In 1965, Sir Laurence Olivier was cast in the title role of Othello as the actor had portrayed many Shakespearean characters successfully in the past. Every day before filming began, Olivier would sit in his dressing room and have special black makeup and paint applied to his face. This face painting practice, for the purpose of impersonating a person of color, was called “blackface.”
This wasn’t the first-time blackface was used to portray the character. As Ben Arogundade pointed out in his July 2012 Huffington Post article, in 1604, Othello was played by Richard Burbage, a white actor who included blackface make-up in his performance on stage. Olivier’s portrayal wasn’t the first time blackface was used in cinema. As far back as the 1920’s Al Jolson, among other well-known film stars regularly employed this technique. Blackface wasn’t considered popular in 1965 however it also wasn’t considered outlandish. In present day, this practice isn’t just thought of as unorthodox but considered extremely disrespectful and racist. What’s interesting about Othello is that his race is described as “ambiguous” by E.A.J Honigmann, the late professor of English Literature, Fellow of the British Academy
With all this background information, I wonder why the studio chose to incorporate blackface in the film? If they wanted to portray Othello as a black man, why not cast a black man? As was done then, today studios and directors still practice what is known as “whitewashing,” specifically, “Hollywood Whitewashing.” Wikipedia defines it as: “a casting practice in the film industry of the United States in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles.” There are many reasons studios, directors and actors choose this path: recognition and economics among them. Certainly, it’s a complex issue. When star power and economics compel studios and filmmakers to cast certain actors even when the original source material calls for a different race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, it can perpetuate the traditional uneven playing field for certain groups of people. As they remain under-represented, there is less audience identification and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Almost 100 years later, whitewashing still has a strong presence in Hollywood. Released this year was the live-action adaptation of the 1995 animated film, Ghost in the Shell, which featured Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. Johansson played “Major,” a cybernetic police officer, housing the brain of an Asian woman. The controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Johansson was responsible for a high degree of criticism concerning the issue of whitewashing. Immediately, fans of the original film were outraged by the casting choice. This casting decision is only the latest in a long list of whitewashing incidents. Just last year, Marvel’s Doctor Strange was released in theaters worldwide, facing the same controversy that plagued Ghost in the Shell. In the source material, the character played by Tilda Swinton was originally an old, Asian man. This enraged long time comic book fans, as this wasn’t the first-time Marvel had done this.
Three years prior, Marvel released Iron Man 3, which incorporated a similar change to a character’s origin. The studio’s mentality behind these casting decisions was to cast actors and actresses with confirmed bankability so there would be a profitable return in the box office. This however is a decision which perpetuates the marginalization of minorities in the film industry. As Keith Chow wrote in his April 2016 New York Times article, Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors, “If Asian-Americans – and other minority actors more broadly – are not even allowed to be in a movie, how can they build the necessary box office clout in the first place?”
In April of 2017, I interviewed Professor Christopher Chan Roberson, of the Film and Television Production Department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and was given a vast amount of insight. In addition to his position at NYU, Professor Roberson works with young filmmaking groups in high schools with mainly minority populations. He told me, “The girls write characters who are men. The boys write characters who are white men.” I asked him why this was the case. “It’s about what you’re exposed to” Roberson said.
In May of 2017, actress Lucy Liu was interviewed by Mo Rocca on CBS Sunday Morning. Liu said, “Growing up as somebody from another country, really, not what you see on television, I never saw myself in the forefront, ever. We were always in the background.”
Professor Roberson and Liu are saying, if you’re surrounded by media which shows predominantly white men, you’re going to think, as Roberson says, “that way.” It’s not specifically labeled as something that’s good or bad. “It’s just what you’re exposed to, what you’re used to.” Professor Roberson has a unique point of view on this topic because of his diverse background. “My dad is a mixture of Black, Cherokee and French and my mother is third generation Cantonese,” said Roberson. Interestingly, as a creator of his own content he writes characters that are diverse because of his background, because he lives in New York City and is exposed to diversity, yet sometimes his first impulse is to write characters that are white men.
People see what they see and they become normalized to it. As a young, white male who grew up on Long Island only 20 miles from NYC, I was not a stranger to diversity. My hometown is a diverse community with many different nationalities and cultures represented yet, I’m a product of my environment. In the past, when I wrote characters for my screenplays, I would tend to think in terms of white men. Now attending college in NYC, in the heart of the most culturally diverse community, I have a greater appreciation for what Professor Roberson describes. We aren’t just influenced by the people we come into contact with on a daily basis but also the media which bombards us almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As an artist, I’m trying to break the mold and expand my horizons. It will be my generation’s responsibility to change the industry and bring an end to the practice of whitewashing.
