Should White Actors Play Non-White Characters?

Posted on May 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm

The LA Times writes about what writer Chris Lee calls a “whitewash,” with all major parts in two high-budget, high-profile films set in the Mideast played by Caucasian performers.

None of its principle cast members are of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. And playing Dastan, the hero and titular heir to the Persian throne in the $200-million tent-pole film, is none other than Hancock Park’s own Swedish-Jewish-American prince, Jake Gyllenhaal.

In addition to Gyllenhaal and British actress Gemma Arterton’s portrayal of Iranian characters in the swords-and-sandals action epic “Prince of Persia,” Paramount has come under attack for its live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series ” Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Directed by “Sixth Sense” auteur M. Night Shyamalan, “The Last Airbender” (as the movie is called to distinguish it from a certain James Cameron-directed 3-D blockbuster) has enraged some of the show’s aficionados by casting white actors in three of four principal roles — characters that fans of the original property insist are Asian and Native American.

And with just weeks until the movie’s July 2 release — after a year-and-a-half-long letter-writing campaign to the film’s producers and a correspondence with Paramount President Adam Goodman to underscore the importance of casting Asian actors in designated Asian roles — members of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and an organization called Racebending are urging fans to boycott “Airbender.”

Hollywood has a long, disgraceful history of casting actors in roles of other races. Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, and Mickey Rooney played Japanese men and Katherine Hepburn and John Wayne played Chinese characters. Apparently believing that any non-American could play any non-white part, Mexican-born Ricardo Montalban played a Native American and a Japanese man and Puerto Rican Rita Moreno played a Thai character. This goes back a long way — centuries of white actors have played Othello in blackface. And of course in Shakespeare’s day, all parts we played by men and boys, which is one reason he created female characters who disguised themselves as men. It goes back to the earliest movies as well. One of the first superstars was Rudolph Valentino, who appeared as “The Sheik.” Peter Lorre played detective Mr. Moto and Warner Oland played detective Charlie Chan.
On one hand, I am in favor of race- and gender- and disability-blind) casting and would like to see more parts opened up to a wider range of actors. I disagree with a recent piece in Newsweek that has provoked a lot of controversy because it suggested that openly gay actors could not be believable as heterosexual romantic lead characters. But the purpose of a more open approach to casting should be to be more inclusive, not less. Part of what made the animated series that inspired “The Last Airbender” popular was its Asian characters and its themes based on East Asian fables and animation styles. Its director, Shyamalan, is an American of Indian heritage. Yet apparently even he must be swayed by Hollywood prejudice that assumes that despite the world market for films, audiences will be more likely to pay to see white stars.

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14 Replies to “Should White Actors Play Non-White Characters?”

  1. I find it troubling that this is still an issue in Hollywood in 2010. So much for George Clooney’s Oscar speech a couple years ago about how far Hollywood is ahead of the pack.
    I found it appalling that as late as 1981 Anthony Hopkins played Othello (though certainly not in blackface) in the BBC Complete Shakespeare project. Rumor has it, they wanted James Earl Jones to play the part, but the union allowed only British actors. One reason given for having a white man play the part was that it wasn’t so much about race as about being an outsider. Othello is at least partly about race. And there were Anglo-African actors who could have played the part. Anyway…
    I wish more parts were written as race/gender/ability open so the best actor for the part can have the part. Then the parts can be toned to suit the cast. I’m not sure how I feel about totally race/gender/ability blind casting. The musicals Disney was doing for awhile (I’m thinking specifically of The Music Man and Cinderella in the early 2000s) had fairly blind casting and they seemed a little high-school-play-ish. I think that works okay for the genre, but it might be a little distracting in something more dramatic. Or we’re just not used to it and need to see it more to get past those feelings.
    Of course there are many more issues as well. There are many Asian ethnicities. What about the Chinese/Japanese issues of Memoirs of a Geisha, etc. I don’t know the answer, but an all-white cast is not it.

