These days, almost everyone's stumbled across the term "whitewashing." With Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, and everyone in Noah--among many, many others--there are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles about Hollywood's race problem. And yet, some people are still confused about what whitewashing is and why it's so offensive. Worse, they tend to confuse it with racebending and are more offended by that. Hence, this beginner's guide. Because if those other thousands of articles didn't get the message across, surely this one will!
(Hey, a girl can dream, right?)
Everyone's heard of blackface, right? Back in the day, white actors would smear inky makeup over their faces to play black characters, usually in a horribly stereotypical, mocking manner. They did the same thing with Asian characters, and every other character of color. Thank goodness we don't do that anymore, right?
Hollywood might not practice blackface (or yellowface, or brownface, or redface) as much as it used to. Instead, they just hire white actors to play non-white roles, a practice called whitewashing. It's basically the same thing as blackface, except without the makeup.
One contemporary example is The Lone Ranger. When the show aired in the 1950's, the role of the Native American warrior Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, who was, in fact, a Native American himself (born on Canada's Six Nations Reserve). But when they made the movie in 2013, Tonto was played by a very white Johnny Depp.
When the 1950's is more culturally sensitive than a movie in the 21st Century, you've got a problem.
Generally speaking, unless a character must be played by a person of color--such as Nelson Mandela, Solomon Northup from 12 Years a Slave, or any person that the vast majority of viewers know for a fact is not white--Hollywood will cast a white actor. If a white actor can pass or "pull off" the look of a character of color (especially Asians), they will be cast as those characters. If Hollywood can ignore the ethnic backstory of a character and simply say that person is white--such as the Hispanic Alisha Nash played by Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind--they will cast a white actor. That's whitewashing.
The problem gets worse when you consider the already-limited roles for characters of color. Take action and superhero movies, for instance. Think of a superhero. Any superhero. Let me guess: it's a white man. That's because the vast majority of superheroes are white men. Look at last year's Captain America: Civil War. The story centers around Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, both white men. They each have 1-2 black sidekicks on their teams (Sam Wilson, James Rhodes, and King T'Challa). They each have one woman (Wanda Maximoff and Natasha Romanov, also both white). Everyone else, and the vast majority of the supporting cast and extras, are white men. Well, and Vision, who technically doesn't have a race. But since he's played by the British actor Paul Bettany...
Basically, each team made sure to have just enough token characters so they could say they weren't being racist or sexist. Every other superhero movie is pretty much the same. Black Panther comes out in 2018...and that's it in terms of superhero movies that center around characters of color. Ghost in the Shell was supposed to be another POC blockbuster, but instead they changed the lead from Japanese to white.
If you're a black, Latinx or Asian actor, here are your options:
-sidekick (see above)
-a teacher/guide who ends up killed (such as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange...oh, wait, that was played by a white woman)
-or a villain (such as the Punisher's villain Barracuda). And even the villains are slim, especially in action movies, who tend to have a hot white British guy instead.
Basically, whitewashing is filling as many roles as possible with white actors and limiting already slim pickings for actors of color. It's a practice that Hollywood has been doing for as long as there have been movies.
Deadshot in Suicide Squad: comics (left) and movie (right)
So what happens when a person of color plays a traditionally white role? That is two things. One: rare. Two: that's racebending. It's basically the flip-side of whitewashing. And it's a good thing.
Remember, actors of color have slim pickings and limited opportunities in Hollywood, while there's a surplus of white roles. Plus, there's no history of black actors diminishing, minimizing, and mocking white people as a whole on a massive scale. So there is no reason to be upset when directors decide to practice racebending. In fact, that's reason to celebrate.
Case in point: Suicide Squad. In the DC comics, Deadshot is white. Yet they cast Will Smith in 2016. (Cue major controversy and racists losing their heads.) Obviously, Smith isn't going to have much trouble getting work, especially for action movies. But Shailyn Pierre-Dixon wouldn't have been able to play Deadshot's daughter if they'd gone with a different casting choice. Meaning she wouldn't have been able to put "played a minor character in a blockbuster superhero movie" on her IMDb profile, like the children in Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Iron Man 3.
Although to be fair, Suicide Squad isn't the best example. While Deadshot is one of the protagonists (re: a character you're rooting for), he is still a villain. A better example would be Aquaman in the new D.C. League of Justice reboot; the usually blond King of Atlantis will be played by the native Hawaiian Jason Momoa. Or Nick Fury, who started the comics as white before they made him black in another universe and hired Samuel Jackson for the Phase Three Reboot.
Bottom line: white actors need to stop being greedy and hogging all of the roles that should go to actors of color. Honestly, they're acting like little kids grabbing all the cookies out of the jar, and the parents--re: the casting directors--are encouraging it. They're shoving the cookies in those kids' hands while the black, Asian, and Latinx kids only get the crumbs. It's unfair, annoying, and getting really boring.
The best way to end whitewashing is to pay to see movies that practice racebending, and boycott the others. I mentioned last week that I did not go see Ghost in the Shell, and not just because it's apparently a stinker (although that certainly made boycotting it a lot easier). If you don't want to see white actors plays characters of color, then don't pay to see it.
Know any good movies or TV shows that have been race-bent? Comment below!
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!