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6 Most Racist Casting Decisions in Film History

How far and little we've come in cinema

By Matt Hoffman     March 29, 2010


6 Most Racist Casting Decisions in Film History
© Mania/Bob Trate

 

 
Hollywood often likes to think of itself as an agent of social progress, and occasionally the film industry really can help bring audiences to a higher state of mutual tolerance and understanding—witness, for example, the rise of Sidney Poitier in the 1960s. On the other hand, the entertainment industry is all about giving the people what they want, and sometimes that means confirming or even promoting society’s deepest prejudices and here are a handful of those instances…


6. Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia (2010)

However you feel about Gyllenhaal, one thing is for sure: He ain’t no Persian. Nonetheless, he’s certainly not the first white actor to be cast in a distinctly non-white starring role. This practice dates back at least to Rudolph Valentino, who was probably best known for playing the titular Arab in 1921’s The SheikThe Conqueror (featuring John Wayne as Genghis Khan) and 1965’s Othello (Laurence Olivier as the Moor) are two other prime examples. The reverse rarely occurs; as much as people like Morgan Freeman, you probably won’t see him playing George Washington anytime soon.
 
Of course, Prince of Persia is a particularly blatant example for the obvious reason that it has the protagonist’s nationality right there in the title. One might argue that there are no actors of Persian descent who would draw in American audiences, which is probably true, although modern-day Persia (also known as Iran) does have its own flourishing film industry which could have been tapped. Then again, given the tensions which have flared between the US and Iran in recent years, Prince of Persia’s producers might have wanted to distance their film from actual Iranians as much as possible.
 

5. Chinese Actresses in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Whites aren’t the only race that can usurp acting roles from other ethnicities. The geisha is a uniquely Japanese figure and holds a prominent place in Japan’s history and culture, but that didn’t stop Memoirs of a Geisha from placing ethnically Chinese actresses such as Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang and Li Gong in its most prominent female roles. As you might expect, many in Japan were offended that Japanese actresses were offered the roles. More surprisingly, however, the film was just as controversial in China, where the presentation of Chinese women as geishas brought back memories of Japanese atrocities against Chinese women in World War II. The Chinese government even went so far as to cancel the movie’s release.
 
You might think that angering both Japan and China would automatically lead to failure for a film about Japan starring Chinese actresses. You would be wrong, partly because Memoirs of a Geisha was shot in English and therefore depended just as much on finding an audience in the West as in the East, if not more so. Yeoh and Zhang were internationally popular due to the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the average American moviegoer probably doesn’t know the difference between Chinese and Japanese anyway. Hollywood producers may be callous, but they usually aren’t stupid.
 

4. White Actors in 21 (2008)

There is another way to deal with roles that don’t match, ethnicity-wise, with the actors you want to hire: Change the ethnicity of the role. This is called “whitewashing” when done for the benefit of white actors, and films such as Dragonball Evolution and The Last Airbender have been accused of using this tactic. An especially egregious perpetrator is 21, which was “inspired by the true story” of a group of MIT students and ex-students who used card-counting strategies to get rich off of casino blackjack tables. In real life, the team was mostly Asian; in the film, the protagonists are played by such white actors as Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, and (as an MIT professor who serves as a mentor) Kevin Spacey. The movie’s two Asian characters are relegated mainly to comic relief.
 
In response to critics, 21 producer Dana Brunetti wrote, “Believe me, I would have loved to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted.” This explanation is more innocuous than the alternative—that the producers just assumed audiences wouldn’t accept non-white heroes—but it’s also a Catch-22: Non-white actors can’t get leading roles because they’re not “bankable,” and they can’t become bankable until they get leading roles.
 

3. Jar-Jar Binks (1999)

Need we go on? Minstrel shows—in which blacks or whites in blackface portray black characters as lazy, stupid and ridiculous—are one of the great shames of American entertainment. They can be traced as far back as the 17th century and continued, in spirit, at least up to the Hollywood career of Stepin Fetchit and the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio and TV shows. About the best defense that can be given for any individual act of minstrelsy is that it was simply a product of its time.
 
Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace does not have that excuse. Of course, the bumbling comic sidekick Jar-Jar Binks isn’t black (although the actor who plays him, Ahmed Best, is); he’s Gungan. Nevertheless, his hapless antics, loping gait, and, most of all, his “me-sa you-sa” dialect place him firmly in the minstrel tradition. The fact that Jar-Jar is given far more screen time than Samuel L. Jackson only adds insult to injury.
 
And don’t even get us started on Watto.
 

2. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

As offensive as whitewashing can be, having white actors intentionally take on non-white roles for the sole purpose of exploiting racial stereotypes is even worse. Blackface is the most well-known example of this practice, but “yellowface,” which focuses on Asian characters, was also widely used in early cinema. For example, the character of Fu Manchu was played by several white actors, and the white actress Myrna Loy often appeared in Asian roles.
 
