Why Hollywood is Still Whitewashing
21 (2008). Avatar (2009). The Prince of Persia (2010). And this December’s Exodus. What do they all have in common? White boys galore. Specifically, white boys galore where other races could have been cast.
While I myself am a Leave it to Beaver-loving honky, I’m not immune to the cries of much of the public when it comes to the whitewashing Hollywood has always taken part in. Though it’s forms have changed throughout the years, from blackface and John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror to a simple ‘tweak’ of a character’s race from script to screen, I’m here to lay it out for you.
Why would I write an article that’s dangerously close to rationalizing why Hollywood prefers whites over everyone else? Well, screaming “White privilege!” really doesn’t mean anything to anyone that doesn’t spend eight hours a day on Tumblr. But putting your finger on the reasons behind an issue is more likely to help us correct the problem, once we understand what’s going on. Isn’t it?
– In Hollywood, like everywhere else, it’s all about who you know
We know there’s truth here. Aside from studios themselves wanting to cast the best known face audiences everywhere are sure to love (Whoever that is), the familiar faces to the filmmakers are important too. Notice that Nolan usually casts Michael Caine and Scorsese just loves himself some Leo? It doesn’t need to be mentioned that Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp probably have a separate phone set aside just in case Tim Burton has an idea.
The point is, much of the decisions made are done so in tight-knit circles that make as many decisions as they can in-between the people that they know. You work with your friends and if you have to, bring a new face into your established group but ONE AT A TIME PEOPLE!
Chances are, your friends are mostly made up of the same race as you. It’s not always the case, but it’s a safe bet that it’s true. Well, the same goes for Hollywood. Why would Ridley Scott go out of his way to cast an Egyptian or someone that resembled an Egyptian when Christian Bale and him have been wanting to do something together for ages?
My point is that we know who we know and even as broad as Hollywood can seem, where anybody can make it if you’ve got “the right stuff,” it’s really about as closed off to outsiders as most other groups or clubs. Though not as violent as a football firm, they’ve got about the same demeanor toward anyone they don’t know.
And since Hollywood is run by old white Jewish guys, we’re going to get a lot of white people splattered around. So even though the book may have a Chinese guy as the lead, some Australian director with no power in Hollywood is being funded by this Jewish producer that thinks that British actor would be perfect for it after they met at last year’s Academy Awards.
-Other countries don’t care about diversity in film
Why would it matter outside America if Jake Gyllenhaal plays the Prince of Persia in The Prince of Persia?
Because an American film is an American film to them, not a testament to American diversity. So when I say that other countries don’t care about diversity in film, I mean it. It’s not that they’re against it, but that it really doesn’t seem to make a difference to them.
With America producing the second-highest number of films each year (Number one being India), people know an American film from a local one and that’s as much as they care about or the difference they can tell. They know Transformers wasn’t made by anyone other than the American Warlord and Master of Product Placement himself, Michael Bay, and they don’t seem to have an opinion one way or the other who the lead is unless it’s a name they’re familiar with.
In Spain, you have mostly Spanish people (Look it up!). So it’s only natural that they wouldn’t view American movies as anything more than that- a movie made in America. They’re not looking to see that all races are properly represented. There’s been the idea that placing a minority in the leading role won’t make money overseas unless it’s an action movie starring Will Smith or Denzel Washington. And whether that’s true or not, there is one truth that is undeniable- studios think it a risk to place anyone other than Whitey McSuperstar in the lead, so they have a hard time doing it.
If they believe that as truth, they’re not going to take the chance. Aside from that, arguing for let’s say, a black guy to be the lead only does so much good, doesn’t it? Why not Asian of some sort? Hispanic? Well, all of that gets complicated doesn’t it? Don’t Spanish people look down on Mexicans? Do other countries think anything like that? About which races? Will they see a movie with a Chinese lead?
As far as they’re concerned, Caucasian is like a default race and they’re not going to “jeopardize” a single cent they could make by casting a minority lead. It makes no difference to them to cast Paleface, but in their minds, it could make a difference to them by casting anyone else.
And seeing as how American movies make money overseas as it is, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to change it for them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right? Okay, so it’s not that it’s not broken, but you’re not going to hear about leakage complaints from the guys upstairs if the guy downstairs is the one whose apartment is being flooded.
It can be tough enough to have this opinion voiced in a country that’s considered to be the great melting pot, much less countries that are most likely to be watching a movie that doesn’t feature anyone from their country in the first place.
So what do they care if the lead is white, black, brown, etc.? They’re just watching some wacky American violence glorifier.
-With white writers, there’s a natural “preset” to write white characters
While the previous two reasons given as to why white people are cast in leads more often than minorities, this could very well be the core of the issue as any story starts with, ta-da, the writer. I say this from more than anything else, experience.
