21st Century White-Washing in Film: How the Lack of Diversity is Changing the Stories we Tell
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
The western film industry, as an institution, has certainly been guilty of lazy, ignorant and racist casting since its conception. It has been in common practise longer than its ‘new and improved’ cultural sensitivity. However, it is still getting it wrong. From an industry that is running itself into a multi-billion dollar grave of big set-piece action/thrillers in which all the cast are seasoned, big-name stars who have no longer been cast on their own merit but only their name, it is disappointing that with the influence it has over the average film viewer, they don’t take the initiative and try to change.
Racial diversity has, until recently, been overlooked in western cinema, particularly in older cinema, where it was rife but not unexpected. In a less tolerant age, they would often cast white actors in roles meant for people of colour. Birth of a Nation (Griffiths, 1915), which we can now look back on as an important piece of cinema history both technically and ethically, had an all-white cast in a film depicting black people in one of the most offensively negative depictions in western cinema. John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (Powell, 1956), being one of the most baffling, it is not the only extreme case. Jean Simmons in the powerful The Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressberger, 1947) is cast as the Tibetan maiden although not, in the slightest, resembling a person of middle-Asian descent. Micky Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Edwards, 1961) is an often considered a blemish in what is an incredibly pleasant film, playing an over the top neighbour and being a depiction of the offensive stereotypes that the Chinese were held to in American society at that time. It was used to comedic effect. Of course we must take into consideration our own modern outlooks on racism and stereotypes and not judge the old with the mind and hindsight of the new. These are only examples, and can be laughed at in their ridiculousness.
The most bizarre of the ‘Blackface’ was in Laurence Olivier’s depiction of the titular role in Othello (Burge, 1965). A seasoned Shakespearian actor, Olivier would have known the role inside and out but when it came to the big screen, certain artistic liberties should not have been taken to ensure his part in the role. He was already too old for the role, let alone racially incorrect. Even in 1965, this was rather egregious, what with the likes of big box office draws such as Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win the academy award for best actor two years prior, rising on the scene. However, he was still nominated for an Oscar as his credits as an actor protected him from vast majority of criticism that today’s climate would condemn him for. A review in the New York Times, at the time of release, reflected the criticism even felt at the inopportune time of the actor’s depiction. ‘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… He looks like a Rastus or an end man in an American minstrel show.’ (Crowther, 1966). This was a choice made in a climate that did not think so much of sensitivity and were not aware of the cultural merging that would happen in years to come. However, it is proof that people were, even in the late sixties, beginning to shy away from such portrayals. Olivier was hesitant to depict such a role and it was decision among an entire production team that has stained the reputation of a film depicting one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. His merits as a performer should have not been the driving force for what is an uncomfortable interpretation. Segregation was still very much a common practise across parts of US and the UK and racial tensions ran high for many years after the Civil Rights movement. When we look back on these films that have made these miss-steps, we can still do with a fondness, but hold in mind that these are no longer acceptable decisions that we should see made in the 21st century.
It was not until the 1990’s that this style of casting began to wane a lot more and we could see a bigger shift in diversity in major productions. They were set aside as companions, side-kicks and villains. But things have not changed all that much since then. With the likes of Eddie Murphy, and Denzel Washington, Jackie Chan, Halle Berry and Angela Bassett one would have thought that the gates of Hollywood were opening up to people of colour allowing spaces for a diverse environment. The film industry has room for but a handful of actors at a time and these actors would often find themselves in similar roles.
In 2018, one would have assumed that the tradition of whitewashing would have slipped into obscurity and remained an embarrassing stain on the already dubious history of cinema. However, the debate has continued and risen to the forefront. One of the latest examples being the actor Ed Skrein, who in 2017 stepped down from a role in Hellboy. This was due to the original character from the comic being half Japanese. There has already been an adaptation, back in 2004 under Guillermo del Toro so it can be argued that they overlooked this detail once, surely it doesn’t matter all that much. But in an ever ever-growing multi-cultural society moving forward with a media that keeps it heel firmly in the past, representation is drastically needed.
