The act of “whitewashing” isn’t new in Hollywood, it’s been there since the beginning of movies. From the controversial blackface in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, to the very white Natalie Wood playing the Peurto Rican Maria in West Side Story, it is still a big problem today as taken into evidence by the following movies – many only released in the last few years.
With the upcoming release of Stonewall, which has already been accused of whitewashing the story of the creation of the LGBT civil rights movement, we thought we’d take a look at other movies guilty of erasing people of color from their narratives.
We’ve taken out the “blackface” roles from Hollywood’s silent era, for two reasons: 1) there are just way too many racist and disturbing examples, and 2) do we really want to go back and revisit that terrible time when there are countless examples in recent films.
Here is Screenrant’s 10 Best Examples of Hollywood Whitewashing.
Captain Allison Ng – Aloha (2015)
There wasn’t much to like in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, which earned him some of the worst reviews of his career. Along with the incomprehensible plot and winsome tone, the film faced criticism for casting Emma Stone in the role of Allison Ng, a supposedly mixed-race character who is of Chinese and Hawaiian descent.
This bit of casting emphasized that the film, which is set in Hawaii, and named after the Hawaiian word for “hello,” featured white actors in all of the major roles, even though only a quarter of Hawaii’s population is white.
Goku – Dragonball: Evolution (2009)
This misbegotten adaptation of the popular Japanese manga series was a critical and box office disappointment. Much controversy arose when Justin Chatwin was cast to portray Goku, the main character of the whole franchise and integral part of the original series. The characterin the original manga is clearly supposed to be Japanese, not a white Canadian like Chatwin.
Despite Chatwin’s precise and dead-on Goku hairstyle, the fact of the matter remained that the casting was random and went against the series’ spirit, as well as the scenery and stories created by Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama.
Dastan – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
Hollywood faced some major accusations of whitewashing when they decided to cast white actors to play Middle Eastern and Asian characters in Prince of Persia: The Sand of Times. As with many cases of “whitewashing,” the lead role was the primary target of the controversy. Dastan, the titular “Persian” prince, was portrayed by a very pale Jake Gyllenhaal, who is of Swedish descent.
The fact of the matter is that the role should have gone to a Hollywood actor of Persian or middle-eastern descent, but the studio wouldn’t budge, and instead opted for a more bankable, white movie star who looked terribly out of place in the role. The film bombed critically and commercially, and has since become known more for the terrible casting than the actual movie itself.
Katara, Aang, Zuko and Soka – The Last Airbender (2010)
The Last Airbender is another movie in which almost every character was miscast and whitewashed. Based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, the incredibly popular and brilliant Nickelodeon television series (whose title was used by a certain James Cameron flick), the film had the potential to be something truly great.
Unfortunately, director M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount Pictures decided that the television show’s characters, clearly modeled on Asian peoples and cultures, would be portrayed by white actors (though the villains remained dark-skinned). Many saw this movie as an missed opportunity for Hollywood to give up-and-coming Asian or Asian-American actors a chance to break through. Unsurprisingly, and similar to many of the films on this list, the movie was a monumental failure.
Tony Mendes – Argo (2012)
Ben Affleck directed Argo to Best Picture Oscar glory back in 2012. The movie told the entertaining true story about how Tony Mendes of the CIA managed to fake the production of a sci-fi flick shooting in Tehran to get American prisoners out of the country.
Everything went well for the movie, right up until Oscar night, except for the fact that Affleck, an American of Irish descent, was playing Mendes, an American of Mexican descent. This might not be as extreme an example as other performances on the list, but it is no less important because it effectively erased ethnic diversity from a story about American heroes, once again letting a white man save the day, even when this contradicted history.
I.Y. Yunioshi – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
This is the most racist portrayal in our list, bar none. Casting legendary Hollywood actor Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunoshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the biggest flaw in an otherwise iconic movie. Rooney wore makeup and a prosthetic mouthpiece to portray an arrogant and bitter Japanese neighbor.
It has been rumored that Bruce Lee was so offended by the role that he walked out, not even midway through the film at a screening. Producer Richard Shepard has long said that he regretted the casting and that it only came into fruition because director Blake Edwards really wanted Rooney for the role. Years later, Edwards himself has admitted to regretting the casting and has said that if he had a chance, he’d have done it differently today. The damage, sadly, was already done.
Hrundi Bakshi, The Party (1968)
Blake Edwards at it again. Not everybody laughed at Peter Sellers’ incredibly silly portrayal of Hrundi Bakshi in The Party. Edwards cast the iconic comedy actor in the role of an Indian by making him wear “brownface” makeup. The story of an Indian actor who accidentally gets invited to an elite Hollywood party, the film benefits from Sellers’ obvious comedic genius, but Sellers’ casting makes the whole thing a bit awkward.
Much kudos must be given to Sellers, who just disappeared into his role and made it an oddly amusing bit of screwball humor. It has since become a comedy classic and the controversy has been tamed down due to the fact that Indians themselves seemed to enjoy, especially late prime minister Indira Gandhi, who liked to quote Bakshi’s line “In India we don’t think who we are, we know who we are!”
Miguel Vargas – Touch of Evil (1959)
Don’t think for a second that we’re against this 1959 Orson Welles masterpiece, it’s just that an almost unrecognizable Charles Heston playing a Mexican DEA Miguel Vargas in the movie still strikes us as somewhat offensive. Heston is the furthest thing from Latino, which resulted in him having to wear thick layers of makeup that changed in variation from scene to scene.
Some scenes he was wearing too little makeup, while in other scenes he was wearing too much. This sad bit of casting might be due to the fact that Heston was married in the movie to Janet Leigh, and the studio may not have wanted to offend anyone by showing an interracial relationship on screen.
Genghis Khan – The Conqueror (1956)
This hilariously miscast role is as funny as it is sad. It is no surprise that The Conqueror is known as one of the worst movies ever made and features the usually very American John Wayne as – of all people – Genghis Khan. The famous Hollywood actor, best known for his cowboy movies, puts on a huge amount of makeup to portray the future leader of the Mongolian empire.
Chante Mallard – Stuck (2007)
Chante Jawan Mallard is an African American woman who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a hit and run that caused the death of a 37 year old homeless man. Chante is black. Mena Suvari is not. So why cast the very blonde Suvari – with cornrows, no less – to play a character that goes through a tragic incident very clearly inspired by Chante’s? Because it seems like she was the only “bankable” actress they could get.
Why tell the story when you can’t even get some of the crucial details right? Suvari does give a good performance and the film is overall very gripping, but if you’re familiar with the real story, you can’t help but be bothered by the lead actress they chose. The film is not particularly well-known, as it only played in a select few theaters in 2008, but that doesn’t diminish the awkward casting, or those cornrows!
Othello – Othello (1965)
Shakespeare’s Othello might just have the most famous black character of all-time. In 1965, Laurence Olivier, an incredibly talented Shakespearean-taught actor, decided to tackle the role. The problem was that Olivier was a white British actor. So blackened his face with makeup and took on the role, admirably well might we add, with even top critic Pauline Kael flowering him with praise.
Granted, white actors (including Orson Welles) had been tackling Shakespeare’s character on stage and screen for centuries, but Olivier took on the role around the same time that Sydney Poitier was the first black actor to win Best Actor for Lilies of the Field and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Maybe he should have let someone else take it?
There have been hundreds of whitewashing examples in Hollywood history. Which is the most maddening to you? Please let us know in the comments below. We look forward to your thoughts!