The secret to creating a financially successful movie is 40% talent, 20% luck, 10% savvy marketing, 29% timing, 1% witchcraft, and 100% made-up statistics. As we discovered during an in-depth look at the question of whether or not there’s such a thing as a “formula” for making a huge box office hit, the only thing that’s absolutely certain is that nothing is absolutely certain – and that lack of a guarantee when hundreds of millions of dollars are being thrown into projects contributes to a culture of fear among Hollywood’s higher-ups – a night terror that even if you do everything right, you could still end up with a total disaster on your hands.
The film industry’s response to this fear has been to form a religion of sorts – a set of superstitions and rules that designate certain ideas as “safe” and others as “risky”. For example, it’s just common sense that an action movie that revives a beloved character from a well established franchise – featuring a major Hollywood star and coming from the director and producer of a trilogy of massively successful action fantasy movies – is going to be a big success. Similarly, everybody knows that superhero movies need to be PG-13 in order to catch that valuable younger demographic, and an R-rated superhero movie is only ever going to appeal to a niche crowd.
Among the most intransigent of Hollywood’s superstitions is the belief that a white, male, heterosexual lead will always make for a more profitable movie than any deviation from those characteristics. Director Roland Emmerich summed up this mentality in response to criticism over his period drama, Stonewall, in which he created a fictional white, male, cisgender, “straight-acting” character to lead a true story about an act of defiance by some of the most marginalized people in the LGBT community. “When you make gay films everybody says it’s for gay people, but no it’s not,” said Emmerich, who is gay himself. “The majority is straight.”
The implicit assumption in Emmerich’s words is that straight people will only watch movies about gay people if those people at least act straight – an assumption not far removed from the pervasive belief that white audiences only want to see movies about white people. The end result of Emmerich’s calculated targeting of the “majority” was that Stonewall was eschewed by gay and straight audiences alike, and made just $187,674 at the box office.
Emmerich isn’t the only director in recent memory to have vocalized Hollywood’s overriding sentiment towards deviations from the default (“Hollywood” here primarily meaning studio heads, who according to a 2015 UCLA Diversity Report are 94% white and 100% male). When challenged over casting a white Australian and a white Brit as the leads in his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, director Ridley Scott responded brusquely, “I can’t mount a film of this budget… 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.” (A segment addressing this topic on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver countered by pointing at co-lead Joel Edgerton and quipping, “Yeah, you needed the white-hot star power of whoever the f— this guy is.”)
Still, Scott had a point – at least when it came to mounting his film. He got his $140 million budget and he got his tax rebates in Spain, and Exodus: Gods and Kings made it into theaters… where its worldwide gross totalled less than $270 million. 2016 brought an eerily similar story when director Alex Proyas’ $140 million fantasy action film Gods of Egypt – starring Gerard Butler (who barely attempted to alter his Scottish accent), Danish Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Australian Brenton Thwaites as the three male leads – opened to a domestic weekend of just $14 million. Proyas later went on a tirade against film critics and film journalists in general for manufacturing a controversy over the movie’s casting and conspiring to give it bad reviews.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at two movies starring the kind of actors whom Scott was referring to when he talked about “Mohammad so-and-so” (though neither of them are actually called Mohammad). In 2008 Fox Searchlight released Slumdog Millionaire, a feel-good romantic drama starring Dev Patel (then only known for appearing in British TV show Skins) as Mumbai teen Jamal, whose accumulated life experiences coincidentally give him exactly the answers he needs to win the top prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? In a sense, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t prove Scott wrong; after all it had a budget of just $18 million, and even if the script had called for it, it’s doubtful that any studio would have funded Slumdog Millionaire to the tune of $140 million. Nonetheless, the movie outperformed Exodus: Gods and Kings by a significant margin, grossing over $377 million worldwide.
To turn to a more comparable example, Ang Lee’s 2012 castaway movie Life of Pi, starring total newcomer Suraj Sharma (from New Delhi, India – or, if you prefer, “such-and-such”) as both the protagonist and the only human character on screen for the majority of the film, had a production budget of $120 million and ended up grossing more than $609 million.
Even as movie studios cling to the increasingly antiquated definition of “star power,” audiences demonstrate that they don’t really care what color the lead actor’s skin is, so long as the movie itself is entertaining. That, of course, is the key difference between Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire. The latter films both won Oscars and were extremely well-reviewed, while the former did not and were not. The scary truth of Hollywood is that ultimately the ethnic background of a movie’s leads doesn’t matter. Nor does their gender, nor the race or gender of the director, nor any other factor that can be carefully controlled by a studio. The only thing we can really be sure of is that people want to watch good movies and they don’t want to watch bad movies.