“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts,” - Ed Skrein on Twitter in 2017
Skrein can be applauded for his bold exit from the film, making it public and expressing his views on the topic clear. Hopefully more actors will think with their hearts rather than their pockets. It hasn’t gone away. Annihilation (Garland, 2018), was perhaps the most recent case of all. A film in which we saw Portman cast in an Asian role. She expressed that she did not know this and that she saw it as problematic (Bradley, 2018). Alex Garland, who wrote the original novel and directed the film found himself just as confused with his own characterization and the incidental backlash ‘I cast the film reacting only to the actors I met in the casting process, or actors I had worked with before. There was no studio pressure to cast white. The casting choices were entirely mine.’ (Crucchiola, 2018). Audiences are confused by this as subsequent books he released into the series specified the characters ethnicities. Therefore this case is both bizarre and ambiguous and yet another disappointing decision made.
We cannot blame actors for thinking like this, accepting roles that they are offered. Many actors, no matter how much they claim, do not research their role quite so thoroughly and will overlook such things. We must turn our blame to the studios ‘The usual response from the studios to whitewashing accusations has been simply to tough it out and limit the spread of the stain by denial.’ (Rose, 2017). In 2016, looking at the figures from the BFI, they concluded that there had not been enough growth within the UK industry as initially predicted. It was shown that a disappointing 59% of films did not feature named black characters at all and the films that featured more black characters in principal roles were Crime, Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is not ideal representation. And this was a study specifically for black actors. Breaking this down even more, they said ‘Of around 45,000 roles credited to actors in the UK in this period, only 218 were lead roles played by British black actors, which means only 0.5 per cent of all the credited roles were black leads’ (Hoyes, 2016). With figures such as these, the whitewashing concerns are even more upsetting.
We do not want a case where we still only see a handful of the same faces within the diversity pool. There is a no better time than now for the industry to start searching for more talent both in front of and behind the camera. The more representation that other races and cultures receive, the more likely we will see a rise in diverse filmmakers and actor’s. See is believing, as the old saying goes. The industry must work a little bit harder and instead of throwing lots of money at an average production, they could invest more time and thought into what they really want to sell. It is easy to take this debate into realms of who is to blame and bizarre deflections, as Tilda Swinton did in an interview with for Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) claiming that her casting in the place of, originally, Tibetan man was less problematic than had it been an Asian man in a stereotypical role (Johnson, 2016). Political correctness comes into play here and perhaps may not be valid as a Marvel comic very much centred in Chinese culture, the absence of Asian leads is both distracting and worrying. The same issue arises in Netflix’s Iron Fist (2017-2018). Surely, one would hope that the casting of an Asian actor in an Asian role would be tackled sympathetically and sensitively, making for great opportunities to break the stereotypes attached to the role as argued in The Hollywood reporter, ‘…skilled filmmakers rewrite characterizations, not character.’ (Sun, 2016). Which makes Swintons argument a strange one. A positive spin would be that having a crucial character represented by a woman is a good thing, but not at the expense of racially diverse representation. As Rebecca Sun (2016) writes in a heartfelt and sincere open letter to Swinton, explaining the significance and weight her claims make;
"You [Swinton] told Margaret that there is “precious little projected on contemporary cinema screens that means a great deal to [your] life.” I don’t know if you meant that little of what you see reflects your experience, but if so, that is exactly the sentiment that so many Asians can relate to. When we look at Ghost in the Shell or Doctor Strange, we see cinematic universes that appropriate Asian cultural elements as literal set dressing, but do not allow Asian people themselves to be seen, much less to tell the stories." - Rebecca Sun for The Hollywood Reporter (2016)
The industry in diversity reports has improved over time, slowly. But one would hope for more on this. Big names have been the draw for studios, casting Tom Cruise in what was originally a Japanese role in Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, 2014). He is a bankable star and this was overlooked. We even had an egregious case of skin-colouring in 2013’s The Big Wedding (Zackman) in which White-British, actor Ben Barnes had the colour of his skin darkened to play a Columbian man. This is truly inappropriate and shocking as a recent case. There is a correlation between these white washing cases and box office returns, it seems. For the modern audience, who have been underestimated by the film industry constantly for the past ten years, it seems that white washing, cultural appropriation and lack of diversity are no longer being accepted. In an article exploring this idea‘…having Johansson in the lead role is a big reason why Ghost in the Shell earned $128 million overseas. But I don't think you can argue that Rooney Mara or Emma Stone brought more than a few bucks to Pan ($128m worldwide) or Aloha! ($26m).’ (Mendelson 2017). Aloha! (Crowe, 2015) And Pan (Wright, 2015) were also criticised for the white washing of an Asian and Native American characters, and although the writer of this article as no proof for diversity being a factor in these box office bombs, I think they are proof that audiences want to see accurate representations. Particularly in adaptations of much loved characters that are getting the Hollywood treatment, such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (Sanders, 2017).