Still, even within yellowface’s long and sordid history, the character of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s stands out. As played by Mickey Rooney, Yunioshi (the Japanese neighbor of Audrey Hepburn’s character) is bucktoothed, stupid, ugly, clumsy—basically, ever negative stereotype that has ever been attached to Asians applies to him. You might expect that Hollywood would have developed a little racial sensitivity by 1961, or at least gotten over America’s World War II-era hatred of the Japanese. But, again, you would be wrong. Judging by the performances of Eddie Murphy in Norbit or Rob Schneider in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (just to name a few instances), we may still have a long way to go.
 

1. Blackface in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

If you haven’t noticed, we’re kind of grading on a curve here. We’ve been focusing on relatively recent movies because racially insensitive casting has become less common, and therefore more remarkable, as time has gone on. Cataloging every silent movie that included a white actor playing a non-white character in a stereotypical fashion would have made this list way too long.
 
D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, however, was offensive even by the standards of its own time. Birth wasn’t the only 1910 movie to use blackfaced white actors in all of its major black roles, but it may have been the only one for which white supremacy was the entire purpose of the story. Set in the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, the film depicts Ku Klux Klan members as heroes who defended their communities against the threat of rapacious, out-of-control Negroes. It caused riots in some cities and was banned in others. The backlash was so powerful that Hollywood was more or less forced to stop using blackface in dramatic films from that point forward.
 
On the other hand, The Birth of a Nation was a box office smash and is still revered for its innovative storytelling techniques. When one of the greatest and most successful films in history is basically a piece of KKK propaganda, the fact that casting offices often don’t seem to be equal opportunity employers shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

 If Hollywood rattles your sabers, then you might be interested in 6 Annoying Things Hollywood Needs to Stop Doing



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COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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FerretJohn 3/29/2010 12:54:01 AM

Like this article isn't going to raise a shit-storm.  You forgot one other racist thing here Hoffman, this very article.  The one thing worse than racism is reverse-racism, people who point at every little minute detail they think is offensive to someone somewhere, raising the PC-paranoia even further and cutting the freedom of speech and freedom of belief, the cornerstones of the American way of life, to shreds.  Has there been racism in Hollywood back in the day?  Of course, everybody knows it, nobody disputes it.  Blackface and yellowface were facts of life.  Painting Jar Jar Binks as racist?  Labelling 21 because the crew was ethnically diverse instead of all-asian?  Jumping on Geisha because they used mixed orientals instead of all Japanese?  That's just self-congratulating, ain't-I-so-smart-and-enlightened rivet counting.  I guess the new Robin Hood is racist because Russell Crowe isn't actually British, or how about The 13th Warrior because Antonio Banderas was actually from Spain.  How about Avatar, Sam Worthington was only pretending to be a Na'vi.  Any other useless points I can help you fan the PC flames with?  

You don't like what I say or think?  Fine, that's your right, I could care less if you do or not.  Do you have the right to tell me I can't say it?  Hell No!

rodimusprime 3/29/2010 1:58:49 AM

 Though I don't know what Mr. Hoffman is to Mania, it is obvious that something is wrong with him.I think this is article is simple ignorant, and just a cheap effort to stir up a hornets nest.

The last thing anyone needs right now is this! Take a chill pill Mr. Hoffman!

A shameful article, at best! Mania this is manic!

AnimeQueeny 3/29/2010 2:44:24 AM

I think he has a point...It is quite racial to make films based on stores about asians/african Americans and the turn it around to something white people are claiming to accomplish.
It hardly makes a film inspirational and interesting when everything comes down to how great white people are. I think its bull that producers couldn't find an interesting character to fill out what is truly meant to be.

I couldn't stand Memoirs of a Geisha because every actor/actress in there wasn't Japanese and the fact that the excuse was made because the American public can't tell the difference is another racist slur against the Japanese. Why can't film makers teach young audiences about different ethnics’ people?
It's not a racial exercise to create it's actually important because I'm sure Japanese people in real life are sick to death of being labelled as Chinese when clearly they're not.
However, on the other hand it is quite distressing watching comedy films where every African American is accusing every white person of being a racist. The whole routine of it is becoming boring because it is quite a concern how people are getting offended over everything and initially thinking that it's just racism talk. Not only that, African Americans are so stereotyped because of films that portray them as nothing more then gangsters with horrible English...I think even they get a little tired of that as well.
For some reason, in almost every movie you watch, the subject of racism will occur and it's just something no one can do about it.

