Colour me shocked: Notorious cases of whitewashing in Hollywood

  • Rohan Naahar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 06, 2015 14:34 IST

Cameron Crowe's new film Aloha, starring Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, which was released last week was supposed to be the director's return to form, but instead it turned out to be his worst received film ever, being rejected outright by both audiences and critics. Of the many accusations leveled against it (misguided direction, baffling writing, grating sentimentality), perhaps the most noteworthy was the allegation of whitewashing. Despite being set in Hawaii and having a character named Allison Ng, almost the entire cast consisted exclusively of white actors. Crowe recently penned an open apology on his website, offering the rationale behind his casting Emma Stone as a half-Chinese woman.

But it must be noted: Aloha isn’t the only movie that faced such backlash. Many films cast more recognizable stars to justify their budgets, the sad reality being that most bankable stars happen to be Caucasian.

Here is our list of movies that cast Caucasian actors in ethnic roles, and attracted controversy in the current, volatile racial climate.

The Conqueror (1956)

The Duke playing Genghis Khan? It is exactly how absurd as it sounds. John Wayne was at the peak of his career, as was director Howard Hughes. Both felt an epic cinemascope film based on the Great Mongol’s life would make a killing, but the film was trashed upon release. Wayne won a Golden Turkey Award, amidst mass criticism on his misguided casting, and Hughes was so ashamed of the film that he bought all the prints for $12 million to keep them off circulation.

Cleopatra (1963)

Joseph L Mankiewicz’s sweeping biopic on the life of the majestic Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever made at the time, with a budget escalating to $44 million (equal to $339 million in 2015 money). It almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox despite being the most successful film of the year. Even one of cinema’s greatest pairings couldn’t save it. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor received mild acclaim, but the studio didn’t avoid criticism for the blatant whitewashing of characters that are irrefutably Egyptian.

Othello (1952/1965)

The moor was a controversial character ever since Shakespeare’s play debuted all those years ago. To have a black protagonist in any form of popular entertainment was perhaps not fully accepted till Sidney Poitier won his Oscar. The role of Othello has a history of attracting famous white actors, desperate to showcase their Shakespearean chops. Aside from Lawrence Fishburne’s 1995 portrayal opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Iago, Orson Welles took on the role in 1952, as did Lawrence Olivier in 1965.

The Last Airbender (2009)
The final, icy nail in M Night Shyamalan’s sinking coffin. The Last Airbender was called one of the worst films ever when it debuted to high anticipation back in 2009. Based on popular anime show Avatar: The Last Airbender, the protagonists, despite being cartoons, were clearly Asian. Shyamalan inexplicably converted the leads into Caucasians and somehow managed to make it worse: he had the only white character in the series (the villain Zuko) be played by Indian origin actor Dev Patel. Prince of Persia (2010)

Video game adaptations are always dubious: very few of them are actually any good. Jake Gyllenhaal’s casting as Prince Dastan, the Prince of Persia (it’s right there in the title, for God’s sake), was met with more than just a few raised eyebrows. Despite being a gifted actor who gave it all to the film regardless of its inherently silly premise, he isn’t Persian. Not even close. Having black hair just doesn’t cut it.

Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck’s Argo is a spectacular film, deservedly winning the Best Picture Oscar and cementing Affleck as a director to be reckoned with. The plot was almost too good to be true, but it was. The only glitch: the man who saved all those hostages, bravely extracting them from the Canadian Embassy in the middle of the Iranian revolution was named Tony Mendez, a Hispanic man. Ben Affleck is from Boston.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

This was Disney’s flailing attempt to cash in on their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. They invested $250 million in a genre pronounced dead by most experts, hoping desperately that the goodwill of the Pirates franchise would translate over. They hired the same team: director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and star Johnny Depp. And despite Depp’s frequent wails of maybe, kind of, probably being part Native American from his grandmother’s side, and the blessings he received from Comanche representatives, he didn’t manage to fully deflect the blows. Exodus: God’s and Kings (2014)

Ridley Scott’s needless retelling of the biblical epic fell into the same trap that counts Cecil B DeMille as one of its victims. Like The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston in just one of his many racially iffy roles, Exodus boasted Batman himself as its Moses. And other assorted white actors not even remotely resembling Egyptians. Joel Edgerton, proud Aussie, played Rameses and Sigourney Weaver, in a hilariously misjudged cameo played his mother, Tuya (she didn’t even discard her American accent). Scott’s justification was just as offensive: ‘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 financed’.

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