Gods of Egypt is finally premiering this week, but no matter how weel it does (or how poorly) it will always be remembered mainly for causing such an uproar, the director was forced to apologize. But it’s just the latest in a long line of movies where characters of color are played by white actors. Movies that should have known better.
Just look at how many films have fallen into this trap just since the turn of the millennium. This list is restricted to just genre movies, and only films from the past 15 years—and still, there are far more than there should be.
Starting with the most recent one: this is a movie where the ancient Egyptian sun god is played by Geoffrey Rush. And Gerard Butler is playing the god Set. And when you think of Horus, is the name that immediately springs to mind is “Nikolaj Coster-Waldau?” And the whitewashing isn’t limited to the gods. Even the main human character, Bek, is being played by a white actor: Brenton Thwaites. This is a movie based on Egyptian mythology that takes place in Egypt, and pretty much every major character is white.
Here’s a movie based on a cartoon, where the characters were clearly not white and were based on Asian culture. So of course, the film-makers cast Nicola Peltz as Katara, Jackson Rathbone as Sokka, and tried to cast Jesse McCartney as Zuko. The failure on the part of the studio was so large that the phrase “racebending” no longer refers to just this movie, but has become a synonym for whitewashing in general. And director M. Night Shyamalan’s defense that “The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous,” was not received particularly well. Avatar: The Last Airbender became the first movie the Media Action Network for Asian Americans boycotted.
Oh man, when you’re adapting a Japanese manga into a live-action movie and the main character is named Goku, don’t go with the white Canadian kid as your star. All the source material is Japanese. All of it. So of course this adaptation chose Justin Chatwin to play Goku and Emmy Rossum as Bulma. It’s offensive on every level.
Unlike Last Airbender and Dragonball, this is one franchise that wasn’t particularly revered before it became a movie—and a big part of that was the way the original TV series handles Native Americans. And when you update a character that is seen by some as a degrading stereotype, you want to do it with a lot of care. OR you can put Johnny Depp in white make up and put a stuffed bird on his head. And then the debate can be about whether or not Depp really has some Native American blood, rather than whether the character was even a good idea in the first place.
Let’s just lump all the Biblical epics together, since they all have the exact same set of problems. All of the Bible stories take place in the Middle East and the people in them are Middle Eastern. Exodus: Gods and Kings had Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Ramses II, Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, and Aaron Paul as Joshua. And then Ridley Scott said:
I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.
Which managed to be both truthful about the state of Hollywood and offensive at the same time.
Noah went with Russell Crowe as the titular character, after offering it to the also-whites Christian Bale and Michael Fassbender. Co-writer Ari Handel said that everything was based on Crowe’s casting and they even made sure to make everyone white so that it wouldn’t look like the nonwhites were being punished.
And finally, The Passion of the Christ also went with white actors for its leads. In every single case, The Ten Commandments, which is from 1956, looms large as an obvious influence. Both in terms of being a Biblical epic and in casting choices.
When the name of the villain is “Khan Noonien Singh” and you cast Benedict Cumberbatch to play him, you’ve done something very wrong. Especially when that character was etched into the public consciousness by the performance of Ricardo Montalbán. To be fair, having a Mexican actor play a Sikh character in the first place was an odd notion—but that was a long time ago, and if anything, this feels like a step backwards.
A movie called Prince of Persia cast Jake Gyllenhaal as its titular character. And then doubled down, by making sure none of the other main characters were played by actors of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent.
The role of Tiger Lily, a Native American character, was given to the decidedly-white Rooney Mara. Director Joe Wright supposedly envisioned an “international and multi-racial world,” which would challenge the traditional view of Peter Pan. Of course, the only challenge was in turning the nonwhite character into a white person. The leads all remained white.
I’m giving an honorable mention to Cloud Atlas—which is only left off this list because putting actors in yellow face is something even worse than whitewashing.
These are only 10 notable examples. And only from the last fifteen years. There is no reason for anyone to still be casting white people in nonwhite roles. And every time this happens, there are complaints. And the responses are always that they cast “the best person” for the role. But that usually just means the most famous name they can get. And since the status quo is that those are white people, the roles always end up being whitewashed. It is way past time for this practice to stop.
[A version of this article originally ran on December 23, 2015.]
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