Consider the following-
While having a few completed scripts to my name, a handful of short stories, and ideas for plenty more, I’ve only got one that features a black lead and several other characters that are specifically not white. Another story I have takes place in Mexico yet much of the story revolves around the white people that move down there to be career criminals so even in this fictitious representative of Mexico, it still revolves around white people. Can you tell I’m white?
This reason is the most personal of the four, as I’m involving myself without defending me or implicating me at the same time. If you’ve got a white guy writing the story, specifically if you’re not already made in Hollywood and have a minority actor in mind, you’re probably going to have white characters in mind. That’s the “preset” that was mentioned.
Whoever is writing the story, you’ve got your own race in mind. Often times, when white writers go out of their way to make the character a minority, you get crude stereotypes that make you wonder what year you’re living in.
So while this isn’t a rationalization by any means, it can create a strange barrier of questions that make you avoid the topic altogether if it even comes to mind in the first place.
Why would I make this guy Brazilian? Does it play into the story at some point? He could mention where he’s from. How would he do that? Should he be really proud of his heritage? Do I make him speak Spanish a lot?
This is the closest whitewashing explanation I can rationalize because I’m guilty of it myself. It can influence the character’s dialogue as well, which, if you have a nerdy white guy writing, you’re only going to have so much insight no matter how many friends of that race you have.
Notice how the black guy always dies first even though he’s surrounded by white people and the odds should be in his favor? Notice how before he died, he was a walking talking stereotype? That’s how you know you’ve got a white writer, or at the very least, a script that’s been changed to the point the writer himself doesn’t recognize it anymore.
And how can this be combated? Well, in this particular case, only so much can be done when you’ve got the first two reasons. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve got a script with a major black character whose surrounded by what would also be supporting minority characters. Part of the point of writing it was to say that “lead black characters don’t have to be stereotypes” but it was also a conscious effort to do so instead of a naturally occurring thought. It’s not forced (I hope), but it wasn’t my first idea either. I’ll also mention it’s the only script with two sequels in mind, wink wink Hollywood.
But generally, people aren’t even going to want to put in the work to make a great example of a particular race that could just as soon be changed with the snap of an executive’s fingers. Which brings me to my next point…
-Accuracy to the script means nothing to studios, so neither do the roles or their race
Getting back to the ominous studio heads, have you ever noticed how, um, inaccurate so many big budget Hollywood adaptions are to your favorite franchises? This problem will always be around, won’t it? The problem isn’t generally that they changed your character’s height because this actor was the best fit overall; but that small changes snowball into bigger things that rearrange every reason you loved the story it was supposed to be.
And for what? All so the studio could appeal to the widest audience possible. They want as much money as you could possibly give them and while movies are their way of getting said money, they don’t care if you like it as long as you’ve paid to see it.
So even though Tonto is specifically a Native American character, studios can easily rationalize to themselves that it was a white guy that played him before and everybody loves Johnny Depp. So put Depp in the role! Nobody cares about Native Americans playing Native Americans and we don’t know any anyway! The people want Depp!
As mentioned, even if you get a script that has a character of a specific race, there are even fewer roles that require the actor that plays them to be that race. Even though you can’t have a white guy play a black slave (in modern times anyway), you can change the nationality of a character in a script that doesn’t involve the character’s history, heritage, etc., what have you.
And since studios don’t give two poops about said script past it being a very vague outline on what the story should be, why would they care what the race is? And going back to rule number one and the fact that it’s a bunch of white people to begin with, hey- might as well cast Depp, right? He’s bankable, ain’t he? Tonto himself isn’t.
In fact, The Lone Ranger (2013) is an all-too perfect example of all of these explanations-
Producer Bruckheimer gets with Disney to hire Elliot and Rossio, who wrote the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. After shopping around for a director (and waiting for ‘The Prince of Persia’ director Mike Newell to finish that turd in the hopes HE would direct), they settled on ‘Pirates’ director Gore Verbinski, who had already suggested Depp for Tonto while filming ‘Pirates.’
So we have a bunch of guys who know each other (Point #1), having written a script where pretty much everything is interchangeable (Point #4) and they’re all eyeing an internationally known face for a leading role (Point #2). Oh, and the two writers are white of course (Point #3).
So while I’m not defending this stuff (Have I stressed that enough?), there’s a bit more that goes into it than simply “Hollywood is racist.” Part of the point of saying all this is that to solve an issue, you’ve got to not only identify it, but understand it.
Understand that many, if not most, of these studio heads aren’t people trying to advance the human race in any way but to make as much money as they can. So as greedy it may sound to some, you’ve got to admit that practices aside, you understand. Their business just happens to be our art. For whatever results come out of it, two opposing forces are going to produce profound results for better or worse.