Hollywood's Worst "Whitewashing" Controversies

When Hollywood Gets Race Wrong

Ghost in the Shell
Paramount Pictures

While Hollywood has come a long way from the days of white actors depicting minority characters in offensive makeup – such as John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956) and Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), there are still several practices involving non-white characters and casting that continue to receive criticism by those who want to see much more diversity in Hollywood films.

One of the terms often used in such criticism is “whitewashing” – which specifically refers to a film casting a white actor in a non-white role. Another similar issue is when a film set in a predominantly non-white region features white actors as leads instead of native actors or actors of native descent. Two recent examples of the latter are The Great Wall (starring Matt Damon) and Ghost in the Shell (starring Scarlett Johansson).

Hollywood’s usual explanation for these casting issues is that big-budget films like The Great Wall and Ghost in the Shell need bankable stars that are proven box office draws in order to get financed in the first place. While that makes sense from a business standpoint—and it's important to remember that Hollywood filmmaking is primarily a business -- it means other actors don't get the same opportunities. It also ignores films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Avatar, which are massive successes without featuring A-list Hollywood stars.

Incidentally, The Great Wall director Yimou Zhang has rejected accusations that his film is an example of the whitewashing because of the film's multi-ethnic cast (in addition to Damon, The Great Wall stars Willem Dafoe, Chilean actor Pedro Pascal, Turkish actor Numan Acar, and the largest-ever cast of Chinese actors), and because he initiated the project in part to specifically work with Damon. Others also argue that directors should have the right to cast whomever is the best actor for a particular role if a character's race is not intrinsic to the character itself.

Here are three of the most criticized practices when it comes to racially concerning casting in Hollywood.


Sony Pictures

Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors in non-white roles, stretching from Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks playing Arab characters in The Sheik (1921) and the Thief of Bagdad (1924) and numerous white actors playing Chinese detective Charlie Chan. However, the increasingly unpopular practice continues to the modern day.

For example, Angelina Jolie starred in 2008's Wanted even though the character in the comic book the film was based on was visually based on African-American actress Halle Berry, and Jake Gyllenhaal starred in the 2010 video game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as the title character, though Gyllenhaal is not Persian (white English actress Gemma Arterton also plays a Middle Eastern princess in the film).

The 2014 Biblical epics Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings featured mostly white actors playing Middle Eastern characters in the lead roles – including Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Aaron Paul. Ridley Scott, director of Exodus: Gods and Kings, said to Variety he would have not received funding if he cast race-appropriate, but likely much lesser known, actors in the lead roles.

Similarly, Cameron Crowe's romantic comedy Aloha (2015) was widely criticized for casting white actress Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a character described as being the daughter of a half Chinese and half Native Hawaiian father, and a Swedish mother. The entire primary cast of the film is also Caucasian despite the fact that the movie takes place in Hawaii.

Race Lift

Columbia Pictures

Going further than simply having a white actor play a non-white role, a "race lift" is when the character itself is changed from a non-white character to a white character in order to cast a particular actor.

One example is 21 (2008), a movie about the real-life MIT Blackjack Team. The film's lead character was based on Chinese-American Jeff Ma (who has a cameo in the film as a blackjack dealer), yet he was renamed "Ben Campbell" for the movie and played by white English actor Jim Sturgess as an American. Other Asian characters were portrayed by white actors. Producers explained that their intention was to diversify the cast (and many believed the studio also wanted to avoid accusations of trafficking in the "Asians are good at math" stereotype), yet the casting was criticized for taking opportunities away from young Asian actors.

Another example is the sci-fi action movie Edge of Tomorrow (2014), in which Tom Cruise stars a character named William Cage. In the novel, the character is Japanese and named Keji Kiriya.

Of course, this sometimes happens in reverse -- a minority actor is cast in the role of a white character. For example, African American actor Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in Fantastic Four, a character usually depicted as white in comic books.

White Savior

Last Samurai
Warner Bros.

Films have been accused of pushing a “White Savior” narrative if they feature a white character as a savior figure who champions the cause of less fortunate non-white characters. Though White Savior films aren't "whitewashing" in the traditional sense, they receive similar criticism because often the non-white characters are depicted as culturally backward, culturally inferior, or simply unable to address their problems on their own without the help of a white character.

White Savior narratives pre-date films (such as in the writings of Rudyard Kipling and similar colonial literature) and critics often accuse them of glorifying colonialism even when filmmakers intend the opposite, as with Dances with Wolves (1990). Other films that have been accused of being White Savior narratives include Dangerous Minds (1996), Amistad (1997), The Last Samurai (2003), Avatar (2009), and Free State of Jones (2016).

Opponents to those criticisms argue that many of these films reflect true events when white individuals used their role in society to assist minorities, using the novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird as a fictional example of the same concept.

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McKittrick, Christopher. "Hollywood's Worst "Whitewashing" Controversies." ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/hollywood-s-worst-whitewashing-controversies-4128708. McKittrick, Christopher. (2017, March 13). Hollywood's Worst "Whitewashing" Controversies. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hollywood-s-worst-whitewashing-controversies-4128708 McKittrick, Christopher. "Hollywood's Worst "Whitewashing" Controversies." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hollywood-s-worst-whitewashing-controversies-4128708 (accessed December 13, 2017).