Jo Talks Books: On The Problem With Whitewashing In Hollywood

Hi everyone! I was really pleased with the positive reaction to my first discussion post earlier this month, so I’m back with my second discussion post of the month (I aim to make these at least a bimonthly thing). The timing of the topic of this post is actually pretty good, given all the stuff that’s been going on with the 2016 Oscars Boycott due to no black actors being nominated for the second year running, and more recently with Joseph Fiennes (a white actor) being cast to play Michael Jackson (a black man). I know this isn’t entirely to do with books (though I will have examples of white washing in book to movie adaptations in this post) but I think it’s a really important thing to talk about. This is not a new problem. Whitewashing has been going on in Hollywood for decades as Hollywood executives seem to operate under the assumption that white actors have more international appeal than Black, Hispanic, Latino, Asian etc actors do, though given the backlash against some recent Hollywood casting choices for instance white actress Rooney Mara’s casting as Native American Tiger Lily in the film Pan, this doesn’t seem an entirely correct assumption to make, people would rather see someone authentic in a role than a white actor, who yes, audiences will know, but is not authentic.

Director Ridley Scott when asked about his casting for Exodus: Gods and Kings said “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say my lead actor is Mohammed so-and-so from such and such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up”. Whilst Scott does make an obvious point, Hollywood is a business first and foremost, movies are all about making money and naturally having actors who are already famous helps attract people to seeing the film, but if non-white actors never get the same opportunities that white actors do, how are things ever supposed to change? There are plenty of talented non-white actors out there, but Hollywood being conservative as it is, would rather play it safe with a white actor than give an opportunity to a minority actor who is more suited to the role they are casting for but don’t have the “look” that they want. If they were as willing to cultivate the talent of minority unknown actors as they are to cultivate the talent of unknown white actors, then minorities may have more of a chance to be cast in leading roles. Besides which, there have been films with non-white actors in leading roles that have been incredibly successful, think Selma and 12 Years A Slave, both of which were nominated for Oscars. It’s not fair for incredibly talented non-white actors to only be cast in minor roles, and have roles that should be meant for them taken away from them by white actors. This wasn’t okay in the 1950’s and 60’s and it’s still not okay now. It’s 2016 for goodness sake, we live in a very multi-cultural diverse society and this should be reflected in the films that we watch. By continually casting white actors, Hollywood essentially tie their own hands because they need big names to promote their movies, but they aren’t willing to give main roles to non-white actors, so when a minority main role does crop up and they need a big name in order to boost their movie, whitewashing essentially becomes unavoidable because most big name actors are white (as these are the actors usually given main roles) and so the circle continues. Plus, just because big name stars are attached to a project, doesn’t mean it won’t bomb, there have been plenty of films with big name stars that have bombed, equally there have been many films with unknowns that have been big, so instead of casting based on notoriety, surely Hollywood should be casting whoever is right for the part, including someone who fits the description of the character they are meant to be playing?

Often, filmmakers use the excuse that they couldn’t find someone of the correct race to play the character although I find that difficult to believe, as there are plenty of talented non-white actors who would do a great job playing non-white roles if given the chance. But the chance sometimes isn’t even given. Take Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games for example. I mean she did an excellent job in the role and everything, and she’s a very talented actress but Katniss is clearly meant to be non-white and Hollywood didn’t even try to find a non-white actress for the part, as their casting call asked for Caucasian actresses between the ages of 15-20. I mean if you really, really can’t find a non-white actress who fits a non-white part then fine, but if you don’t even try? That’s a pretty poor showing!

It goes without saying that it’s very offensive and discriminatory towards people of colour to cast white actors in roles that aren’t meant to be white. Not only does it prevent non-white actors from achieving the same level of notoriety as white actors, but it sends a horrible message to people of colour watching these movies, especially young people, that they’re not good enough, or pretty enough or talented enough or white enough and I think that’s a really harmful message to send. We all like to see ourselves reflected in the movies we watch because it makes us enjoy them more. POC characters are already so sparsely seen in the media, whitewashing takes away the few characters that represent a not insignificant proportion of the population.

Even worse, there are so few POC characters, that when we do get to see POC characters, they tend to get criticised. Take the character of Rue from The Hunger Games as an example. She was specifically stated to be black in the books and yet when a black actress was cast to play her, there was backlash, even though the character was always intended to be black. This kind of racism probably has a lot to do with whitewashing, not just in movies, but in our media culture in general.