@FerretJohn – Yes, it would be offensive to cast Russell Crowe as Robin Hood because he’s Australian not British and it’s a British story not an Australian story. I don’t understand how you can not be bothered by this as a film watcher. Maybe, I’m reading into this too much but it would make more sense to hire and actor who is British who could make Robin Hood more believable.
 

raa2001 3/29/2010 2:47:07 AM

Hmmm.  Well, I wouldn't say that this article is ignorant or a matter of reverse racism.  I think racism is still a problem on many levels.  Yeah, its 2010 and it's still an issue.  The movies play on the psychology of the people.  If you portray a group of people in a certain way, it can definitely influence people's judgement because sadly some people are just that stupid.  Also you have to think about the young people that watch movies and television.  They learn from movies and television as most do.  I agree that Hollywood needs to be more responsible when it comes to casting.  This subject is something to be aware of.  There could be future Hollywood executives, current executives, producers, directors, or anyone that may be involved in Hollywood that comes to this site.  We are the ones that keep Hollywood alive and we can all influence Hollywood to not be so racist also.  Their excuse is all based on marketing, but I think its BS.  Thats not a reason to offend a group of people on that level.

karas1 3/29/2010 3:10:11 AM

To say that an Australian shouldn't be cast as Robin Hood is silly.  Crowe is an ACTOR which means he takes on roles pretending to besomething he isn't.  Crowe is also not an outlaw who lives in a forest.  Does that mean he shouldn't get the part?

As for 21, the movie was BASED ON a real lifestory, not a depiction of one.  I haven't read the book but if it doesn't contain the character being blackmailed and attacked by corrupt casino security officers then I think the movie is far enough from the book that they can cast any actors they want to.

Kara S

samson 3/29/2010 3:33:59 AM

Of course the majority will not think this is racist. After all, they are just changing the characters to be more appealling to their like. But, the second you alter the ethnicity of a traditionaly white male character (i.e. Green Lantern, Kingpin, etc ...) They cry reverse racism or better yet, "PC" polotics.

Hoffman could have added able boddied actors playing roles that disabled actors could play. But, that too is considered being too "PC."  After all, if they were talented enough to get the parts, they would get them right? Cream rises to the top, right? Wrong.

Think of it this way; how many great bands, making great music never hit the big time because they don't fit some exec's idea of what a good act should be? I think we all know of examples of that. Same thing goes with disabled actors and disabled roles.

Samson

BTW - Pointing out racism doesn't make one racist. It makes one honest. And Asians don't like being called Oriental. Thats like calling African Americans "colored." Don't believe me, go up to a bunch of Asians and call then "oriental." Make note of the warm reception they give you. ...LOL!!!!!!

midwest216 3/29/2010 3:39:02 AM

I agree with AnimeQueeny, another example is casting an American to play Captain America, it makes sense. Or using Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry to play African character or canadian character, When neither is. Its about money period. The studios will cast whoever is bankable. I had a problem with Will Smith in Wild Wild West. Main character should've been white but thats just my opinion.

 

 

jppintar326 3/29/2010 4:49:29 AM

Jar Jar Binks is a Gungan.  An alien from another planet.  He doesn't represent any race whatsoever.  This just attempt by this site to pile on to Episode I whenever it wants to!!!  We get the idea.  You don't like Episode I!!!  It been 11 years now, get over it!!!!  Besides, anybody who thinks Jar Jar represents any nationality here on Earth needs to get out more. 

troyw 3/29/2010 4:54:25 AM

Don't get started on Wattoo? Why was it racist to make an alien sound Italian, or whatever that was supposed to be? Does every songle Persian have a certain look? Maybe we should just make every single freaking character in cinema with no tone, no race, no nothing. How about just a blank space on screen? Wait, what color will the empty space be? WTF is wrong with media folks now that have to make race into an issue no matter what? WE HAVE DIFFERENT RACES, this stuff isn't racist. It doesn't even cross my mind when I 'm talking with someone, or watching someone ACT onscreen. Give me a break. Just lost a whole lot of respect for Mania. This is ridiculous. No one can do anything now because of "political correctness" and this stupid racism bit going on.

mjones242 3/29/2010 5:19:39 AM

I have to admit, casting Chinese actresses in Japanese roles for "Memoirs of a Geisha" is one of the reasons I have yet to see the film.  Considering that the geisha is such a culturally unique symbol for Japan it's a bit of slap in the face to cast Chinese actresses in the lead roles.  Of course, Hollywood execs were more concerned about a Western audience recognizing leads in their film and less about how Chinese and Japanese audiences would react.

As per Star Wars, linking the whole Trade Federation, Gungan and Watto characters to actual races seemed as much a stretch back in 1999 as it does now.  Completely ridiculous criticism that was trumped up to stir controversy and sell "news".

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