Hollywood has moved on from blackface, but it remains terrible at casting people of color.
By Meredith Simons
In 2016 the internet was shocked — shocked! — to learn that white guy Joseph Fiennes had been cast as African American icon Michael Jackson in a TV movie. But anyone who’s surprised at this news hasn’t been paying attention. Despite decades of protests over racially inappropriate casting and the recent protests over the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees, filmmakers continue to cast white actors as minority characters on a depressingly regular basis.
Hollywood has yet to wrap its mind around the fact that the ancient Middle East was not populated entirely by dashing white men with well-trimmed beards. It’s pretty well documented that the area was home to people with darker skin than, say, Richard Gere, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, who’ve each taken a turn at playing a biblical hero (David, Noah and Moses, respectively). But here we are again, with “Gods of Egypt” set for release next month, and a slate of white actors is starring in a film about a place whose ancient inhabitants had brown skin and black hair.
That’s not to say Hollywood hasn’t learned anything over the years — as early as 1965, the New York Times was horrified when a British version of “Othello” featured Laurence Olivier in blackface, and everyone now agrees that Mickey Rooney’s prosthetic buckteeth were the worst thing about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
But even if Hollywood is having actors alter their physical appearance less than they used to, they’re not necessarily giving minority actors the opportunity to play minority roles. Instead, they’re making those roles white. Over a dozen times, Hollywood has taken source material (everything from real life to novels to Japanese anime) that featured people of color and turned it into movies starring white people. When the scripts get written, black Halmea is white Alma (“Hud,” 1963) and Hispanic Irina is lily-white Irene (“Drive,” 2011). These moves aren’t necessarily made to accommodate great acting talents. Although Angelina Jolie has done this a time or two (“A Mighty Heart,” “Cleopatra”), you’re more likely to see it from repeat offender Rob Schneider.
Just how common is this practice? Take a look:
“The Birth of a Nation,” 1915: The first movie ever screened inside the White House featured multiple white actors in blackface. One of them, Walter Long, was listed in the credits as “renegade Negro.”
“Broken Blossoms,” 1919: Richard Barthelmess, a white actor, played Cheng Huan. Not a great sign that the alternate title of the movie was “The Yellow Man and the Girl.”
“The Sheik,” 1921: A white actor, Rudolph Valentino, played the eponymous sheik, an Arab character named Ahmed Ben Hassan.
“The Thief of Baghdad,” 1924: Douglas Fairbanks, a white actor, played an Aladdin-like character who was supposedly from, well, Baghdad. Julanne Johnston, a white actress, played a smitten Baghdadi princess.
“The Son of the Sheik,” 1926: Rudolph Valentino reprised his role as the sheik. Vilma Banky, a white Hungarian actress, played the Arab dancer Yasmin.
“The Jazz Singer,” 1927: A white actor, Al Jolson, played the lead role in blackface. Black audiences weren’t necessarily opposed to the portrayal, which they saw as potentially paving the way for (actual) black performers to take leading roles in future movies. The Amsterdam News, the oldest black newspaper in the country, called “The Jazz Singer” “one of the greatest pictures ever produced” and wrote that “[e]very colored performer is proud of” Jolson.
“Charlie Chan Carries On,” 1931: Warner Oland, a white actor, played the Chinese character for the first of seven times. He wore the same goofy mustache every time.
“Swing Time,” 1936: Fred Astaire appeared in blackface in a musical number that most people read as a tribute to, rather than a mockery of, black tap dancer Bill Robinson.
“The Good Earth,” 1937: Every lead actor in this movie, based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel about a family of Chinese farmers, was white.
“Everybody Sing,” 1938: Judy Garland’s character in this musical wasn’t black, but she attempted to join a musical troupe by auditioning in blackface.
“Dragon Seed,” 1944: Katherine Hepburn wore prosthetic eyelids to play Chinese heroine Jade Tan. Hepburn is the most famous white actor in the cast, but certainly not the only one — only children and extras were played by Chinese actors.
“Anna and the King of Siam,” 1946: Rex Harrison, a white British actor, played King Mongkut.
“Fiesta,” 1947: Usually blonde actress Esther Williams played Maria Morales, a Mexican woman who dreams of being a bullfighter.
“Lost Boundaries,” 1949: Mel Ferrer, the son of a Cuban father and American mother, played a light-skinned black doctor who passed as white in an effort to secure a job.
