences will see someone who looks like them on-screen. Making the Human Torch black or having a black stormtrooper in the new Star Wars trilogy will still leave the majority of Hollywood roles for white actors.
Minorities meanwhile are shuttled into roles as background extras for the appearance of equivalent cultural representation. And often, the only available roles are for a minor character who plays a racial stereotype. These negative roles, however, perpetuate stereotypes and problematic thinking that seeps into other areas of our culture, like political platforms that recycle these stereotypes as justification for the slashing of social spending.
At the most basic level, whitewashing subliminally leads audiences into seeing a false correlation between skin color and character. Movies teach us Middle Easterners are terrorists, Latinos are untrustworthy thugs and white-bearded Chinese men cannot wait to share their lifetime of wisdom to aid blue-eyed, blond-haired protagonists.
Most of the films in theaters end up with these stereotypes because there are few minority writers, producers or directors working behind the scenes to make the characters more authentic. Having more minorities in power-positions is a larger argument that ties back into the #OscarsSoWhite discussion, but letting non-white actors play non-white roles is a smaller, more manageable way to begin dismantling the Hollywood racial hierarchy.
Studios show a blatant disrespect for its minority audiences when it whitewashes minority roles. Moreover, whitewashing denies minorities on-screen depictions that are nuanced and equal to white characters. Representation then dwindles down to stereotypes or nothing at all.
Studios claim that there simply is no market for diversity within their character leads. However, a 2015 study by UCLA proved that films with diverse casts have higher global profits than films with predominantly white casts.
Case in point, Fast and Furious 7. The action flick brought home a cool $2.4 billion because its multicultural cast tapped into the audience’s desire to see different kinds of people on-screen. As a result, 75 percent of its domestic audience were minority viewers—and women comprised 49 percent of the audience.
But studios still won’t budge. The predominantly white power players can’t recognize why it’s important for minority actors to play roles meant for minorities. This isn’t about political correctness, filling a quota or shutting up a watchdog groups. This is about giving all people equal representation on-screen. And it’s not just right to make the switch to diverse casting, it’s more profitable.
Contact Perla Luna at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.