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Mickey Rooney was accused of whitewashing in Breakfast At Tiffany's

Whitewashing in Hollywood: 10 times movie bosses painted Tinseltown white

The film industry has been around for over 100 years now, but when it comes to whitewashing in Hollywood, studio bosses still haven't learned their lesson. Even in the 21st century, inappropriate actors and actresses are cast left, right and centre with directors admitting that they know it shouldn’t have happened, but simply stating that it’s the way it is when it comes to Tinseltown.

Minority actors heralded a small victory recently when Ed Skrein abandoned his role in the upcoming Hellboy reboot, stating "It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity. It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the arts a reality." But still, his widely applauded actions are a rare instance and one that seems unlikely to continue to become a greater movement within the film industry. The truth is, ethnic minorities are destined to sit back and watch as Caucasian actors paint history white for some time to come.

1. Breakfast At Tiffany’s

Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a delightful movie brought by its inclusion of a toxic Japanese caricature. Brooklyn-born Mickey Rooney played Mr Yunioshi, Holly Golightly’s cantankerous Japanese upstairs neighbour, but the portrayal was problematic given that Rooney was not Japanese and put on an awful accent, as well as donning thick glasses and fake teeth for the role. The actor was said to be “heartbroken” at the modern day reassessment of the movie as “horribly racist”, but no one can deny that his casting and his acting - described as “broadly exotic” at the time - pushes whitewashing to its absolute limits.

2. Exodus: Gods And Kings

Despite taking place in the Middle East and north Africa, white movie actors were still cast in the main roles of biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings. Amid public uproar, director Ridley Scott and lead actor Christian Bale spoke openly - and unapologetically - about whitewashing in Hollywood, arguing that attitudes had to change before white people stopped snatching roles. Scott himself blamed studio bosses, saying: "I can’t mount a film of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed," while Bale stated "If people start supporting [north African and Middle Eastern] films more and more, then financiers in the market will follow."

3. Gods Of Egypt

You would've thought the producers and director of Gods Of Egypt would have known better than to whitewash Egyptian deities and demigods, but you would have had far too much faith in Hollywood to honestly believe this. In fact, almost all of the actors in fantasy action adventure movie were white, aside from a token appearance from black American actor Chadwick Boseman. But director Alex Proyas wasn’t susceptive to criticism, instead choosing to call reviewers “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”, as well as “deranged idiots” in response.

4. The Conqueror

No one needed to see cowboy archetype John Wayne starring as a Mongol warlord, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen in 1956 film The Conqueror. With the help of an abnormal amount of make-up, the all American star stepped up to portray the future leader and looked completely and utterly ridiculous doing so. Nevertheless, karma appears to have bitten back in this case; the film was a massive flop, with some critics naming it as “the worst film in history”.

5A Mighty Heart

It’s a shame that the film that is generally regarded as Angelina Jolie’s greatest is also regarded as yet another truly awful instance of whitewashing in Hollywood. Despite coming from a Caucasian background, Jolie was cast as Mariane Pearl, an Afro-Cuban French journalist, the wife of an American journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan. The initial casting was bad enough, but Jolie’s performance in the film was also heavily criticised as she used a “challenging accent” and wore an afro hairstyle.

6. Othello

While it’s true that back in the day “blackface” was perfectly acceptable, nowadays people admit that the act of using theatrical make-up to make white actors black is pretty disgraceful. But it didn’t stop it from happening in the 1965 version of Othello when Sir Laurence Olivier played the Moor. However, at least this blackface in particular had critics discussing whitewashing afterwards for one of the first times. Apparently during a rendition at London’s Old Vic in 1964, some of Olivier’s make-up rubbed off when touching Desdemona and people began questioning whether a white man should ever play the role again.

7. Aloha

Initially Aloha seemed like the perfect film, namely because it was set in ideal Hawaii and featured an all-star cast including Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper. But the movie was thrown into disrepute when it was pointed out that the island state has a 70% non-white population, yet the movie actors were all Caucasian. To make things even worse, Stone’s character was even described as being ‘half-Chinese and half-native Hawaiian’.

8. Argo

Ben Affleck’s Argo shows that even Oscar-winning hits can make big mistakes when it comes to whitewashing. Affleck turned heads when he starred as the CIA operative who masterminded the escape of six US embassy employees from Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis, but critics where quick to point out that the character’s name was Tony Mendez and speculated that a Latino should have played him. However, in an interview, the real life Tony Mendez stated that he didn’t consider himself Hispanic, and had no reservations about Affleck portraying him, instead insisting that the issue was how society regularly discriminated against Latinos.

9. Doctor Strange

When Tilda Swinton clinched the role of the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, she claimed she had grown up reading the comics and was incredibly familiar with the characters. The problem with her nostalgic declaration? In the comics, the character is Asian, so should the acclaimed actress really have taken the role with this knowledge in hand? In the film’s defence, writer Robert Cargill claimed that the filmmakers felt they couldn’t cast the role as it was seen in the comic, as it was a “racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place”. But, was this strong enough justification for whitewashing?


 10. The Great Wall

When accused of Hollywood whitewashing with his role in The Great Wall, Matt Damon bit back claiming that the role of William Garin was meant to be white; he stated “The whole idea of whitewashing, I take that very seriously ... it’s a monster movie and it’s a historical fantasy and I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor. It wasn’t altered because of me in any way.” However, this didn’t stop critics from tearing apart the film still, claiming that, even if it didn’t whitewash, it was guilty of having a heroic white man swoop in to save other races.

These 10 examples just go to show that no matter what excuses movie bosses come up with, they should never be let off the hook for whitewashing in Hollywood. The key to equality is not erasure, but inclusion and we hope to see ethnic minorities in their rightful roles soon.