So far this analysis has been heavily geared towards the business side of things – and that’s quite deliberate. Generally any mention of whitewashing, approached from a moral or ethical standpoint, is met with dismissive responses of “Who cares?” or “Political correctness gone mad!” While these voices might sound obnoxious, they’re worth listening to because – setting aside all the lip service that Hollywood pays to the importance of diversity (this year’s Oscars ceremony was an exercise in apologetic self-flagellation that was almost painful to watch) – the only thing that the movie studios really care about is what makes money, and the evidence seems to roundly demonstrate that putting a white actor in the lead does nothing to help a movie’s financial prospects – and in some cases could even hurt them.
The latest discussion concerning the racial politics of casting surrounds the upcoming Nina, Cynthia Mort’s biopic about late musician Nina Simone, which stars Afro-Latina Zoe Saldana in the lead – wearing prosthetics and make-up to give her more African features and dark skin. There’s a sense of deja vu from Stonewall in the public response to the first trailer for Nina; the very audiences who might have been the core target audience for the film – the African-American community and avid fans of Simone’s music and activism – have instead been some of the most vocal voices against it. The official Twitter account for Simone’s estate responded to Saldana sharing one of Simone’s quotes with, “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.” Simone’s brother minced words even less when he told NY Daily News that the casting was “raping Nina’s legacy.”
Nina producer Robert L. Johnson hit back against the criticism in an interview with THR, in which he compared the criticisms to white slave owners separating light-skinned and dark-skinned slaves, and argued that it shouldn’t matter exactly what shade of brown an actress’ skin is – though if this is true, it’s unclear why the filmmakers thought it was necessary to bury Saldana’s face under panstick and prosthetics to make her look more African. Surely it would have been easier to simply cast an actress who resembled Nina Simone? Surely at some point during the make-up tests somebody should have looked at the result and said, “Isn’t this kind of blackface-y?” Now the movie is set to arrive in theaters in just over a month and the word-of-mouth surrounding it isn’t “Oh, cool, there’s a Nina Simone biopic coming out,” but “Isn’t this kind of blackface-y?”
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (who’s writing the new run of Black Panther comics) addressed the topic in an Atlantic article, in which he says that Nina is the product of “people who think it’s fine to profit off [Simone’s] music while heedlessly contributing to the kind of pain that brought that music into being.” As Kuba Shand-Baptiste, writing for The Independent, pointed out: “The dark shade of Simone’s skin and her distinctly African features defined her politics and her music.”
Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you agree with Coates and Shand-Baptiste or not; the outcry against Nina bodes poorly for its theatrical and VOD release next month, if the precedent set by Stonewall is anything to go by. According to Hollywood’s rules, Saldana is a more “bankable” star than, say, Chi-Raq‘s Teyonah Parris or Orange is the New Black‘s Lorraine Toussaint (both of whom have been suggested as alternate casting choices), but at this point it’s looking likely that that “bankable” casting choice could ultimately be what scuppers Nina financially.
Some might call it unfair that Nina is being judged so harshly before audiences have even seen it, to which the only relevant response is… tough. Audiences judge films before they go and see them, because that’s how they decide whether or not they want to see them. Believing that someone’s reasons for keeping their money in their wallet instead of buying a movie ticket are unfair or invalid won’t change anything – if it did, Hollywood higher-ups could stop worrying so much about trying to appeal to audiences and just focus really hard on believing.
Perhaps it’s cheating to use a massive franchise like Star Wars as an example, but in the very first teaser for The Force Awakens the very first face audiences saw was that of John Boyega, a black actor who at the time was almost entirely unknown. Would The Force Awakens have earned fractionally more than the $2 billion+ that it ended up grossing if new protagonists Finn and Rey had both been white guys? Or is the fact that it made so much money just further proof that audiences really don’t care what race or gender a film’s leads are; they just want to go to the theater and have a good time.
Here is what the evidence tells us: whitewashing, at best, has no significant impact on a movie’s box office and, at worst, can be a considerable risk factor when it comes to word-of-mouth. Whiteness is a security blanket that the industry needs to stop clinging to in the hope that it will somehow save movies from box office disaster, because it demonstrably doesn’t, and the pervasive belief that it might means that a much wider pool of valuable talent is being ignored. For everyone’s sake, let’s write off whitewashing as something that didn’t work out, and let’s all move on.