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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
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 Sheik. The 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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