Recently, the movie Aloha starring Bradley Cooper has received a lot of media attention. Various news articles highlighted the movie’s whitewashing of the Hawaiian race and the misuse of the Hawaiian language. To add to the controversy, the creators of the movie chose Emma Stone to play the role of a half Chinese woman named Allison Ng. Sadly, this is not the first movie to have whitewashed characters of colors. Various movies before and after Aloha have chosen to cast white actors in roles that were clearly meant to be played by an actor of color. Movies such as 21, The Lone Ranger, and Argo have cast white actors to play Asian, Native American, and Hispanic characters. As an Asian American woman, I chose to focus on the act of race-bending characters who are Asian as well as those who are African, East Asian, Jewish, and Middle Eastern, in movies such as Cloud Atlas, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. I wanted to look further into why having a white actor act as a colored character appeals to the masses, and see how these ‘colored characters’ are portrayed through their appearance, speech and demeanor.
I began my research by watching the three movies I have chosen. I tried my best to keep myself from being biased and focused on gathering details to use as examples of whitewashing in the three movies. The first movie I saw from the group was Exodus: Gods and Kings. The movie is based on the biblical story of the Exodus, and how Moses brought the Jews out of Egypt. It created controversy when it was announced that Christian Bale, an English actor known for his role as Batman, is going to play the part of Moses. To add to the controversy, the main cast of characters that are supposedly Egyptians and Jews are mainly white actors. Though some may not think that it was a big deal to have white actors portray characters from Egypt, others saw it as a racist movie. When director Ridley Scott was asked why he had the main cast be primarily white actors, Scott replied:
“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.” (Foundas, 2014)
After reading Scott’s statement, I began my research to find more information to confirm whether or not movies with actors of color make less than those with white actors. The average gross revenue of a film with a leading white actor is 73 million dollars. While the average gross revenue for a film starring a nonwhite actor is 63 million dollars. (Lee 2014). This brings to attention the selectiveness of the audience and how it impacts which movies are finalized and funded. Hollywood is a business that needs to profit and films with nonwhite actors are not that profitable. Even though movies with nonwhite characters sometimes make a profit from their revenue, it is usually because these movies are made with a lower budget and therefore it was easier to make a profit.
(From Left to Right): Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya, Joel Edgerton as Ramses, Christian Bale as Moses, and Hiam Abbass as Bithia.
The further I went into my research on why casting of white actors to play characters of color are needed, I saw that besides money, the concept of the movie also plays a part. For example, Cloud Atlas was created from a book with multiple storylines that connects characters from different timelines, race, and gender together. When this movie was in its planning stages, the writers: Lana and Andy Wachowski, wanted the actors within this movie to transcend the notion of gender, race and time. Therefore, the directors made a decision to cast only six actors and have them play multiple roles throughout the movie. In addition to white actors playing Asian characters, the two women of color, Halle Berry and Doona Bae also played white women in different timelines. Doona Bae also took on the role of a Mexican woman, while Halle Berry played a Korean doctor in Neo Seoul. While the efforts to send a message that we are all alike, and we are all just organisms on Earth, the movie received negative comments on its decision to portray white actors as Asian characters.
Doona Bae as Somni 451 and Halle Berry as Korean doctor, Ovid
Doona Bae as Tilda Ewing from 19th Century, and Mexican Woman in 1970s
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) felt that the makeup used on the white actors to make them look Asian was offensive and stereotypical. They reported that during the pre-screening of the movie, the audience found it funny that the commander of Neo Seoul looked “terrible, like a Vulcan or Star Trek” (Peberdy, 2014). It was due to the ridiculousness of the prosthetics on the white actors to make them look a certain race that offended the viewers of this movie.