The industry could be changing; films can take years to make. We may only see the effects of the past few years debates in the coming future. This cannot be just the latest trend, however. We must continue to callout poor choices from studios and urge them to consider more thoroughly the films they choose to put. The rise of audiences and the input they have over the content they see has increased since the rise of Facebook, twitter and other social networking platforms. It means that we can criticise producer’s choices even in the early stages of the production when cast is announced. We have more of a say than ever before and this must be used to our best advantage. If everyone did this, the audience would have no other reason but to watch something for a plot. But as we all know the quality of film has slipped significantly in the past ten years. The idea of seeing a film for anything other than the cast now seems obscure. But we must keep pushing for representation. The argument that performance over accuracy can’t be made as talent is universal. In the coming years, one hopes that the industry will see the excitement with regard to casting ‘unknowns’ and exploring diverse, new stories that can be enjoyed by all.
BRADLEY, L. (2018). Annihilation. Vanity Fair [Online]. 14th February. Available from: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/02/annihilation-whitewashing-controversy-natalie-portman-jennifer-jason-leigh. [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].
CROWTHER, B.(1966). The Screen: Minstrel Show 'Othello':Radical Makeup Marks Olivier's Interpretation. New York Times Archives. [Online]. 2nd February. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/1966/02/02/archives/the-screen-minstrel-show-othelloradical-makeup-marks-oliviers.html. [Accessed: 13th January 2019].
CRUCCHIOLA, J. (2018). Annihilation Director on Whitewashing: There Was ‘Nothing Cynical or Conspiratorial’. Vulture. [Online]. 15th February. Available from: https://www.vulture.com/2018/02/annihilation-director-alex-garland-addresses-whitewashing.html. [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].
HOYES, M. (2016). Infographic: The true picture for black actors in the UK film industry. BFI. [Online]. 19th December. Available from: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/black-actors-british-film-industry-statistics. [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].
JOHNSON, J. (2016). Tilda Swinton Addresses Doctor Strange Whitewashing Backlash. E News Online. [Online]. 4th October 2018. Available from: https://www.eonline.com/uk/news/799681/tilda-swinton-addresses-doctor-strange-whitewashing-backlash. [Accessed: 2nd January 2019].
MENDELSON, S. (2017). Whitewashing Doesn't Create Hits. Doing The Opposite Might. Forbes. [Online]. 11th May. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2017/05/11/whitewashing-doesnt-create-hits-doing-the-opposite-may-save-hollywood-from-itself/#c87d2945db7c. [Accessed: 1st January 2019].
ROSE, S. (2017). ‘The idea that its good business is a myth’ – Why Hollywood Whitewashing has Become Toxic. The Guardian. [Online]. 29th August. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/29/the-idea-that-its-good-business-is-a-myth-why-hollywood-whitewashing-has-become-toxic. [Accessed: 12th December 2018].
SKREIN,E. (2019). 28th August 2017. Available at: https://twitter.com/edskrein/status/902244967296491520?lang=en. [Accessed: 1st January 2019].
SUN, R. (2016). An Open Letter to Tilda Swinton About Her 'Doctor Strange' Whitewashing Email to Margaret Cho. The Hollywood Reporter. [Online]. 21st December. Available from: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/doctor-strange-whitewashing-an-open-letter-tilda-swinton-958212. [Accessed: 1st January 2019].
Birth of A Nation (1915). Directed by D.W. Griffiths. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Othello. (1965). Directed by Stuart Burge. [DVD]. UK: ITV Home Entertainment
(Originally composed on 18/01/19 for a study on the Film Industry)