With several massive successes already in the bank, Disney is continuing to re-make its classic animated films in live-action, with Mulan hitting theaters in 2019, and Aladdin next on the slate for 2019 as well. It's no surprise that Disney is continuing to churn out the hits, with fans adoring the combination of beautiful remakes and new twists on old favorites. What is surprising, however, is that Disney's Aladdin has been plagued with controversy after controversy... all on the sensitive subject of race.
Despite reassurances from both director Guy Ritchie and producer Dan Lin that the upcoming movie will be 'authentic', 'not like Prince of Persia', 'diverse', and will make a real commitment to honoring the culture depicted, decision after decision has raised the eyebrows of fans. Whitewashing has become a hugely talked-about topic in Hollywood over the past few years, and it seems that despite constant criticism of films that wipe out erase POC characters, change them, whitewash them, or even celebrate racist tropes or white saviors, the big studios are failing to figure out how to create a great, diverse movie without these problems arising. Even when the controversies hurt ratings or box office figures (as happened with Iron Fist, Ghost In The Shell, The Great Wall, and several others), questionable decisions keep being made.
Now, Aladdin is at the center of yet another controversy on race, as the production is accused of putting extras in brownface, rather than hiring people who don't need makeup to 'blend in' on the streets of Agrabah. As the furor around the production continues to grow, we wonder whether the constant scandals could be enough to hurt Aladdin's bottom line, or whether Disney will continue to find success despite the controversy.
The Latest Controversy: 'Browning Up' Actors
This most recent controversy arose when Kaushal Odedra, a stand in for one of the lead actors, told the media that he saw a line of 'very fair skinned' extras and actors outside makeup, waiting to have their skin painted to allow them to pass for natives of the fictional city of Agrabah. This is obviously deeply problematic, not only because of the history of blackface and white performers painting their skin to mock other races, but because it means that Disney has actively chosen to hire white performers for roles that should go to those with darker skin.
Disney responded to the allegations immediately, and confirmed that there are around 100 white actors who are having their skin darkened so that they can blend in. However, Disney has also stated that the other 400 of the 500 performers, stunt performers, dancers and animal handlers that they have brought in are Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean or Asian. The studio claims that the 100 local performers who are being 'browned up' for Aladdin are those with special skills, such as "special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals". The implication here is that these were positions that are so specialized that it was impossible to find someone to fill them who would 'blend in' without makeup. Of course, this claim has had fans scoffing, as the massive Bollywood film industry would presumably have performers, stuntpeople, and animal handlers that would have been perfectly suited to the job, if none could be found closer to home.
Other Controversial Decisions Disney Has Made
Of course, this is just one of several controversial decisions that Disney has made with Aladdin. Possibly the biggest furor so far has been the introduction of a new, white, character to the film: Prince Anders. Anders (Billy Magnussen) is a Norwegian Prince, and a rival suitor to Jasmine... which sounds a lot like the role of Prince Achmed in the original. The difference, of course, is that Achmed was not Norwegian - meaning that Prince Anders is almost certainly a whitewashed version of the original character.
The lady he is courting, Princess Jasmine herself, has also had her own controversy. Although Disney made the commitment to casting a brown-skinned actress, they chose Naomi Scott, who is of mixed British and Gujarati Indian descent, and quite light-skinned. Fans were angry at the idea that Middle Eastern and South Asian people are interchangeable in the eyes of Disney (although it's worth noting that the original mixed Middle Eastern and South Asian cultural elements), angry that the lead was not darker skinned or with more classically Middle Eastern features.
- Aladdin (2019) release date: May 24, 2019