Hollywood movies are a powerful visual medium that can reach large audiences, which gives films the potential to present viewers with complex characters from all sorts of different backgrounds. But that potential can be lost in an instant, especially if filmmakers create characters that simply fulfill stereotypes, rather than developing characters and narratives that are nuanced, surprising, or challenging.
The characters that are presented in this list are stereotypical characters that are one-dimensional portrayals based on the race or ethnicity of those characters. In some cases, those characters are portrayed by people who are not that race or ethnicity, but this is not necessarily the case; sometimes, an actor or actress who is the same race or ethnicity still presents a character that is stereotypical and has been met by criticism from audiences, critics, or special interest groups.
All of the films and caricatures that are discussed on this list are live action films. Animated films have also had a troubled relationship in its portrayal of many races – Disney’s infamous racial caricatures have drawn accusations over whether or not Walt Disney himself was a racist.
Here are 11 Worst Racial Caricatures in Movies that drew harsh criticism for their portrayals of various characters:
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Most people remember Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a classic romantic comedy that stars the beautiful and charming Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. Fewer people remember Mr. Yunioshi, Holly’s angry, bucktoothed Japanese neighbor. Not only does he have an over-the-top accent – crying “Miss Gorightry!” at his neighbor – but he is played by white actor, Mickey Rooney, who dyed his hair black, wore Hollywood prop dentures, and taped his eyes back so they would appear “Asian.” A bumbling clown, it is clear that Mr. Yunioshi is meant to be the butt of the joke – and his only defining quality seems to be that he is Japanese.
In 2008, almost fifty years after the film premiered, Rooney apologized for the role, saying that he never meant to offend anyone with his portrayal. Director Blake Edwards, too, has said that he regrets how the role was cast and portrayed. This film is one of many examples of white-washing in film casting.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Gone With the Wind is often considered one of the greatest movies of all time. It is also, after adjusting for inflation, the highest grossing movie of all time. The film’s depiction of African-Americans has been criticized for its stereotypical characterizations of black characters. Most notably, Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” is a dimwitted, subservient example of a Civil War-era house slave. The language and grammar of the African-American characters, including Big Sam (Everett Brown), Pork (Oscar Polk), and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) are used for comedic effect. The film also has been accused of glamorizing the white Southern way of life, reveling in nostalgia for the time of slavery, and has faced criticism from the NAACP.
Despite its problematic portrayals, Gone with the Wind did make history as the first film in which an African-American received an Oscar – actress Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy. McDaniel was allowed to attend the ceremony, but was seated at a specially designated segregated table.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
An early silent epic, The Birth of a Nation is a dramatic narrative that shows the post-Civil War birth of the Ku Klux Klan, which is shown as a valiant and admirable group of men. The Birth of a Nation also features white actors in blackface, portraying African-American men as savage and brutish sub-humans who lust after and attack white women.
While its portrayals of African-Americans are now infamous, The Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film of all time for over two decades – beginning in 1915 until it was dethroned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. The film is still often shown in film schools, and is believed to be a defining moment in American cinematography that developed many modern techniques of narrative, emotion, and editing.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Dances with Wolves was directed by and starred Kevin Costner as John J. Dunbar, a Union soldier who befriends and becomes a part of the Sioux tribe. The single righteous white “savior,” Dunbar’s character is caught between the worlds of the white oppressors and the Sioux. The film draws distinctions between these two races that only Dunbar (and his love interest, Mary Mcdonnell as Stands With a Fist) is able to cross. It romanticizes the Sioux as “noble savages” (a term invented by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau) who, though they lack “technology” are morally grounded and profound in comparison to the white society that Dunbar abandons.
Dances with Wolves was also criticized for its grammatical mistakes in the Lakota language – the script was translated from English, but some of the translations failed to follow the gendered rules of the Lakota language.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was originally going to be filmed in India, but the government rejected their proposal because it found the script to be offensive and racist. Instead, the film was shot on the island of Sri Lanka.
In addition to Indiana Jones’s bizarre sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), who has a stereotypical accent, the movie’s portrayal of Indians and their relationship to the British Empire is troubling. The Thuggee cult gang use black magic to control unsuspecting people’s actions and to perform strange sacrificial ceremonies. In the infamous dinner scene, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Wilhelmina Scott (Kate Capshaw) are invited to dine on the local delicacies of bugs, snakes, monkey brains, and eyeball soup. The film is resolved when a British officer saves the day, using superior soldiers and guns to kill all of the Thuggee cult members.
