In late April, George Takei spoke out against Marvel's casting of Tilda Swinton as the Asian character "The Ancient One" for the upcoming Doctor Strange film starring equally white person Benedict Cumberbatch. Marvel had recently explained that it "has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life."
“The Ancient One," Marvel explained, "is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic." Marvel opted to avoid The Ancient One's Tibetan background so as to not alienate Asian audiences.
Takei wasn't having this, and said as much on social media.
"They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces," he wrote in a comment. "Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are."
This is only the latest example of questionable Hollywood casting decisions. Over the years, the film industry has shown a racial bias not only when it comes to awards, but also in casting choices with the persistent use of discriminatory racebending, typically in the form of whitewashing. Racebending refers to any character's race being changed, while whitewashing describes the all-too-common practice of having a white actor play a non-white role.
Time and again, white actors and actresses have portrayed Native Americans, Asians, and other racially diverse roles, thus further limiting job opportunities for actors who don't fit the standard, boring mold. Really, the only thing that's changed over the years is that people are becoming more indignant about racebending. So keep it up, and maybe one day Hollywood will realize Middle Eastern people can be in movies, too. In the meantime, revisit the indignation that these 15 movies caused.
1. Emma Stone, Aloha
Fortunately for Stone and director Cameron Crowe, this 2015 film was so bad that many people were too busy panning it to notice the remarkable whitewashing going on in the cat. Stone played Allison Ng, whose father was half Chinese and half Hawaiian. Crowe explained that Ng "was based on a real-life, red-headed local" who was "frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like [a Hawaiian native.]"
Audiences shared Ng's frustration. "The fact is that Hollywood narratives haven't been able to wrap their minds around the fact that Asian-Americans are multiracial," E. Alex Chung wrote for Vulture when discussing Stone's casting. "Instead of acknowledging this, or writing it into the story, the actors themselves simply get subsumed into the great maw of whiteness — or depending on how they look, Asianness or blackness."
2. Tilda Swinton, Doctor Strange
Normally it's rad when an actress takes over a part written for a man, but in this case, not so much. The Ancient One is a 500-year-old magical Tibetan dude with vast mystical knowledge that he imparts upon Doctor Strange. In the November Doctor Strange film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton—a white woman—takes on the role.
"We are always looking for ways to change. I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical," Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Entertainment Weekly. Essentially, instead of portraying an Asian character, Marvel decided to cast a white woman and hail it as progress.
3. Mickey Rooney, Breakfast at Tiffany's
In one of Hollywood's most famously racist roles, Mickey Rooney played the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi in this 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn. Rooney—a very white man—didn't simply play a character with a Japanese name. As Jeff Yang described for the Wall Street Journal, Rooney was "the godfather of the 'Ching-Chong' stereotype that continues to rear its yellow head today." Rooney lampooned his character so heavily that his performance isn't even offensive, it's downright uncomfortable.
The 2008 film about a group of card-counting MIT students was an adapation of the book Bringing Down the House, in turn based on a true story. Somewhere in the journey from truth to fiction, most of the characters were turned from Asian people into white actors. Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess play the key leads, while actors Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira take a backseat. "This movie was the perfect chance for Hollywood to overcome its history of discrimination towards Asian American males, and to showcase talented Asian American actors, and they blew it," Alvin Lin wrote for MIT's The Tech.
5. The Conqueror
This 1956 pet project of Howard Hughes was a bad film all around. While the Genghis Kahn movie was one of the highest-grossing of the year in the States, it's also been panned as one of the worst movies ever, with a terrible production history to boot. The movie was filmed near a nuclear weapons testing site with 220 members in the cast and crew. 91 of the people involved in the movie got cancer and over half (46) of that number died from the disease.
Oh, and as to the whitewashing, John Wayne played Genghis Khan, the infamous Mongol conqueror. He rocked some serious yellowface—as did other white actors—while only two actual Asians appeared in the film.
6. Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger
In the 2013 movie that confirmed Johnny Depp wasn't cool anymore, Depp wore lots of face paint to play Tonto, a Native American.
Depp vaguely claimed to be Native American prior the film's release. "I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian." Not exactly strong evidence in his favor. Even the 1950s Lone Ranger show managed to get a full-blooded Native Canadian to play Tonto.
7. Jake Gyllenhaal, Prince of Persia
With a movie title like Prince of Persia, one would expect a Persian-looking actor to star in the film, but no. White boy Jake Gyllenhaal played the title character in the video game adaptation, with white people like Gemma Arteron and Alfred Molina as Princess Tamina and Sheik Amar.