“Winchester ’73,” 1950: Rock Hudson, a white actor of German, Swiss, English and Irish descent, played a Native American character named Young Bull, who delivered the memorable line, “All white men are thieves.” Of movie parts as well as land, apparently.
“Show Boat,” 1951: Ava Gardner played a mixed-race character who was passing as white, making her marriage to a white man both dangerous and illegal. Lena Horne, an actress who was actually mixed-race, was considered for the part but ultimately rejected due to discomfort over interracial love scenes.
“Othello,” 1952: One of literature’s most famous black characters is also one of the most commonly portrayed in blackface. But Orson Welles, who played the title character in this adaptation of the classic play, had the sense to skip the blackface in favor of a “mild bronzing.”
“Apache,” 1954: Just go ahead and guess what kind of character Burt Lancaster played here.
“Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” 1955: Dr. Han Suyin, the mixed-race doctor from China who falls for an American in Hong Kong in this movie, asserts, “I’m Eurasian!” throughout the film. But the actress who played Suyin, Jennifer Jones, was neither European nor Asian; Jones was born in Tulsa, Okla., to American parents.
“The Teahouse of the August Moon,” 1956: Marlon Brando played a Japanese man named Sakini.
“The Conqueror,” 1956: John Wayne played Genghis Khan.
“The Ten Commandments,” 1956: American Charlton Heston and Russian-born actor Yul Brynner, both white, played a Hebrew hero and Egyptian pharaoh, respectively, in the Biblical epic.
“The King and I,” 1956: It was a busy year for Yul Brynner. In addition to playing Ramses II in “The Ten Commandments,” Brynner took a turn as King Mongkut of Siam in what would become a lifelong role for him. (He went on to play Mongkut 4,625 times onstage.)
“Touch of Evil,” 1958: Charlton Heston played a Mexican character in degrees of brownface that varied noticeably throughout the movie.
“Imitation of Life,” 1959: Susan Kohner, a mixed-race actress, won two Golden Globes for her portrayal of Sarah Jane, a mixed-race young woman. So far, so good! But Kohner’s mother was Mexican and her father was Czech; Sarah Jane was supposedly half-black and passing as white.
“West Side Story,” 1961: Natalie Wood played the Puerto Rican Maria.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” 1961: If you can think of an offensive stereotype related to Japanese people, Mickey Rooney probably employed it in his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Yellowface? Check. Buckteeth? Got that too. Outrageous accent? Yup. Rooney defended the part for years, but ultimately made a sort-of apology.
“King of Kings,” 1961: White actor Jeffrey Hunter played Jesus in yet another biblical epic populated almost entirely by white folks playing characters of Middle Eastern descent.
“A Majority of One,” 1961: Alec Guinness, a white British actor, played Japanese businessman Koichi Asano.
“The Outsider,” 1961: Tony Curtis, a white actor of Hungarian descent, played Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Native American soldier creatively nicknamed “Chief.”
“Lawrence of Arabia,” 1962: Repeat offender Alec Guinness played the Arab Prince Faisal.
“Cleopatra,” 1963: Elizabeth Taylor played the last Egyptian pharaoh.
“Hud,” 1963: Patricia Neal, a white actress, won an Oscar for her role as Alma, a sought-after housekeeper who fends off the advances of multiple men. In the book on which the movie was based, “Alma” was “Halmea,” a black woman. The movie’s screenwriter later said, “We would have loved to keep her black for the movie,” but “in those days you simply couldn’t do it.” He admitted it wasn’t “because the talent wasn’t there — there were at least a half-dozen powerhouse black actresses who could have played that role. But the times weren’t ready for it yet.”
“The Face of Fu Manchu,” 1965: Before he was Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings series, Christopher Lee was “an evil Chinese mastermind” with extravagant facial hair and suspiciously narrowed eyes. The actor would play Fu Manchu in numerous sequels.
“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” 1965: White actor Max von Sydow played Jesus.
“Othello,” 1965: Laurence Olivier played the title character in blackface so outrageous that New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was forced to use an exclamation point in his indignant review of the movie.
“Stay Away, Joe,” 1968: Elvis Presley played Joe Lightcloud, a Native American character.
“The Party,” 1968: Peter Sellers, a white British actor, played the main character, an Indian man named Hrundi V. Bakshi, in brownface.