50 First Dates (2004)
Adam Sandler has been associated with a number of projects that have been accused of racial insensitivity, most recently being brought to the media’s attention when a group of Native American actors decided to protest his portrayal of the Apache in his movie The Ridiculous Six (2015). Sandler has worked with comedian Rob Schneider who has played Asian stereotypes (marked by an over-the-top and offensive accent) in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) and in Eight Crazy Nights (2002). Schneider has also appeared as a Middle Eastern delivery boy in Big Daddy (1999) and Palestinian taxi driver in You Don’t Mess With Zohan (2008).
In 50 First Dates, Schneider plays Ula, who is supposed to be a Native Hawaiian. His portrayal has been criticized repeatedly for being a cringe-worthy stereotype – Ula is a lazy pot-smoking islander who is married to an angry, overweight woman – and he even wears a coconut bra in some scenes.
Song of the South (1946)
The Song of the South is a Disney musical that uses both live-action and animated sequences. In it, Uncle Remus (James Baskett), the happy-go-lucky former slave sings minstrel songs like “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Daa” and tells stories to Jimmy, a young white boy who goes to live with his grandparents in their plantation house. Uncle Remus is a variation on the Uncle Tom stereotype – a gentle and happy African-American man who is content in his servitude. The film ignores and glosses over much of the historical unpleasantness of the post-war South.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
Sixteen Candles portrayal of the exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), is considered by many to be a generic and offensive Asian stereotype. The film never explicitly says where Long Duk Dong is from, although he is called “a very weird Chinese guy” by Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) and shouts “BANSAI!” (a Japanese phrase) when falling out of a tree after a night of drunken partying.
Not only does Long Duk Dong’s accent and behavior alienate him from the other characters and make him the butt of many jokes, but every time he appears or is named on screen, it is accompanied by the sound of a gong.
White Chicks (2004)
White Chicks is a buddy cop comedy that revolves around two African-American FBI agents, Kevin and Marcus Copeland (played by Shawn and Marlon Wayans) who disguise themselves as “white chicks” in order to protect two white socialites, Brittany and Tiffany Wilson (Maitland Ward and Anne Dudek).
Much of the humor revolves around stereotypes about white women, including the fact that they cannot dance, that they are materially obsessed, and “Valley Girl” accents. Additionally, Latrell Spencer (Terry Crews) plays an African-American basketball player who is obsessed with white women, repeated an often-used steretype about black men that can be traced all the way back to The Birth of a Nation.
The Last Samurai (2003)
In The Last Samurai, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a traumatized Civil War veteran, is brought to Japan in order to suppress a samurai rebellion. Initially the samurai’s enemy, Algren learns the Japanese language and samurai skills, and later becomes their strongest ally in the fight to save the samurai. The movie’s plot suffers from the same tropes that Dances with Wolves does – it creates a white messiah who is the only person who can interact with both sides of an impossible struggle. Many Japanese and Japanese-American critics found the movie’s portrayal of Japan and the Japanese to be overly simplistic and exotic.
The Last Samurai premiere party also got into trouble when a casting call for “beautiful Asian women” was sent out – the notice was scrapped after the production team was accused of using Asian women as decorative set pieces for the event.
The Lone Ranger (2013)
The Lone Ranger reimagines the popular 1930s radio show and 1950s television series of the same name. The movie opens with the Comanche, Tonto (controversially played by Johnny Depp), recounting a story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy while he is a museum piece at a fair in San Francisco. This framing of the story seemed to imply that Indigenous Americans were a thing of the past, rather than a current and living part of the United States.
Later in the film, a tribe leader reinforces this, saying, “It doesn’t matter – we are already ghosts” before the honor-bound Comanche are brutally killed in a fight against that they were doomed to lose. Tonto’s broken grammar and costume influence from seemingly random and unrelated Native American tribes undermine the filmmaker’s claims of authenticity and redefining Indigenous American characters.
Unfortunately, there are many instances of racial stereotypes that appear in films – they couldn’t be all listed here. Let us know which other films we could have included in the comments!