WHITEWASHING IN FILM

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 Marisela Diaz

Whitewashing is when a character that is originally a person of color is casted as a white person. It is when white actors take over roles that are meant to be played by people of color. Whitewashing has been going on for a long time in Hollywood. Think back to Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man in his role as Mr. Yunoshi in the 1961 classic film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Or the 1937 film “The Good Earth”, featuring actors Paul Muni and Luise Rainer, about Chinese farmers—but the film consisted of only white actors wearing pounds of makeup to make them appear Chinese. The original story was supposed to consist of Chinese/ Asian actors but fell through because the directors did not believe that was what the audience to see. They believed casting a white actor would be more enjoyable to watch. There are plenty of instances of Hollywood casting white actors to play characters of color in early films.

Now you may think that because these were earlier movies made in more blatantly racist time periods that whitewashing wouldn’t be a problem nowadays, but unfortunately that is not the truth. There are plenty of movies still whitewashing roles that should be going to people of color. Roles such as Emma Stone’s character Allison Ng in “Aloha” where she is supposed to play a woman with Chinese and Hawaiian descent. Or you can take the film “Cloud Atlas”, where they used prosthetics to make Jim Sturgess look Korean. Prosthetics?!? Remember “The Last Samurai” played by Tom Cruise? Even the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” was changed from an Asian man to a white woman by Hollywood. There are movies that are currently in production where white actors take over roles that should be given to people of color.

Whitewashing takes away roles that should be played by the actual ethnicities portrayed. Bel Hernandez in his work, Whitewashing an American Hero in Argo states, “By Whitewashing Mendez, Ben Affleck stole one of these heroes from the Latino community; from the young Latinos, who would have been proud to know that someone who looks like them, played such a key role in our nation’s history.”

When Affleck took on the role of Tony Mendez, a Latino, he was erasing a key part of who Mendez was. He was erasing part of his identity. In an interview with Mendez, he stated that he didn’t mind but that really isn’t the point. The point of the matter is time and time again, actors have played characters or real life people that were originally people of color. This is wrong because different groups go through life differently. If it were a Latino man playing the role of Tony Mendez maybe the movie would have been perceived differently. When white actors take on such important roles not only are they taking opportunities away from actors that don’t get many roles, but they are taking away from representation of Latinos and other ethnic groups in American society.

There are countless films in the United States that are whitewashed. Films that took white actors and made them look like another race because directors and producers felt that films with actual people of color would not sell well. Some may say this is not a problem, but those who say that may be the same ones that say that they don’t see color.

In a study done by researchers at the University of California, they found that in the year 2014, out of the top 100 films nearly three quarters of all characters were white. And only 17 of the top 100 films featured a non-white lead or co-lead actors. In their book, America in Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, Professors Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin say:

 Even today many white viewers choose not to see films starring non-white actors or films set in minority ethnic environments, allegedly because they feel they cannot identify with the characters. Because of that fact, Hollywood tends to spend more money on white stars in white movies, and far less money on non-white actors in overtly racial or ethnic properties. The very structure of classical Hollywood narrative form encourages all spectators, regardless of their actual color, to identify with white protagonists.

There aren’t many roles that people of color get to choose from. Many actors of color either get a couple of good films then they get roles that stereotype them and their culture or they get to play the “best friend” to the white lead. Most actors of color do not get the same opportunities that white actors get and it’s definitely not for a lack of skills. There are plenty of roles that can be made to be more diverse but they’re not.

Solutions to whitewashing not only starts with directors actually trying to cast people of color for roles meant for them, but also starts with the white actors denying the roles that they are given. Actors can stop accepting roles that they know they are going to whitewash. There also has to be more diversity in directors, because most directors are white and then they cast more white actors to play different roles. If you combine diverse directors with diverse actors, you will create more diversity and allow actors of color the opportunity to get more roles.
Benshoff, Harry M.and Sean Griffin. “America in Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies.” Print. 2004.
Ghahremani Tanya. “25 Minority Characters that Hollywood Whitewashed.” Complex. 2013.
Santhanam, Laura, and Megan Crigger. “Out of 30,000 Hollywood Film Characters, Here’s How Many Weren’t White.” PBS. PBS, 22 Sept. 2015.