Even if my generation is the one to end the practice, changes are already happening in the industry. As more and more big-budget studio films with whitewashed casts are produced, the controversy surrounding the issue escalates. One way we see a change happen in the industry is when people get so upset they voice their dissatisfaction with their wallets. Movie-goers including Professor Roberson chose not to buy a ticket to Ghost in the Shell and refused to watch the film. According to Box Office Mojo, it cost $110 million to make and returned $169 million worldwide. As a result of this type of scenario , studios like Disney, which continually remake live-action adaptations of old animated films like Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book, have started to re-evaluate the virtue of using the whitewashing practice for their upcoming live-action adaptations.
Interestingly, Doctor Strange fared more lucratively in the box office during its theatrical release. Per BoxOfficeMojo, it cost $165 million to make Dr. Strange and it returned $677 million worldwide. I believe this is because the controversial whitewashed character Tilda Swinton played in Doctor Strange was only a supporting character whereas Scarlett Johansson was the lead in this year’s Ghost in the Shell. This brings me to another change happening in industry. Studios are more frequently replacing secondary roles and trying to replace main characters with actors of a different race, specifically black actors. By casting these black actors to play previously white roles, it allows Hollywood to take progressive steps and introduce new talent to combat the unfair practice of whitewashing. The majority of these changes happen in superhero films like Samuel L. Jackson in the Marvel Universe or Will Smith and Laurence Fishburne in DC films and even the latest Power Rangers movie with RJ Cyler as the Blue Ranger. All were white characters in the source material which were then converted to black characters on screen.
However, one of the biggest examples of race-change or “non-traditional casting” as Professor Roberson calls it, is in the most recent James Bond films. Naomie Harris plays the coveted role of Moneypenny in Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015). Taking a risk like that could have caused the film to lose money however, the audience didn’t know about the character’s true identity until the movie released. In an interview with The Telegraph UK, Harris said, “People didn’t have a chance to say, ‘Oh no, we don’t want a black Moneypenny,’ because they didn’t know she was coming.” Box Office Mojo puts Skyfall, in which Harris made her debut, as the highest grossing James Bond film to date. More Bond-related controversy is brewing as it is rumored that the next James Bond might be played by black actor, Idris Elba. Original source material author Ian Fleming never describes Bond as a white man, yet there has been a backlash against casting Elba in the role. Why can’t James Bond be black? Again, it goes back to what people are exposed to. Even though several different actors have played Bond over the years, they have all been white. It’s difficult enough to stop whitewashing on stand-alone films but this will be a much harder task and greater risk for a well-known franchise such as James Bond. Action is dictated by revenue stream and profit. So, when people of color start to control the money spent and earned making films, whitewashing as a practice will cease.
Movie goers are speaking with their wallets and we are already starting to see this change. Back in 2015, the film Straight Outta Compton, by black film director F. Gary Gray and producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Gray, grossed over $200 million worldwide (BoxOfficeMojo). Earlier this year, Jordan Peele made Hollywood history becoming the first black writer/director to earn a $100 million debut with his film Get Out. The film made $174 million domestically with an additional $32 million overseas (BoxOfficeMojo). “Why did it take so damned long for this to happen?” asks Professor Roberson. The more exposure to something new and unfamiliar, like casting a person of the ‘correct’ ethnicity in a major studio picture, or having non-traditional casting, the less abnormal it will become. We have to evolve to a place where we don’t have to qualify our discussions with phrases such as, “black actor” or “black director.”
One genre where whitewashing is dissipating faster than others is superhero films. It seems like every other month there is either a franchise film or superhero film released. May of 2017 saw the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, Alien: Covenant (the 6th film in the series) and Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Within this genre there has been movement toward reducing whitewashing and increasing non-traditional casting. Many of these films and franchises may seem overdone but they do teach an important lesson to the world’s younger generation to think globally. What comes to mind when we hear the word, “hero?” We think of someone who helps others. When children see people like themselves up on screen they can aspire to be heroes and to help others. The casting of minorities in superhero movies can often be seen as a way to make more profits. The studios and filmmakers should ask themselves; are we doing this because of marketing, to speak to our fan base or to crush whitewashing? In this case, do the ends justify the means? Does it matter why this is happening or just that it is happening?
