Imagine you’re producing a play detailing the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Who would you want to play the influential civil rights leader, Denzel Washington, Will Smith or David Oyelowo? When it came to a similar production held at Kent State University, they opted instead for a white actor to portray the famed pastor.
While it’s a distasteful and ridiculous example of the whitewashing of a character, the concept itself is not new. The issue of diversity in the film industry is a constantly recurring one. Not only are there fewer roles available to people of colour, but it’s not uncommon to see Hollywood completely replace a character of colour with a white actor.
This whitewashing of characters has happened in movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prince of Persia, and Argo. Is there a shortage of actors of colour? Or is ignorance just rampant in Hollywood? Judging from the responses of fans to these movies, ignorance seems to be the only explanation.
Complaints about the whitewashing of roles are usually brushed off, for example with Exodus: Gods and Kings, when Rupert Murdoch defended the movie by tweeting that all the Egyptians he knows are white. When you compare this reaction to the outrage some felt at the notion of a black James Bond, a black Spider-Man and a black storm trooper, the lack of concern around whitewashing becomes ridiculous. For some reason, more people are bothered at the notion of these completely fictional characters being black, yet no one sees how strange it looks to have a white person play the prince of Persia?
When characters are whitewashed it is readily accepted as a cultural norm, which as a result discredits the presence, actions and history of minorities and racialized peoples. In Hollywood it seems that if you put white men in a nice toga and throw some eyeliner on you’ve got Egyptian royalty, as with the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings, where all the Egyptian pharaohs were played by white actors, and the only people of colour in the movie served as slaves and servants.
Creating these standards in media culture gives the impression that power and authority cannot possibly be in the domain of people of colour—the role of characters with power, influence and the ability to save the day is automatically ascribed to those who are white.
The excuse that the casting decisions are made for financial reasons is just that—an excuse, and the success of movies and TV shows with actors of colour in leading roles, such as the Mindy Project, Straight Outta Compton, The perfect guy, and Blackish, is proof that people are ready to pay for movies and support TV shows that represent them.
When it comes to whitewashing, the words of Viola Davis ring true when she stated that the only thing standing in the way of actors of colour is opportunity. The whitewashing of characters takes away opportunities from actors of colour who can act, sing and bring life into these roles.
When there are stories that depict minorities or racialized persons, there must be people of colour in those role—it’s really that simple. Casting directors need to stop making excuses and take more time to casts actors of colour that closely reflect the character, and as audiences we need to stop supporting films that have whitewashed a character or an entire nation of people.