Whitewashing in Film
Recently, a member of the Papyrus team, Alli Haug, sat down for an interview with Greenville College’s Art Department Chair Jake Amundson. They discussed the enduring Hollywood issue of whitewashing actors in movies.
What is whitewashing? If you haven’t heard the term before, the video above is a good introduction to the topic. It’s the practice of having white actors play non-white characters. This presents a fairly obvious issue when it comes to the representation of diverse actors. Apparently, it’s okay for white actors to take roles that should be played by non-white actors but the opposite is not true. For example, actress and singer Zendaya Coleman received backlash after being cast as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Marvel movie, “Spider-Man: Homecoming“, since she is a woman of color.
Another recent occurrence, as discussed in the podcast, was the movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Instead of hiring culturally accurate actors, the film starred Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. Professor Amundson explained the logic of hiring famous actors like Bale:
[Studios] are concerned about the bottom line. But sometimes those concerns, like getting that top name actor in that role… actually ends up alienating another part of the audience.”
Although some viewers have an issue with the casting choices, Amundson added that
There’s a whole swath of people who are committed to certain actors and they’ll go see whatever film these top stars are in regardless of the movie.”
An article by the Huffington Post provides a fairly comprehensive history of whitewashing in Hollywood. It states that “In early Hollywood, whitewashing was overt and caricatured.” For example, white actors who played people of color would often wear blackface or yellowface. We might think this kind of thing is over, “Yet somehow, the bad Hollywood habit still crops up today, albeit in more subtle ways.” The instances of this are everywhere, from Jake Gyllenhaal starring in “The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” to Johnny Depp’s‘ role as the Native American Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” remake, to many of the characters in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” where the heroes were played by white actors but the villains were played by people of the intended race.
In regards to the whitewashing of Asian characters, Amundson said,
“There’s this kind of misconception in Western cinema that roles are fluid, that anyone can step in as a place holder for this idea of race without actually having to address the race itself.”
Amundson also asked a powerful question in response to the related issue of typecasting or giving actors roles based on certain characteristics:
“Is the problem these production companies and these studios who are doing the typecasting, or is the problem us, as the consumer, who keep reinforcing that typecasting?”
How can we change this issue that has permeated our entertainment and society for so long? Amundson stated, “Change is hard but the good news is that change is happening.” His recommendation for consumers is to take an active role in supporting diverse films:
The more we consume those independent films and we go and seek out products that handle diversity in responsible ways, the trends will follow that. But if we become kind of complacent in just taking what Hollywood feeds us, then we are complicit in that, and that’s tough to reconcile.”
One way that Greenville College students can help change the entertainment industry is through the Video and Film major, which prepares students to combine Christian doctrines with film production. The hope is that the program will encourage students to promote diversity and work “responsibly and ethically.” It will take a large-scale response to fully address the problem but the students in this major can offer a good start.
Thank you, Jake Amundson, for sharing your insights on this important and challenging issue.