12 Biggest Whitewashing Controversies Of 2016

Gods of Egypt director apologizes for white-washed cast

Last year, we brought you a list of the worst examples of whitewashing ever, featuring examples from Mickey Rooney in 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s to Emma Stone in the 2015 disaster Aloha. Unfortunately, the first six months of 2016 have brought us enough whitewashing controversies to make a whole new list, from the all-too white cast of Gods of Egypt to Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni’s recent comments that he’d like to see Leonardo DiCaprio play Perisan poet Rumi in his upcoming film.

Actors and actresses of color, fans, and activists alike have criticized each of these examples below — and the poor critical reception and low box offices that hit most of these movies demonstrates the need for filmmakers to think twice before casting a white actor or actress to play a character of color.

Here are the 12 Biggest Whitewashing Controversies Of 2016.

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Gods of Egypt review - Gerard Butler
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12 Gods of Egypt (February 2016)

Gods of Egypt review - Gerard Butler

Despite the title, Egyptian actors are nowhere to be found in director Alex Proyas' Gods of Egypt. Instead, the titular gods are mostly played by white actors and actresses, including Gerard Butler as Set, Game of Thrones star Nickolaj Coster-Waldeau as Horas, Geoffrey Rush as Ra, and Brenton Thwaites as Bek. There are a few people of color in the film, including Chadwick Boseman, who plays Thoth, but the vast majority of the cast is white, and the general public was not happy about it.

The film faced some major backlash for "ethnically inaccurate casting,” as the Associated Press politely termed it, including public criticism from Selma director Ava DuVernay and Chadwick Boseman himself, who said that he agreed with the criticisms and had taken his role so the film would have at least one person of African descent playing a god. Many people pointed out that after the backlash faced by recent Biblical epics (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings), director Alex Proyas really should have known better. Proyas and Lionsgate apologized, saying, “it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse.”

11 Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (March 2016)

Christopher Abbott in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a war dramedy based on a memoir by journalist Kim Barker and starring Tina Fey, was better received than most films on this list. It has a respectable 63% on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to a mere 13% for Gods of Egypt). However, both critics and activists noted a major casting problem: The two main Afghan characters are played by white actors. Alfred Molina plays an Afghan government official, and Girls star Christopher Abbott plays a local fixer.

Tina Fey, who also produced the film, commented on the backlash and refused to apologize: “In 2015, in the pool of actors in New York City that [casting director] Bernie Telsey very, very diligently searched through, these were the best people for the role. And I did say to John and Glenn, ‘Guys, I hope you’re sure, because I’m telling you, a year from now, the only person who will get in trouble for this is me. Because that’s what I do for a living, is get in trouble on the Internet.’ I try to make myself feel warm about it in the fact that, y’know, Afghans are Caucasians, it’s Caucasians playing Caucasians. If you really wanted to go to the mat on it, you could say it’s not any different than, y’know, an Aussie playing a Brit, although I’m sure people feel that it is.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was far from a commercial success despite it's mostly positive reception, only recuperating about a third of its production budget at the box office. While the casting controversy probably isn't solely responsible for the film's underwhelming box office take, it certainly didn't help.

10 Nina (April 2016)

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

“Whitewashing” may not be the correct term to describe the decision to cast Zoe Saldana to play Nina Simone, but the casting certainly caused a major controversy. Zoe Saldana, who is a light-skinned black Latina actress, wore dark makeup and a prosthetic nose to play the famed singer in this biopic. Many people, including Simone’s daughter Simone Kelly, said that a dark-skinned actress such as Viola Davis or Kimberly Elise should have been cast to play Simone, especially because Simone faced discrimination because of her appearance throughout her career.

Simone’s estate publicly criticized the film, as did many other celebrities, including award-wining author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer of the year's highest-selling comic book series, Black Panther. “There is something deeply shameful — and hurtful — in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic. In this sense, the creation of Nina is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem,” Coates wrote.

The film was absolutely blasted by critics (it currently sports a woeful 3% on Rotten Tomatoes) and came and went with a whimper this past April.