British actors Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving as Hae-Joo Chang and Boardman Mephi
While Cloud Atlas received negative comments on their use of prosthetics to alter the race and gender of their characters, movies such as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time choose to present their white actors in darker skin colors. Prince of Persia was made into a movie by Disney Channel after a popular video game of the same name. The setting of the movie is a mythic land of magic and wonder, but even though it is a fantasy game, the creators of the game animated the characters to look like they are of Middle Eastern descent. However, when Disney began production, they chose the well-known actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, to act as the pauper turned prince. In order to make the white actor more believable as the ‘Prince of Persia’, Jake Gyllenhaal was deeply tanned to match the ethnicity that he is supposed to be. The same technique is used for the major characters throughout the movie to gloss over the fact that they were nowhere near the correct race of the characters they are portraying. The changing of an actor’s skin tone to match their character’s race is called black face (for African, Hispanics, and Middle Eastern characters) or yellow face (for Asian characters). This method was also used on the main characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings and Cloud Atlas to create authenticity.
As I continued watching all three movies, I saw repeating motifs that were present in all three movies.
- Despite the main character being portrayed by a white actor, their love interest will always be a woman of color. In Exodus, Christian Bale who played Moses was married to a woman named Zipporah who was played by a Spanish actress, Maria Velverde. In Prince of Persia Jake Gyllenhal who played Prince Dastan was coupled with a princess from another country, who was played by a British actress, Gemma Arterton, and in Cloud Atlas, two of the characters played by Halle Berry were coupled with characters played by Tom Hanks. Additionally, Doona Bae who played Somni-451 in Cloud Atlas became the love interest of Hae-Joo Chang who was played by British actor Jim Sturgess. (Peberdy 2014)
- Even though the main cast of each of these movies are played by white actors, actors of colors are often in the background as slaves, servants, or employees to the white actors. This image reflects the notion of the power of the white race over minorities.
- The women of color are treated as exotic in all three movies. They are portrayed in scantily dressed clothing, are usually submissive and are often sexualized by the white characters within the three movies.
Jake Gyllenhal and Gemma Arterton in Prince of Persia
Doona Bae as Somni 451 in Cloud Atlas
- The men in power are always white. This is evident in Exodus, where the pharaoh is played by Australian actor, Joel Edgerton, and his advisors and generals are also white actors. In Cloud Atlas, in a dystopia called Neo Seoul, which is supposedly the future Seoul, South Korea, white actors in prosthetics to make them look like Asian men are the employers and military leaders of futuristic South Korea. Prince of Persia showed that the majority of the royal court are played by white actors and the subject are played by Arabic actors.
From my research, I was able to discover the large number of movies that have used race-bending to create an appeal for the audience. My research also led me to connecting with the topic of media literacy. If I was not more aware of understanding the media, I would not have been able to see the repeated portrayal of a white man in power in the movies I saw. This was something that had not crossed my mind until I did research on this topic. For this reason, I believe that media literacy could help break through the barriers that often shield us from seeing the truth. Additionally, this term helped me realize that even though we have made important progress in representations in the media, we still have a lot of room left for improvement. I learned from the various topics posted in the group discussions that even though representations of certain races, gender, and sexuality are becoming more common, it is important that these genders, races, and sexualities are portrayed correctly and not stereotypically.
As I wrap up this research on race-bending and whitewashing of colored characters, I hope that in the future this practice will seem outrageous and ridiculous. If this practice is to be continued, more and more actors of colors will face difficulty breaking away from the stereotype that they can only be in a major movie if they accept mediocre and minor roles. This will show the audience who are eager to see their own race represented on the big screen that even in the imaginary world of film, they are unimportant and replaceable. Therefore, I hope that in the future, Hollywood will be able to create movies that equally represents the diversity and uniqueness of the world they are trying to portray.
Foundas, Scott. (2014). “‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ Director Ridley Scott on Creating His Vision of Moses.” Variety, 25 November. http://variety.com/2014/film/news/ridley-scott-exodus-gods-and-kingschristian-bale-1201363668/.
Lee, Kaden (2014). Race in Hollywood: Quantifying the Effect of Race on Movie Performance.
Peberdy, Donna (2014). Narrative trans-actions: Cloud Atlas (2012) and multi-role performance in the global ensemble. Transnational Cinemas, 5(2), 167-180.