Whitewashing in the Media

Patrick Elliot Movies such as Exodus: Gods and Kings practice a popular strategy during the filmmaking process: whitewashing. Whitewashing is the act of taking a role that would be played by a person of color (if the film were to be historically accurate) and casting a white actress or actor to play the character. The makers of Exodus, which is about the Egyptians and Israelites and takes place in Northern Africa, does not have a reasonable excuse for casting only white actors as the stars. Another movie with a whitewashed cast is The Lone Ranger. Johnny Depp plays Tanto, the Native American sidekick of the protagonist in the movie. Why use white actors to play such roles if there are capable people of color who could fill them? While staying historically accurate doesn’t seem to require too much effort, some directors disagree. When asked about his decision to cast white actors in the leading roles, the director of Exodus, Ridley Scott, told Variety magazine “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” Besides the blatant racism in labeling actors of color as “Mohammed so-and-so,” Scott’s answer does make one wonder about how America views minorities within the film industry. The fact that Exodus has actors such as Christian Bale (Moses) and Aaron Paul (Joshua) in these unbelievable brownish tans (as seen in the trailers) is proof that the directors know that these white actors must be physically altered to appear historically accurate. Although Scott argues that it is difficult to have a non-white, unknown actor to play the role, I believe he is just embracing the racism of this country. Lupita Nyong’o, one of the stars of 12 Years a Slave, is Kenyon and Mexican, but she gave one of the most outstanding performances of all time in her role as Patsey. No one criticized the director for using a “Mohamed so-and-so” for the part of a slave, in the movie. This is because the movie was about slaves, and slaves are obviously black in Hollywood. When there is a role that calls for a stereotypical depiction of a race or ethnicity, you can be sure that Hollywood and the television industry will not disappoint, and we will see a diverse cast. If there’s a movie about terrorists, directors will find Middle Eastern or Asian actors to play the parts. A movie about drug lords will obviously have Hispanic actors in them, to act alongside a white protagonist. In a movie about Rwandan Genocide, there’s no doubt a predominantly black cast will be used to depict the horrible rampage of murder. The times that there are people of color in a cast, the audience is constantly reminded of their race, whether through dialogue or through the plot itself. A perfect example of this concept is Will Smith making comments like “Oh, it just be raining black people in New York” after he jumps from a bridge in the movie Men In Black. The audience must keep in mind at all times that this actor is black, and it seems like that’s the only qualifying factor for some of these roles. Reiterating something so obvious, such as race, makes it appear as if the movie is asking its audience for approval of the non-white cast. Saying over and over again that the person is black (or whatever race) makes it seem as if producers are taking responsibility for some mistake they’ve made. As if they are all saying “Don’t worry folks, we know he’s black…sorry for the inconvenience, it won’t happen again.” On the other hand, a white actor has no reason to reinforce their race within the movie. They go throughout the whole thing without mentioning once that they are white, because it is the norm and most people don’t question it. People of color have been put into a box where they cannot play a role unless it is the epitome of their racial stereotype. The director’s claim is that a non-white actor/actress playing a character in a leadership role cannot sell movie tickets. People like Denzel Washington and Will Smith are able to sell tickets because they always play the macho, gun-wielding action hero, and Hollywood is ok with keeping black actors within that box. Scott wouldn’t make money with a Will Smith as Moses because America isn’t ready to accept that a black man could have such an important job such as leading the Israelites to freedom or parting the Red Sea. Whitewashing happens so often that a lot of people are numb to its effects. People go to the movies for a good time, but are completely oblivious to (or choose to ignore) the racism that takes place to create these hits. Asian girls will always be the smart ones in movies, black boys will be portrayed as the underprivileged youth, and white boys will always be the leaders and the protagonists of the stories; it’s just the way things are. Most people must not mind these sad facts because most of us still go out and see these movies, even though we know what they represent. Next time you’re at the movies think about the roles different races are assigned. How you view the film might change significantly.  ]]>