  2. Just to correct myself, the “Cinderella” I was thinking of was made in 1997 (Yikes–I missed on that one) and starred Brandy as Cinderella and Paolo Montalban as Prince Charming (and he was charming indeed).

  3. Thanks, Wendy, and wow, was Brandy’s “Cinderella” so long ago? But then, I am old enough to remember the version with Lesley Anne Warren (but not the first version with Julie Andrews, which I would love to see).
    I do not want race-blind casting to ignore the underlying realities. If people are supposed to be siblings, they should either look like siblings or there should be some explanation in the text so that the audience is not distracted. But I think audiences will quickly get used to more ethic variety, especially since there are so many talented performers. Your last line is just right.

  4. There is at least some level of gender-blind casting at work today. In the upcoming movie “Salt”, Angelina Jolie’s titular character was originally written as male, but was switched on the talent of her acting.
    Also, in the recent teen-aged popcorn movie, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, the satyr character actor was African American. While his race was never truly specified in the books (just his apparent “handicap” to hide his goat legs), the director chose to cast the role blind to race.
    Truly, if the character’s race, gender, ethnicity, whatever, doesn’t impact the story, cast whoever you want.

  5. I think there is a difference between race and gender blind casting, when race is not a theme of a movie. But I think some effort has to be made to cast people correctly when race IS an issue in the movie. Can you see “Crash?” with race-neutral casting? It would make no sense!
    I recently watched “A Passage to India” from 1984. David Lean liked working with Alec Guinness, and he cast him as Professor Godbole, an ancient Brahmin (who has an important role in the film and the book). This casting seems terrible, although Guinness did a good job of acting. It seems it should have been an Indian who was cast in this role.

  6. While portraying a member of any group, an actor can send off the wrong signals if he doesn’t genuinely belong to that specific people. A straight man might do or say something that probably no gay man ever would do or say. And vice-versa. Call it just a movie, but there’s a level of depiction there that can make it entirely believable.
    I remember as a child, my parents would take me to see “Indian” movies at the local drive-in theater. We could hear the Native Americans in the crowd laugh at the actors – white people wearing wigs and paint to make their skin darker. They spoke in choppy English and they acted more like cavemen than real “Indians”. That’s an injustice. That’s a pity. If enough roles are given to people who have little or no Indian heritage…soon Hollywood would be back into their John Wayne days. And one magic bullet would knock twelve Indians off their horses again.
    Sometimes I get tired of Nicholas Cage. I can’t stand Kevin Costner. Bruce Willis is chewed up with all the flavor gone out of him now. I like to see fresh new faces from time to time. Some of those fresh faces haven’t been discovered yet. Some of them aren’t white. By allowing a people (in any category) to portray themselves, Hollywood could avoid terrible stereotypes and potentially reveal fresh talent.

  7. It does depend – I grew up on an Indian reservation (though I’m not Native American) and I remember how wonderful it seemed to see Elaine Miles play Marilyn on Northern Exposure.
    Our family has seen some wonderful race-blind casts on stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland — usually in the Shakespeare plays. When they perform plays by August Wilson, like the Piano Lesson, which are at heart about the experience of race in America, the casting is NOT race-blind.
    I have a DVD copy of the Julie Andrews Cinderella. The Leslie Anne Warren version is still my favorite 😉

  8. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t care about blog comments, Newsweek, or LA Times Articles. If Airbender premiers and makes their financial target, all opinions and thoughts on casting will be discounted. “AMERICA HAS SPOKEN!”
    If you believe that this type of casting is NOT the direction we want Hollywood to take, then please take action and boycott this film.
    Full disclosure, I am an Asian American actor in New York. I am not affiliated with but I do support their cause.