One of the studios that is consistently engaged in this process is Disney. Besides Marvel films, which they own and which casts black actors in white roles, progressive steps have also been taken in another Disney-owned franchise, Star Wars. Disney has made it a priority to put most of the spotlight on minority groups who have been victims of whitewashing. The Force Awakens, released in 2015, stars Daisy Ridley, a white woman – not a victim of whitewashing yet still a minority by Hollywood standards, John Boyega, a black actor, and Oscar Isaac, a Hispanic actor, play the new faces and heroes of the franchise. This was a radical step for a studio to make. Even last year with the release of Rogue One, the latest entry in the Star Wars series, the studio cast another group of minorities, again, mostly victims of whitewashing. Felicity Jones, another white woman, along-side Diego Luna, a Mexican actor, and Donnie Yen, a Chinese actor, all playing the main protagonists of the film. This progressive casting pattern which Disney established allows children of all races, genders and ethnicities to have heroes that they can identify with and look up to on a much more personal level.
Perla Nation, a college student who took her father, of Mexican descent, to see Rogue One was happy to see his joy at Diego Luna’s character. Perla’s father was excited to see Luna, a in a leading role but more importantly, was happy that he kept his heavy Mexican accent in a major motion picture like Star Wars. She posted her story on Tumblr, which gained attention throughout the internet. It gained so much attention, Diego Luna tweeted a picture of Perla’s post, captioned, “I got emotional reading this!”
This is an example of the importance of Internet feedback which is influencing the U.S. film industry. Perla was able to express herself by using the social media site, Tumblr, as a vehicle to reach Luna and the world. Social media has integrated itself into our society and has become not only popular and normal but also a tool to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction. People are able to connect and reach millions of others instantly. Studios don’t have a defense against this technology and its ability to spread the public’s discontent especially when controversial issues such as whitewashing escalate.
Almost immediately after Scarlett Johansson was announced as “Major” in the Ghost in the Shell adaptation, an internet petition surfaced online to have the studio remove her from the film and replace her with an Asian actress. Up until this point, even with the presence of the internet, no petition had ever been created in response to a film that was guilty of whitewashing.
A Netflix produced, American version of Death Note set to release later this year, has garnered the attention of the same community that ostracized Johansson. As a result, another petition hit the internet to replace one of the white actors portraying an Asian character. While Ghost in the Shell has already released, Death Note is still in the production process. However, it is unlikely, that Netflix will change their decision as they’ve been filming the adaptation for quite some time now. But perhaps Netflix will take notice for their future projects. YouTube has also been an outlet for fans and critics to voice their opinions in video form. As I was researching the controversy surrounding Johansson, I found multiple videos of people, some longtime fans of the original Ghost in the Shell, posting negative videos explaining why they wanted her to be replaced.
Back in 2016, we saw the real power and influence the internet and social media had on the industry. The 88th Academy Awards ceremony faced massive scrutiny for the lack of racial diversity in main categories such as the best actor, actress and best picture. There were no actors and actresses of color or films centered around minorities nominated in these categories. The Internet responded to this lack of racial diversity by coining the term “#OscarsSoWhite.” Hundreds of thousands started expressing their outrage and disapproval on their accounts ending their posts with #OscarsSoWhite. The very next year at the 89th Academy Awards ceremony, each major category that was previously scrutinized had people of color nominated within them.
The 89th Academy Awards saw Mahershala Ali win best actor in a supporting role and Viola Davis win best actress in a supporting role and the biggest win that year was the Academy’s best picture winner, Moonlight. Moonlight was directed by Barry Jenkins, who also won the Academy Award for Moonlight’s best adapted screenplay, which chronicles three life stages of a young black character growing up in Florida. When Jenkins won best adapted screenplay, he said, “All you people out there who feel like there’s no mirror out there, that your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back. The ACLU has your back. We have your back and for the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.”
When will whitewashing end? James Baldwin, the distinguished American author wrote that, “People need to be responsible for it, and then begin to change it.” Technology and the audience hold all the cards. The revenue stream is changing literally to “streaming.” It is being controlled by companies outside the conventional film and television industry such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon. Even YouTube is beginning to develop its own content. As people begin to self-finance and self-produce their own work and put it up on YouTube for the world to see, they will cast as they see fit and the rules will continue to change. Professor Roberson said it best, “When something on YouTube gets nominated for an award, that’s when Hollywood becomes archaic. It already is archaic.” And James Baldwin’s prescient words gives us hope that change is on the horizon when he said, “the obligatory fade out kiss in the classic American film did not speak of love, and still less of sex, it spoke of reconciliation of all things now becoming possible.”
About the author: Jonathan Roberts is an NYU Tisch student of cinematic and commercial filmmaking with a passion for storytelling.
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