9 Absolutely Fabulous (August 2016)

Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous

The upcoming Absolutely Fabulous movie is an adaptation of the beloved early ‘90s BBC sitcom about a trend-obsessed PR agent and magazine editor. The film is getting buzz for its cameos — Kate Moss, Harry Styles, Kim Kardashian and Rebel Wilson are just a few of the 60 celebrities who are set to appear — but there’s also been controversy over a character called “Huki Muki,” who is based on Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. “Huki Muki” is played by a white Scottish comedian, Janette Tough, and critics are already comparing the character to Mikey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Actress Margaret Cho criticized the film on Twitter, writing, “#YELLOWFACE is racism. Sorry. It's unacceptable. Not now. I was thrilled about #abfabmovie but now I just can't be. I'm very disappointed. We've tried to shame racism out of existence but I guess some people really don't care. They're shameless but NOT BLAMELESS.It's hard enough to get into film and TV as a person of color - and when roles written for us are played by white actors - it's an outrage.”

The movie is still two months away from its release, but with such a strong controversy dominating the narrative surrounding the film, you'd be wise to keep your expectations low.


8 Doctor Strange (November 2016)

Doctor Strange Teaser Trailer - Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One

Marvel has gotten some major criticism for casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, who is Tibetan (and male) in the original Marvel Comics depiction, in Doctor Strange.

People behind the film offered several different explanations — but no apologies — for the casting choice. Marvel released a statement saying, “Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.” The film’s writer, C. Robert Cargill, said that he couldn’t keep the character Tibetan without offending the Chinese government and Chinese citizens, which only fanned the flames even further, as it insinuated more than a few political statements were being made. Whether or not Marvel meant to make such a stand is another debate entirely.

Swinton said that she wasn’t cast to play an Asian character, and while the controversy hasn't been killed entirely, it's been a few weeks since we've heard any more negative press surrounding the film. Will the Marvel movie machine suffer it's first check in the "L" column? Only time will tell.

7 Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon (Expected late 2016)

Michael Jackson Joseph Fiennes

The upcoming British TV movie Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon is based on a 2011 Vanity Fair story about Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando escaping New York City after 9/11. The story may or may not be true.

When it was announced that Joseph Fiennes was cast to play Michael Jackson, the backlash was quick — and the filmmakers offered no apology. Fiennes said, "I’m as shocked as you may be. [Jackson] definitely had an issue — a pigmentation issue — and that’s something I do believe. He was probably closer to my color than his original color.” Sam Kashner, who wrote the original Vanity Fair story, called the casting “inspired.”

Critics pointed to a 1993 interview with Oprah in which Jackson said that he did not ever want to be played by a white actor. Actor Orlando Jones tweeted that Fiennes could play Jackson “IF AND ONLY IF Angela Bassett is cast as Elizabeth Taylor” — to which Basset responded, “ordered my violet contacts & bathed in White Diamonds this morning, so I’m READY!”

6 Power Rangers (March 2017)

Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa in Power Rangers

Some Power Rangers fans criticized the casting of Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, a villain based on a Japanese TV series character. The character — an alien witch — was originally played by Japanese actress Machiko Soga and was later played by Hispanic actress Carla Perez and Filipina-Australian actress Julia Cortez. However, two white actresses, Barbara Goodson and Susan Brady, provided the voice for the character at different points in the series.

A small fraction of fans tweeted that they wanted to see Rita played by an Asian or Hispanic actress, thus igniting the conversation. Many others were less critical, however, pointing to the rebooted Power Rangers’ largely diverse cast, including Mexican-American singer and actress Becky G, African American actor RJ Cyler, Chinese-Canadian actor Ludi Lin, and Indian-British actress Naomi Scott as four of the five Power Rangers (white Australian actor Dacre Montgomery is the fifth). 

5 Ghost in the Shell (March 2017)

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in a Shell

Although Ghost in the Shell is an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga, the cast is largely white. Scarlett Johansson will play lead character The Major (originally named Major Motoko), and Danish actor Pilou Asbaek, American actor Michael Pitt, and French actress Juliette Binoche also have prominent roles. The cast has some Asian actors, including Takeshi Kitano, Rila Fukushima, and Kaori Momoi, but they aren’t the leads by a long shot.

Many fans have criticized the casting, particularly Johansson’s — and especially after reports broke that the film used CGI to make Johansson and other actors appear more “Asian.” Director Max Landis responded with a YouTube video called “ “If You’re Mad About ‘Ghost In the Shell,’ You Don’t Know How The Movie Industry Works,” in which he cites Johansson’s “marketable celebrity” as the reason for her casting. “There are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level,” he said. In response, digital strategist William Yu created a website and Twitter campaign called “#StarringJohnCho,” replacing white actors in film posters with John Cho. #StarringConstanceWu soon followed.