“The Wind and the Lion,” 1975: Sean Connery played Raisuli, a character who was loosely based on the real-life Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, a sort of Moroccan Robin Hood figure.
“The Year of Living Dangerously,” 1982: Linda Hunt, a white actress, played a male Chinese-Australian dwarf. We don’t know either.
“A Passage to India,” 1984: Alec Guinness (hi again!) played the Indian scholar Narayan Godbole.
“King David,” 1985: Richard Gere played David.
“Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” 1985: Joel Gray, a white guy from Cleveland, played Chiun, a Korean martial arts master.
“Delta Force,” 1986: Robert Forster played Abdul.
“Allan Quatermain & the Lost City of Gold,” 1986: Robert Donner, a white actor, played Swarma, a vaguely Asian guru who’s always causing problems. In stills from the movie, Donner appears to be wearing brownface and is doing something goofy with his hands in every single shot.
“Short Circuit,” 1986: White actor Fisher Stevens played Indian engineer Ben Jabituya.
“Short Circuit 2,” 1988: A young Aziz Ansari was delighted when he saw this movie. “An Indian lead character? With a Caucasian love interest? In the 1980s? What’s going on here?” he wondered. Well, brownface. A few years later, Ansari hopped on IMDB and discovered that “the Indian guy was a white guy.” There’s a happy ending, sort of. Ansari tracked Fisher down and talked to him about the role, ultimately concluding that he was a “well-intentioned if slightly misguided young actor who needed a job during a more culturally insensitive time.”
“The Last Temptation of Christ,” 1988: You know the drill. Biblical epic, so we’ve got a white dude (this time Willem Dafoe) playing Jesus.
“Not Without My Daughter,” 1991: British-American actor Alfred Molina played Sayed Bozorg “Moody” Mahmoody, an abusive Iranian character.
“The House of the Spirits,” 1993: Winona Ryder, Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave and Glenn Close played Blanca Trueba, Clara del Valle, Nivea del Valle and Ferula Trueba, respectively, in this adaptation of Isabel Allende’s novel. Despite being set in Chile and featuring characters who were supposedly of Latin American origin, the film’s only women of color played a prostitute, a rape victim and a nanny.
“Carlito’s Way,” 1993: Al Pacino played “lisping” Puerto-Rican Carlito.
“Father of the Bride Part II,” 1995: Jewish Canadian actor Eugene Levy played Mr. Habib, an Arab character.
“Starship Troopers,” 1997: White actor Casper Van Dien played Johnny Rico, a now-white character who was of Filipino descent in the book on which the movie was based.
“Mask of Zorro,” 1998: Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins played Spanish hero Zorro (as did Antonio Banderas, who is actually Spanish).
“Big Daddy,” 1999: Rob Schneider, a white actor with a penchant for unfortunate roles in Adam Sandler movies, tackled the role of Middle Eastern delivery guy.
“Pay It Forward,” 2000: Kevin Spacey played social studies teacher Eugene Simonet, who was white in the movie but black (and named Reuben St. Clair) in the book. Rumor has it that Denzel Washington was offered the role of Reuben, but he declined. Obviously the next choice was Kevin Spacey.
“The Human Stain,” 2003: Anthony Hopkins played Coleman Silk, a black professor who passes as white.
“The Passion of the Christ,” 2004: White guy Jim Caviezel played Jesus.
“Memoirs of a Geisha,” 2005: Okay, so this one didn’t involve white people, but it did stir up trouble. Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, both Chinese actresses, played Japanese characters Mameha and Sayuri, respectively. This infuriated people across Asia: Japanese critics were incensed that Japanese actresses hadn’t been chosen for the parts, and their Chinese counterparts resented seeing Chinese women in geisha roles, particularly given the history of Japanese soldiers kidnapping Chinese women and forcing them into sexual slavery during World War II.
“World Trade Center,” 2006: William Mapother played Marine Sargeant Thomas, one of the men who helped rescue two Port Authority Police Officers from the rubble of the World Trade Center. In real life, Thomas is black; Mapother is white.
“A Mighty Heart,” 2007: Angelina Jolie played Mariane Pearl, the wife of kidnapped journalist Daniel Pearl. Pearl is a French-born woman of Afro-Cuban descent; Jolie appeared to darken her skin and alter her hair for the role.
“Stuck,” 2007: Mena Suvari played Brandi Boski, a character clearly based on Chante Mallard, who is black in real life. There might have been some plausible deniability here, if not for the decision to put Suvari’s blonde hair in cornrows.