"It's insulting that people of color — especially Middle Easterners or South Asians — are not allowed to portray ourselves in these roles. That's a big problem a lot of people in the community are having with this film," blogger and filmmaker Jehanzeb Dar told the LA Times.
8. Gods of Egypt
The 2016 movie Gods of Egypt—which Variety writer Justin Chang said was a "chintzy, CG-encrusted eyesore"—was full of white actors, except for Chadwick Boseman and Élodie Yung, because Hollywood has come far.
People were so baffled that actors like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gerard Butler were in the movie, distribution company Lionsgate had to say something: "In this instance we failed to live up to our own standards of sensitivity and diversity, for which we sincerely apologize." Film companies have diversity standards? Given that over 70% of film roles consistently go to white actors every year, that's a surprising assertion.
9. Rooney Mara, Pan
For the 2015 Peter Pan prequel that nobody saw, Rooney Mara donned a bunch of feathers to play the Native American princess Tiger Lily.
People appreciated this casting even less than the movie, and Mara finally realized her mistake in playing Tiger Lily. “I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation,” Mara told The Telegraph after the film's release. “I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again." Nobody else wants that either.
10. Katherine Hepburn, Dragon Seed
There is a reason this 1944 Katherine Hepburn film isn't as famous as her other movies. Set in a Chinese village following the invasion of Japanese troops, the movie makes liberal use of yellowface. The most ethnic the lead cast got was with Turhan Bey and Akim Mikhailovich Tamiroff, who were Turkish and Armenian respectively. "Dragon Seed is a travesty not just because it casts white actors, but because it has those actors play 'Oriental' characters," Anne Marie of The Film Experience wrote.
Partially thanks to Hollywood's history with the genre, epics and whitewashing continue to go hand-in-hand. Ridley Scott's 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings starred white men Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as Moses and Ramses, respectively.
In response to the vast backlash against this weird cast, Scott told Variety, "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." While the movie got a $140 million budget, it ended up with a 27% score on Rotten Tomatoes. While the terrible reviews were nice, the movie grossed over twice its budget. Ugh.
12. Alec Guinness, A Passage to India
For the 1984 adaptation of the famous E.M. Forester novel, Star Wars actor Alec Guinness gave it his all as Professor Godbole, an Indian man. "For my own part I'm afraid I thought I was sickeningly awful," Guinness wrote to the film's director, David Lean, after wrapping on the movie. The movie did manage to snag Indian actor Victor Banerjee in the other major Indian role of Dr. Aziz, so there's that.
13. The Last Airbender
In the 2010 live-screen adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan directed a cast lead by a group of white people. In the animated Nickelodeon series, the main characters are all Asian and Inuit—and very obviously so. In the movie, the three heroes were played by white people Nicola Peltz, Noah Ringer, and Jackson Rathbone. To give an idea of how white these people all are, Rathbone was a pale vampire in the Twilight series. Initially meant to be played by Jesse McCartney, the role of the film's villain eventually went to Dev Patel, meaning that the only main character portrayed by a non-white person was evil.
Dissatisfaction with casting sparked protests and widespread unhappiness. "They’ve constructed a film that is contrary not only to what fans expected to see but is also contrary to what America expects to see in a film released in 2010 featuring Asian culture and Asian and Native American characters as heroes," Michael Le of Racebending.com said.
14. Zoe Saldana, Nina
Even before its April 2016 release, Nina has been heavily scorned for casting Zoe Saldana as the eponymous character Nina Simone. To portray the African-American singer, Zoe Salanda, who is Afro-Latina, wore skin-darkening makeup and a prosthetic nose.
People are split on whether this is OK or not.
15. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis, The Martian
Another Ridley Scott movie! For the well-received adaptation of Andy Weir's The Martian, two characters were transformed beyond recognition. Dr. Venkat Kapoor, an Asian-Indian man, became Vincent Kapoor, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Well, at least a non-white actor got a job out of that racebending.
But the other character whose race was changed was played by a white actress. The blonde and white Mackenzie Davis portrayed Mindy Park, who is Korean-American in Weir's book.
In a statement, Guy Aoki, president of Media Action Network For Asian-Americans, posed the question, "Was Ridley Scott not comfortable having two sets of Asian Americans talking to each other?" Judging by Scott's thoughts on Exodus, the answer is probably "Yes" on that one.
Given the recent number of offensive racebending casting choices, it looks like Hollywood has learnt little to nothing since first outraging people with racial decisions in adaptations of well-known stories.
All one can do is hope that in the future there will be a classic Hollywood epic film featuring non-white people. Or potential audiences can continue to do things like rally for boycotts and tweet their anger. Those last two options sound more fruitful, and fun.