Probably one of the touchiest subjects out there. Thought I’d preface by saying that no race should be made inferior. This is just about the races who aren’t represented enough in films, shows and…books.
Cassandra Clare is the author of the popular series known as The Mortal Instruments (which is now being turned into a movie) and she discussed the issue of white washing on her blog after the casting information for the movie included an Asian or half Asian actor to play one of the key characters. Here’s a snippet of the post that was featured on her Tumblr blog (Magnus and White Washing):
“vanillanightt asked you:
It’s not really a question, but an observation. I understand the reasons, but on Facebook after the recent post about TMI casting information a lot of fans are confused as to why they would want an Asian actor for Magnus Bane. Think you could clear it up, once again, to clear the confusion?”
Okay, although I admit I am confused about the confusion. They want an Asian actor to play Magnus because Magnus is Asian. (Technically, Magnus is biracial. I would be perfectly happy with a biracial actor playing him — but otherwise the option is an Asian actor, not a white actor. It doesn’t matter if any of Magnus’ background is white. Casting him white would erase that part of his background that is Asian. And important. There are plenty of roles out there for white actors. Most roles are for white actors. This is not one of them.
Thankfully, they ended up casting actor Godfrey Gao for the role who meets the physical standards of the character but there have been instances in the past where characters have been white washed.
The perfect example of this is the Prince of Persia where most of the leads were white yet the characters are supposed to be Middle Eastern (i.e from PERSIA). Another example is the movie 21 which was based on the true story of black jack team of Asian American student from MIT and yet the two leads where played by two white actors (Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess)
And don’t think that books are immune. Author, Justine Larbalestier, published a book called Liar whose main character was a compulsive liar…and black. Yet, the earlier versions of the US cover featured a white girl with her straight hair covering her mouth despite the description of the character as “black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short.” (Ain’t That A Shame)
Not too long ago, a new debate (not so new really) was sparked over race representation in television after the HBO hit show, Girls, aired with its predominating white cast. In the same year, television had its first African-American female lead (on a show called Scandal) in 38 years.
What’s wrong with this picture? More importantly, why is this still happening today?
After centuries of being told that being white was the only way to go, you can’t help but have your brain make that your default…no matter what race you are. I remember seeing the trailer for the movie, Takers, and was fully aware how strange it was that most of the main characters were of color. I wouldn’t have batted an eye if it was a mostly white cast since that’s what I’d see on my screen, on countless occasions, my entire life but a large group of minorities was something that would grab my attention…for just the sheer shock of it.
So I again I ask why?
People say that minorities as leads can’t sell. Having a black girl on a cover or some other minority as the lead won’t sell the show, book, movie, etc. The Hunger Games controversy seemed to have proven that when an out pour of twitter users were angry that the character in the film, Rue, was played by an African-American girl. They went as far as saying that her death scene in the film wasn’t as upsetting as it was in the book (when they thought she was white).
But she never was. Suzanne Collins described the character in the book from the beginning as having “dark brown skin and eyes”.
Yet, people’s claims that people of color or minorities can’t sell doesn’t make sense. You know why? One person. Will Smith. He’s the one of the most successful actors at the box office, almost guaranteeing any one of his movies to rake in some serious cash.
- There are other black actors/actresses: Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Jamie Fox, Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, friggin’ Bill Cosby…
- Or Asian actors: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Lucy Liu, Ziyi Zhang, Bruce Lee, Sandra Oh…
- India has Bollywood! and Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Parminder Nagra, Kunal Nayyar…just to name a few.
Race is important. Not to use as a way to assert dominance or superiority over another. It’s important because it plays a part in the character’s pathos. I mean, how different would Superman be if he was African-American? (The other supermen from the other dimensions don’t count. i.e Earth 2). Would he still act the way we’ve known him to act? Will he still be the Kansas farm boy without a chip on shoulder who comes across as naive due to the privilege he carries for being white and a man?
It’s something to think about as a writer but as a viewer/reader as well…
A. A. Omer