“30 Days of Night,” 2007: Josh Hartnett played Eben Oleson, a character who was of Inuit descent in the original comic book series.
“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” 2007: Rob Schneider appeared as “Asian Minister.”
“The Love Guru,” 2008: Canadian Mike Myers played the supposedly Indian Guru Pitka (and “Young Pitka,” and “Teenage Pitka”) in this comedy. He skipped the brownface but went for an elaborate brown beard. You know who wasn’t miscast in this movie? The Deepak Chopra character, who was played by Deepak Chopra.
“21,” 2008: Virtually every actor in this movie was racially miscast. The nearly all-white cast was composed of Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess and Jacob Pitts, among others, but almost everyone involved in the real-life card-counting scheme that inspired the movie was of Asian descent.
“Dragonball: Evolution,” 2009: Justin Chatwin, a white Canadian actor, played main character Goku, who was Japanese in the original manga on which the movie was based.
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” 2009: Here’s a head-scratcher: in the early Harry Potter movies, Lavender Brown was a Gryffindor student who appeared onscreen a few times but doesn’t have a huge role. In those early movies, she was played by black British actresses: Kathleen Cauley in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and Jennifer Smith in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” But before Lavender Brown’s part became a speaking role in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” filmmakers held an open casting call for the part, and they replaced Smith with Jessie Cave, a blonde, British tap-dancer.
“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” 2010: In a widely mocked casting decision, Jake Gyllenhall was tapped to play Dastan, the aforementioned prince.
“The Social Network,” 2010: Max Minghella played Divya Narendra, who was one of the creators of HarvardConnection, a predecessor to Facebook. Minghella is a British actor of Chinese and European descent; Narendra is Indian American.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender,” 2010: In the anime series that inspired this movie, all the characters were Asian or Native American. In the film version, the three primary protagonists had been transformed into white characters — only the villain remained a person of color.
“Drive,” 2011: Carey Mulligan played Irene, who was portrayed as white in the movie but was Hispanic in the original novel. The script initially called for an “Irina,” but the name was changed to “Irene” after Mulligan signed on.
“Day of the Falcoln,” 2011: Spanish swashbuckler Antonio Banderas played Emer Nesib, an Arab character, and white actor Mark Strong played Sultan Amar.
“Argo,” 2012: Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez, an American whose father was Mexican. Some people criticized the casting choice, but Mendez is on the record as saying he doesn’t think of himself as Hispanic and didn’t object to Affleck playing him.
“The Lone Ranger,” 2013: Johnny Depp played Native American sidekick Tonto. Don’t worry though; Depp was adopted into the Comanche Nation the year before the movie was released.
“Star Trek Into Darkness,” 2013: Benedict Cumberbatch played Khan, a villain of Indian descent.
“Warm Bodies,” 2013: Analeigh Tipton played Nora, who was portrayed as white in the movie but who was half-Ethiopian in the original book.
“Exodus, Gods and Kings,” 2014: Where to begin? In this movie you can find Christian Bale as Moses; Australian Joel Edgerton as Ramses; John Turturro as Seti; Spanish actress Maria Valverde as Zipporah, Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, and the British Ben Kingsley as Nun. What you are not going to find is anyone from Egypt in a leading role.
“Noah,” 2014: This Biblical epic doesn’t do any better. Top billing goes to actors from New Zealand, the United States, and Britain, including Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Watson.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” 2014: White actor William Fichtner played Eric Sacks, a villain who’s typically depicted as Japanese; he’ll reprise the role in future movies.
“Aloha,” 2015: Fair-skinned Emma Stone played the lead, who was written as a mixed-race character with a Swedish mother and a half-Chinese, half-Native Hawaiian father.
“The Martian,” 2015: Filmmakers really mixed things up here. Mackenzie Davis, a white actress, played Mindy Park, who was Korean-American in the original novel. And they transformed Venkat Kapoor, who was an Indian man in the novel, into “Vincent,” who was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian descent.
“Pan,” 2015: Rooney Maraplayed the Native American Princess Tiger Lily, to everyone’s chagrin.
“Dr. Strange,” 2016: Tilda Swinton is set to play “The Ancient One,” a male Tibetan mystic.
“Ghost In the Shell,” 2017: Scarlett Johansson has signed on to play Motoko Kusanagi, who is Japanese in the anime series the movie is based on.