By T. Mack
This is not the first time that white washing has been in the spotlight for hitting a nerve with ethnic populations and people of various colors. Let’s hope that this time, things might start to get better.
For those who are unaware, white washing is when white actors are cast in the roles of characters who are supposed to be people of color (which is meant in this article to include all ethnicities besides white). Think Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra or Johnny Depp as Tonto in Lone Ranger. Surely, there was a talented Native American actor somewhere in this country who could have played that role. And I understand the desire for star power. But seriously? This needs to get better.
The issue of white washing is actually made worse by two additional problems. The first is colorizing villains. While protagonists of color are portrayed by whites, the villains are then turned into colored individuals. I’m looking at you, The Last Airbender! Another problem that makes white washing worse is the outrage that seems to come from some of the white community whenever this phenomena is reversed, like when a black girl was cast as Rue in The Hunger Games (even though the character was black in the books) or when the trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII featured a black storm trooper.
White washing is obviously not a new problem in Hollywood. It goes back to days of segregation and inequality when people of color were not allowed to be in movies. However, that was quite some time ago and we like to hope we’ve made significant progress in our culture and our movie business since then. Now, this issue is getting more and more attention and fostering increased outrage and vocalization from those who are fed up with being misrepresented in movies. The recent box office bomb, Aloha, has brought new attention to the issue.
Emma Stone was cast opposite Bradley Cooper in the romantic drama. By most accounts, the love story was forced and the film left lots to be desired. However, the biggest news the movie has fostered is the anger stirred up by Stone’s being cast in her role of Allison Ng. The character is 1/4 native Hawaiian and 1/4 Chinese. This fact is highlighted in the film. Needless to say, many Hawaiians and Chinese are offended and pissed off. Frankly, I don’t really blame them. At least when Jessica Alba was Honey, I could make myself feel better knowing that she is racially ambiguous. Emma Stone is basically just white. And while I love, love, love Stone, I have to agree that this casting was just wrong.
The director of Aloha, Cameron Crowe, issued an apology last week via his personal website. However, his apology seemed to miss the point of the public outcry. Crowe describes Allison as basically a white-passing, multi-racial character. He seems to think that is the reason everyone is upset. But really, the problem is that a multi-racial actor could have been found for the role. Or, seeing as Hawaii is the only U.S. state with an Asian population majority, it might have been nice to see someone of ethnicity in the main cast. In addition to that, the title of the film felt a lot like cultural approbation since the movie had no real context for or connection to the meanings or rich history of the word “aloha.” It was simply set in Hawaii. So are a lot of things. That doesn’t mean you have to pilfer from the culture to come up with a movie title. And while we’re mentioning movies set in Hawaii, I’d like to point out that I think many Hawaiians may still be a bit sore about the whole Pearl Harbor (2001) thing. That movie actually white washed the entire island and didn’t even bother to put a single native in the background. It might as well have been set in Iowa for all the color that was represented. I think the natives have not forgotten.
Studios may finally be feeling the pressure to begin finding talented casts who fit the racial profile rather than slathering dark makeup on a white actor or not even bothering with that step. When Disney announced earlier this year their plans to remake the 1998 animated movie, Mulan, as a live-action film, a petition was started immediately to protest and prevent the white washing of the main character and supporting roles. The petition calls for the casting of an actual, Asian Mulan. I’ve signed it and hope it will be successful. As of the writing of this article, the petition had 72,005 signatures.
White washing is a problem. It communicates to audiences that only whites (and occasionally Will Smith as the exception that proves the rule) can be stars. It perpetuates the idea that people of color cannot be protagonists and heroes and have a movie make significant money. And it shows children of color that there is not representation of them in movies. They see only what they can’t be featured on screen. All of this is in addition to the obvious issue of actors of color losing roles and opportunities when the few main characters of their ethnicity are portrayed by white actors instead.
Let’s hope the attention Aloha has gotten and the petition for Mulan will help shine new light and bring the beginning of an end to this problem. Check out the Buzzfeed video below to see more examples of white washed movie characters.
What are your thoughts on white washing? Do you feel people overreacted to Emma Stone being cast as Allison Ng? Let us know in the comments.