  9. Thank you, Tana. I find it appalling that after all these years Hollywood is still so narrow-minded in its approach to casting. Much appreciated. If you or anyone else you recommend would like to do an interview with me on this subject, email me at

  10. I LOVED the Last Airbender Series. I would imagine actors of Asian and Native descent playing the main characters to the likes of Aang, Sokka, Katara and Toph (oh and PRINCE Zuko).
    Do caucasians live in igloos and hunt for food like Eskimos? Probably not, and that’s what really dissapoints me especially since water bending draws its influence from the notable chinese style of Tai Chi, which emphasizes the peaceful nature of the lives Natives live in the North.
    I would have never imagined Zuko coming from an Indian heritage when he has the mad fire bending skills which resemble the Northern Shaolin kung fu style and Northern Seven Star Praying Mantis style.
    I would have never imagined that the jolly Uncle Iroh who loves drinking assortments of teas and dreams of opening a tea shop someday to be of a Persian Jewish background? What? and he’s SKINNY? What happened to the “Dragon of the West”? (WEST in reference to the Four Nations of Avatar: The last Airbender).
    Unfortunately, I can imagine Toph will be white, Azula will be Indian, Mei will be white, Ty Lee WILL FOR SURE be white, Jet will be white.. well lets just say everyone’s gonna be white except for secondary characters like any of the Avatars, Ba Sing Se extras and members of the White Lotus.
    It really went downhill for me after I heard “Jesse McCartney” and I really wondered who is the target audience for this film? White america, “people who have money” who were most likely the driving force that “fueled” the shows popularity. It sickens me.
    and I know it is not a film like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or a Jackie Chan flick, its target is the white population so they probably wanted characters people could relate to because their well… white! There are no stereotypes in fantasy flicks unless you throw in an ethnic character and that’s what upsets me.
    Grow up hollywood, seriously.

  11. PS. I am really OK with the choice cast of Aang (Noah Ringer) and Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) and I hope their performances will make the movie worth my time. I’m all for boycotting but I have waited too long to see this and I am an avid fan:)
    PPS I am a 19 year old Native American male who lives in Ontario, Canada! in case anybody was wondering:P

  12. A very wise and thoughtful comment, Eli. It is unfortunate that white and non-white audiences get so little opportunity to see people of color in starring roles and it is unfortunate that so many talented performers do not get the chances they deserve. We seem to be making progress very slowly. If you see the movie, I would really like to know what you think of it.

  13. I disagree with boycotting the film. Aren’t people being rascist by not wanting caucasians to play the part? Noah Ringer, however Caucasian he may be, looks Asian, and has the right qualities in my opinion. In terms of the Northern and Southern Water Tribe casting, if you have watched the show you ought to get it. The style of animation, giving the characters wide eyes and lighter skin tones lends more to actors who look like the characters. Overall, I think that this is ridiculous. Go watch the film!

  14. @Cassidy, it is NOT racist to demand that White actors not play roles written for non-White actors. Caucasian actors have MANY opportunities to land roles in Hollywood. Very rarely do Asian actors get that same chance.

    Uh, NO.

    What ‘looks Asian’ to you? Ringer has NO previous acting experience, yet HE was cast into the titular role?

    No, we don’t ‘get it’ because no matter HOW you slice it, it still doesn’t make sense. And that the thing; people shouldn’t have to watch the show to ‘get it’, but even if you didn’t you would know that it makes NO SENSE to have three Caucasian people smacked right in the middle of what is entirely an INUIT village. Even if you argued that their Gran Gran is White, that would STILL only make them 1/4 Caucasian. Their grandfather and mother would have been Inuit and therefore that would be the ethnicity they would be recognized as.

    Throw in the fact that in the film, it’s never once mentioned that Gran Gran was from the Northern Tribe and you have a whole lot of disconnect going on and people going ‘WTF?’

    The ‘wide eyes and lighter skin tone’ argument is faulty because one; the actors looked NOTHING like Sokka and Katara. They were both pale as sheets whereas Sokka and Katara were both brown-skinned.

    Secondly, the shows style is based off of anime. And many anime characters have wide eyes. As does most western animation.

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