Admittedly, the fact that Hollywood as an industry is a very white male dominated industry doesn’t exactly help matters when it comes to whitewashing & maybe that needs to change first before we will get anywhere with the issue of whitewashing, after all it stands to reason that if there was more diversity in the industry itself, then maybe films would start to become more diverse. If there were more opportunites for POC writers, directors, producers then perhaps opportunities for POC actors would also increase. It’s quite scary really that in 2016, whitewashing is still a problem.

US TV manages to be far more diverse than their movies, with shows like Jane The Virgin and How To Get Away With Murder being big hits in the past few years and awards like The Emmys and The Golden Globes being far more inclusive and diverse than the Oscars (and most of the diversity in the Golden Globes coming from the TV categories than the movie ones) and whilst it also has a way to go, clearly TV is doing something right that the film industry just isn’t.

So what can be done to change whitewashing in Hollywood? Well I reckon more opportunities being given both on and off screen to people of colour would be a very good start. Perhaps colour blind casting as was done in Grey’s Anatomy might ensure more diverse casts in Hollywood movies? Audiences can show that they’re not okay with whitewashing by signing petitions protesting whitewashing and boycotting whitewashed films but ultimately, there have to be changes within Hollywood itself to stop the cycle of whitewashing and even though it’s 2016, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be happening any time soon.

So what do you guys think about whitewashing in Hollywood? Do you think it’s a serious problem or do you think too much is made of it? How do you guys feel about this year’s Oscar nominations being all white for the second year in a row? What do you think could be done about whitewashing? Let’s discuss, I want to hear your thoughts about this!

I’m going to be doing a month of romance themed discussion posts for February, so I hope you guys will all enjoy those! In the meantime though, I should have more of my regularly scheduled blog posts for you all soon.


2 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On The Problem With Whitewashing In Hollywood

  1. Greg Hill 01/02/2016 / 12:24 am

    I tend to agree and I had no idea they were casting Fiennes as Jackson? I had not heard that – how does that even work? I don’t get it. At the same time when they cast a black actor as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four some people were not thrilled by that and were called racist. So it can go both ways. Now granted that movie wasn’t exactly a hit LOL and maybe diversity is more important than any one character, but it comes to mind. And one could make the point that whitewashing is a much bigger problem and the two shouldn’t be compared. I get that. As a general thing I think they should cast as accurately as possible- they should not cast a black role with a white actor, and vice versa unless there is a very good reason to do so.

    Having said that, diversity needs to happen and I think you make a great point about the message it sends. If I were a minority kid and saw a minority character played by a white person that would be incredibly disappointing and confusing I would think. You’re probably right, until the industry opens up movies won’t change enough.

    I do agree TV seems to be doing a better job than the movies… oh and I had no idea Katniss was supposed to be non- white. I’ve never read the books… how frustrating, I agree.

    • iloveheartlandx 01/02/2016 / 12:24 pm

      Yeah I actually found out about it just before writing this post, which incidentally worked out quite well. It doesn’t work, not really, I mean they’re trying to cover it with the fact that the movie is about events that happened in 2001 and by that point Michael Jackson had white skin, but that doesn’t change his DNA, he was still black and it’s a pretty pathetic excuse. I know right? I really don’t get that, how can you be annoyed when a white actor is cast to play someone black but still annoyed when a black actor is cast in a role? It makes no sense! Yeah I agree, diversity is more important than any one character but there are loads of examples of the same sort of thing happening. Yeah I think whitewashing is definitely a much bigger problem because it’s done more extensively, but you’re right, casting should be as accurate as possible and someone of the correct race whether it be black or white, should be cast to play a character of the same race. Thanks! I definitely think it sends the wrong message to minority kids if they see minority characters being played by white actors and it’s something that should be thought about more when casting actors for roles. Hollywood does seem to be rather set in it’s ways though (I suppose that’s to be expected with an industry that old) so change doesn’t seem like it will be forthcoming anytime soon.
      I guess perhaps it’s easier for TV to be more diverse than movies because you don’t have the same requirement to have big names attached to all TV shows? I don’t know, but however it’s happened, they definitely seem to be doing better on the diversity front! Yeah, you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t read the books, yet another reason why whitewashing is so frustrating!

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