The publisher of the wildly popular manga (which served as a direct influence for The Matrix) has come out in support of the film in recent weeks, though it remains to be seen what sort of impact this controversy will have on the upcoming blockbuster.

4 Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 2017)

Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz in Little Men

Marvel also came under fire for casting a white actor — 14-year-old Little Men star Michael Barbieri — to play a new Spider-Man: Homecoming character who is rumored to be based on Ganke Lee. In the comics, Ganke Lee is the teenage Korean American best friend of the other Spider-Man, Miles Morales. Barbieri’s character is expected to share many personality traits with Ganke.

Actress Constance Wu tweeted about the news: “Yet. Again. SMH.” Some fans tweeted that Wu’s Fresh Off The Boat co-star, 12-year-old Hudson Yang, would be perfect for the role. Many fans saw this as one more way that Marvel has failed fans of color, citing the delay of the Black Panther movie and the whitewashing of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange as other examples.

To Marvel's credit, they've not only shot down rumors that Barbieri is playing Ganke, but they also seem to be going the extra mile in terms of fan service with this movie, tapping beloved former-Batman Michael Keaton to play the film's villain and adding Donald Glover to the cast in an as-of-yet-unspecified role. The question of whether or not Miles Morales is on the way has safely drowned out this brief whitewashing controversy, but Marvel still has more on their plate...

3 Iron Fist (Expected 2017)

Finn Jones rumored for Iron Fist

Netflix’s upcoming Iron Fist series will follow other Marvel/Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (premiering September 2016). When it was announced that the Iron Fist will be played by white actor Finn Jones, fans were split. Some pointed out that, in the comics, the Danny Rand is white, so the casting was a non-issue. Others pointed out that when they debuted in the ‘70s, the comics were inspired by popular blaxploitation and kung fu movies, and the character is a Buddhist monk who knows kung-fu — so it would make sense for Marvel to cast an Asian actor in the lead role.

An Asian American organization called 18 Million Rising started a petition asking for an Asian actor to be cast in the lead role. The petition stated, “this is a case in which changing Iron Fist’s race has the potential to add depth and layers to an already beloved comic book icon.” While their petition may not have paid off, an Asian American superhero could very well still be on the way in the MCU in the form of Shang-Chi, the "Master of Kung-Fu" in the Marvel world.

2 Death Note (Expected 2017)

Light Yagami in Death Note anime

Just like Ghost in the Shell, Death Note is a popular Japanese manga that will now star a predominantly white cast. The film, which is being developed by Netflix, will star Paper Towns actor Nat Wolff  and Margaret Qualley, both of whom are white. Recently, it was announced that Keith Stanfield, a black actor who recently appeared in Straight Outta Compton and Dope, will join the cast in an unknown role. It’s unlikely that many Asian actors will join the cast — the new version takes place in the U.S.

Asian American actors Arden Cho and Edward Zo spoke out against the casting. Zo released a YouTube video describing how he tried to audition for the role but was told “they were not looking to see Asian actors for the role of Light Yagami.” Arden Cho tweeted, “Great, another Hollywood feature film casting all white leads for a famous JAPANESE manga. I'm sure the fans are gonna love that. #DeathNote. As @violadavis said, "you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there" LONG way to go for Asians when we can't even book Animes.”

1 Rumi movie (Upcoming)

Rumi movie

Recently, screenwriter David Franzoni — who won an Oscar for his script for Gladiator and also penned King Arthur and Amistad — said that he was working on a screenplay for a movie about the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Sounds interesting — until Franzoni said he would like to see Leonardo DiCaprio play Rumi and Robert Downey Jr. play Shams of Tabriz. “This is the level of casting that we’re talking about,” said producer Stephen Joel Brown.

In response, #RumiWasntWhite trended on Twitter, with fans calling for a Middle Eastern actor to play Rumi. Franzoni said that his film intends to challenge stereotypes of Muslims — something that many fans saw ironic given the casting. 

We've never seen a film be accused of whitewashing before it cast a single actor, so things aren't exactly looking up for Rumi. Frankly, this one could be dead in the water before it even tried to swim.


Did we leave out any prominent whitewashing incidents from the last few months? How much of an effect do you think these controversies will have on the film industry moving forward? Sound off in the comments.

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