Whitewashing: An Old Hollywood Habit


Hannah Wyman, Editor In Chief

Wikipedia describes whitewashing as “a casting practice in the film industry of the United States in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles,” including African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that some Hollywood hits are neither racially, ethnically nor culturally sensitive. In fact, a quick Google search of the words “whitewashing in Hollywood” results in article after article titled similar to that of “The 20 Worst Examples Of Hollywood Whitewashing.” It’s no question that this age old “tradition” is wrong, so why is it still happening today?

Whitewashing began really appearing in the early 20th century. Actors would appear in “blackface” or “yellowface” and take on exaggerated accents and movements to caricature stereotypes for comedic purposes. Warner Oland played comic book detective Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On in 1931. According to NPR, when Oland played Chan, he would have a “few drinks to make his speech more halting and to put a grin on his face — like the perpetually congenial Chinese sleuth.” It may come as a surprise, but in the 30’s white actors were praised for their offensive performances. Amsterdam News wrote a glowing review about Al Jolson, a white actor who wore blackface for the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, with the paper proclaiming, “Every colored performer is proud of him.”

Fortunately, by the 1960’s, inappropriate casting decisions were met with more backlash and criticism from viewers and critics alike. Beloved British actor Laurence Olivier played Othello in the 1965 film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s play, Othello. To play the Moor of Venice, Olivier wore blackface and gave a performance that made the New York Times state, “He plays Othello in blackface! That’s right, blackface—not the dark-brown stain that even the most daring white actors do not nowadays wish to go beyond.” His look was also compared to that of the “end man in an American minstrel show.”

Yet, this bad Hollywood habit still makes an appearance in today’s films, albeit in more subtle ways. In the 2015 romantic comedy, Aloha, the principal cast is entirely white despite the fact of being set in Hawaii, a state that is over 70% nonwhite. “This comes in a long line of films that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there,” MANAA, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, founder and president Guy Aoki said in a press release. “It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.” Emma Stone, plays main character Allison Ng. This character is stated as having a father half Chinese and half Native Hawaiian and a mother of Swedish descent. Stone said in a news.com interview, “I’ve learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is. It’s ignited a conversation that’s very important.” Director Cameron Crowe also issued an official apology: “I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heartfelt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice.”

The Lone Ranger is a 2013 western action movie based on the 1933 radio series of the same name. Johnny Depp portrays Tonto, the Comanche sidekick and narrator of the movie. Numerous movies critics grew upset upon the cast announcement that a Native American actor had not been cast as Tonto. Allison Samuels wrote in the Daily Beast that casting a Native American “would have gone a long way to prove to all minorities that Hollywood is finally becoming a fair and objective business dedicated to providing thought-provoking entertainment without intentionally offending anyone.” Originally, the role was played by Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels in the famous television series during the 1950s. Although Depp has claimed some native heritage, he does not identify as Native American. However, he had the right intentions. Depp said that his goal for playing Tonto was to attempt to “reinvent the relationship [between Tonto and the Lone Ranger], to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in The Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.”

Whitewashing doesn’t stop at blackface or miscastings, it can even change a character’s race completely. In Hollywood, it is not uncommon for moviemakers to ignore a character’s real-life backstory for the purpose of “uncomplicating” the movie’s plot by making the character caucasian. Director Nicholas Winding Refn of crime, thriller, Drive, called for changing the character Irene, from Latina to white. Irene is played by Carey Mulligan. Her character, was written as a Latina woman in her late twenties, but the director liked Mulligan’s whole “vulnerable” act and wanted Irene to be played by someone who looked like they needed to be “protected.” Another instance of this is the movie 21. This movie has been claimed by fans to be the one of biggest whitewashed movie during the 21st century. The movie was based off a true story of six Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who were trained in counting cards, the MIT Blackjack Team. In real life, the students were all Asian Americans. In the movie, all but one was white. Jeff Ma, one of the original students, served as a consultant on the film. Ma was attacked for being a “race traitor” due to him not insisting that his character be Asian-American. In response, Ma said, “I’m not sure they understand how little control I had in the movie-making process; I didn’t get to cast it.”

When minorities are cast in movies, they usually take on the roles that are grossly stereotypes. Americans of Arab and Middle Eastern descent are often depicted as belly dancers, harem girls and oil sheiks. A Coca-Cola commercial that aired during the 2013 Super Bowl featured Arabs riding on camels through the desert in hopes of beating other groups to a bottle of giant Coke. This led Arab American advocacy groups to decry the ad for stereotyping Arabs as “camel jockeys.” People are also far more likely to see Latinos play maids and gardeners rather than teachers or entrepreneurs on screen. Not to mention the fact that Hispanic men and women have both been sexualized in Hollywood. Latino men have long been labeled as the “Latin Lover,” while Latina women have been characterized as exotic, firey, and sensual. When these stereotypes aren’t at play, Hispanics are portrayed as being new immigrants with thick accents and no social standing in the U.S. or as gang-bangers and criminals.

A 2016 study, titled “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment,” looked at 109 motion pictures and 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series. The study revealed that just 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue were from non-white racial/ethnic groups, though such groups are nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. Furthermore, the number of shows featuring “racial/ethnic balance” was evaluated. “If a show featured any underrepresented characters within 10% of the U.S. Census statistic, it was considered balanced. Only 22 stories depicted racial/ ethnic balance on the broadcast networks (19%), 18 on cable (13%), 1 on streaming (2%), and 8 in film (7%). Clearly, most stories fail to reflect or match the demographic composition of the U.S.” “The film industry still functions as a straight, White, boys’ club,” the study states. Stacy L. Smith, one of the study’s authors and founding director of the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said in an interview, “I think we’re seeing, across the landscape, an erasure of certain groups; women, people of color, the LGBT community … this is really [an] epidemic of invisibility that points to a lack of inclusivity across [film and TV].” The study suggests solutions for the lack of diversity, including “creating target goals for inclusion that would be public and drawing up lists of potential hires for writing and directing jobs” that would not only include more people of color but females, too.

So, why does it matter? Well, not only is it morally wrong to belittle an ethnicity, but representation in Hollywood matters. White should no longer be the default casting choice. The idea that a white character is more appealing or relatable to the audience is not only outdated, but also inaccurate. I mean, why can’t I see heroes that look like me? Not only does seeing people of color accurately depicted in film and TV influence young children, but it can also educate the general society about cultural tradition, and heritage. Breeding acceptance and understanding of people who come from different backgrounds will make for a better atmosphere in the country. It’s also important to make Hollywood more diverse in general and provide job opportunities to people of color. Perhaps hundreds of years ago, white people made up a majority of the country’s population, but that just isn’t true anymore. Looking at America, one finds a mix of skin color, language, and life. It’s important to portray the America that we live in today, it should be a priority.