The Face of Whitewashing in Film

by Matthew Chase

Over the last decade, we have witnessed a renaissance of sorts in cinematic experience. The film industry is booming as billions of dollars are used to fund fantastic and innovative movies for the world to enjoy. As the industry expands exponentially, so too does the need to create movies to reflect different cultures, settings, and peoples. Yet there remain issues with how these film productions represent this diversity. With nationwide controversies like #OscarsSoWhite, there has been an increasing public outcry over the inauthentic representations of people of color. While #OscarsSoWhite addressed the industry’s negligence and disregard for the contributions of nonwhite actors, the problem is compounded by the problem of whitewashing in film.

Gods of Egypt (2016)

Whitewashing specifically refers to the racist and historical practice of predominately hiring white actors to play nonwhite roles. Considering the recent movements for justice regarding racial inequalities, whitewashing has become a particularly controversial issue in the 21st century. Just in the 2010s, the examples of whitewashed roles in film have increased considerably with major movie productions ranging from Gods of Egypt (2016) and Ghost in the Shell (2017) to Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) and The Great Wall (2017). With each example, the leading nonwhite roles are consistently offered to white actors while the presence of nonwhite actors, if it exists at all, is observed among the supporting and background roles.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

The justifications for this whitewashing practice varies somewhat from film to film, but they ultimately come down to superficial arguments under a disturbingly singular theme. One of the more prevalent arguments among movie directors and producers is that they chose the most qualified actor at the time. Yet this is all too often just a code-word for the most qualified white actor at the time. The kind of actor who will almost certainly guarantee the film’s success in the box office, with their household name and star power.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Whiteness is a commodity in Hollywood, and a profitable one at that. I am not denying that many white actors are incredible talents, but there are just as many talented nonwhite actors out there.  And if the argument is to find the most qualified actor, its logic falls flat when we consider the need for authenticity in ethnic character roles. It fails to argue how a white actor would be better suited to represent a Native American role than an actual Native American.

It might also be argued that the examples I mentioned above are ultimately fictional, and so too the roles. They do not accurately reflect reality, and therefore race should not matter. This argument is weakly substantiated. If race really did not matter in film, then why are we not seeing more nonwhite actors being offered white roles? It is exceptionally rarer to see this happen compared to the predominant whitewashing in cinema, particularly among the high-budget blockbuster productions. It fails to account for whitewashing in biographical and historical films such as The Social Network (2010) and Argo (2012). Creative license is not a valid excuse for racist representations.

Whitewashing is a harmful cliche embedded in the film industry and pop culture, and it should not be played off as a trivial controversy. It is a practice that is certainly not new, with deep historical roots in white actors wearing blackface and yellowface to create inauthentic representations of color (e.g., Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Othello). It is also not limited to cinema either, as we had discussed representations of diversity in literature with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Whitewashing has serious consequences as it deprives the opportunities for talented aspiring actors of color. It tells them that they are better served for supporting roles that uplift the whitewashed leading role, while the white actor is offered the opportunity to reproduce the stereotype of a white savior. Granted, I recognize the perceived need among filmmakers to cast white star power to ensure box office profits, but it does not justify the practice of discriminating against nonwhite actors under the assumption they are not as valuable or as popular. It instead continues the vicious cycle of privileging whiteness. White privilege clearly extends beyond actors, as UCLA published a 2013 Hollywood Diversity Report showing 94% of film studio executives were white. The whole industry in itself is whitewashed.

Film represents nonwhite cultures and lives in ways that we will come to remember in the pop culture consciousness. By putting nonwhite representations in the backdrop, they are forcibly left out of our consciousness and remain invisible, and so too their experiences and strengths. Having authentic representations of diversity in film will draw in moviegoers across the world and from an increasingly multicultural United States. What is becoming very apparent with these growing national movements calling out Hollywood and the film industry on their business practices, it is the undeniable enthusiasm and hunger for a change away from this whitewashed cinematic reality.

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