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.