Whitewashing has been an insidious part of Hollywood culture for decades. Filmmakers and studios have often cast white actors in non-white roles with various excuses for doing so. They’ve claimed that it was more convenient for them to go with a white star, that casting an actor of color would make the film less profitable, or that they were simply trying to be ‘raceblind.’ Yeah… That last excuse doesn’t count if you only cast white people, guys! Whatever their excuses, whitewashing deprives people of color of acting roles that they deserve. While racism in film has decreased slightly over recent years as awareness has risen, it’s still a HUGE problem, and even modern films are still appallingly bad at avoiding whitewashing.
The practice is so common that often, you can watch a film without realizing that whitewashing is present. Well, that’s where we come in! We’ve put together some pretty bad examples of whitewashing, ranging from classic films of the 1960s to movies released this very year. Yes, 2017 — and it’s still happening! Some examples are surprising, while others are blindingly obvious. However, they’re all pretty darn terrible.
18. Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra)
This 1963 historical epic starring infamous lovers Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is notable for a number of reasons. At the time of its release, it held the record for the most expensive movie ever made; it cost $31 million and ran at a loss despite being the highest grossing film of the year. Personal scandals surrounding its two main stars also caused the film a bit of bother, as did numerous changes in the cast and crew. However, one thing they didn’t pick up on in the 60s is the fact that the very white Elizabeth Taylor maybe shouldn’t have been cast as the definitely Middle-Eastern Cleopatra. Not that anyone cared at that point — attitudes towards racism and whitewashing were pretty different fifty years ago. Still… seeing Taylor in her slightly tanned makeup is a bit uncomfortable.
17. Mickey Rooney (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
How can we talk about whitewashing without mentioning Mickey Rooney’s disgusting yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? His portrayal of Japanese character I. Y. Yunioshi was so racist that critics compared it unfavorably to World War II-era anti-Japanese propaganda. As if it’s not bad enough that they thought it was okay to give the role of a quite distinctly Japanese character to a white dude, they also decided to throw some yellowface and orientalism in there too. Like, even if the filmmakers HAD cast an Asian actor, the character would still have been super offensive. The stereotyping is ridiculous, and the whole thing pretty tasteless.
16. Natalie Wood (West Side Story)
Quite a lot of characters in the movie adaptation of West Side Story are victims of whitewashing, including lead character Maria. Maria is Puerto Rican, but the producers of this highly successful movie clearly weren’t considering that when they cast the part. Ukranian-American actress Natalie Wood was pretty clearly white, although the makeup department did plaster plenty of fake tan on her to try to make her ‘suit’ the character more. Unfortunately, a lot of people try to excuse this particular case of whitewashing with the classic “but it’s such a good film” argument. Yeah, maybe it is… But couldn’t they have at least tried to cast a Latina actress in the lead?
15. Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind)
It really baffles me when films about real-life people decide to whitewash certain characters. Like, Salvadorian-born Alicia Nash was still alive when the film A Beautiful Mind premiered. How did the producers think it was okay to cast a white woman in that role? Nash’s struggles as a Salvadorian immigrant were an integral part of the biography that producers based the film on. Apparently, the writers decided to erase that part of her life and make her white simply because it was easier. Jennifer Connelly may have won an Oscar for her depiction of Nash, but it still makes the rest of us pretty uncomfortable.
14. Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange)
Marvel’s magical superhero Doctor Strange was pretty popular upon its release. Critics praised Benedict Cumberbatch for his acting skills, were super impressed by the film’s visuals… and also mysteriously forgot about the allegations of whitewashing that dogged production. The movie cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, a character who was a Tibetan (male) monk in the original comics. While we’re all about gender-blind casting and think that Swinton is a phenomenal actress, she is pretty darn white. Was it really that hard to cast an Asian actor or actress in this blatantly Asian role? I mean, the answer is no, but the producers decided to whitewash anyway.
13. Ben Affleck (Argo)
Ah yes, another film that decided to wash a real-life person to fit its own narrow-minded agenda. Argo was a smash hit upon its release back in 2012, winning three Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and three BAFTAs. However, in the process, it decided to erase a Latino American hero from history and replace him with the incredibly white Ben Affleck. Like, the character’s surname is Tony Mendez. He’s clearly got at least some Latin American roots. Why would you throw whiny, problematic Affleck another role when you could cast a different actually Latino actor in his place? It’s just not okay, really.
12. John Wayne (The Conqueror)
1950s historical flick The Conqueror has gained a pretty notorious reputation over the years. Firstly, a lot of the people who participated in it ended allegedly up developing cancer thanks to filming taking place on a nuclear fallout site. It was a total flop, and its producer Howard Hughes basically tried to erase its existence in later years. Most worrying is the fact that John Wayne furiously campaigned to be cast as Genghis Khan and won – despite quite clearly not fitting the ethnic criteria of the role. Yep – he actively asked for whitewashing to occur and got his way without much resistance from the film’s producers. Good one, guys. Not problematic at all.
11. Laurence Olivier (Othello)
The whitewashing in this film is honestly one of the worst things I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. To be honest, it goes beyond simply casting a white man in a black role. Laurence Olivier actively wore blackface in this 1960s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s utterly horrifying to watch, even if the practice was somewhat ‘normal’ at the time. Thing is, people had (very slowly) started to challenge racism in Hollywood at this point. Just two years before this film’s release, Sidney Poitier had become the first black man to win the Best Actor Academy Award. Yet the producers of Othello still managed to get away with this casting and the use of blackface (which is NEVER, EVER, EVER OKAY). It’s nothing short of completely racist.
10. Basically everyone in The Last Airbender
This live-action adaptation of a much-loved anime is one of the most prolific cases of Hollywood whitewashing to come out of the 21st century. In the original anime, it’s made pretty clear that all of the main characters are POC. Their facial features may be ethnically ambiguous but their clothing and surroundings make it pretty clear they’re part of an Asian culture. Did the filmmakers cast any Asian actors in the lead roles? Of course not! They were all portrayed by white actors… aside from the bad guy, of course, played by Dev Patel. Ugh. So much nope.
9. Carey Mulligan (Drive)
Critics hailed award-winning crime drama Drive as an incredible (if slightly gory) movie upon its release in 2011. However, the film’s production suffered from controversy thanks to the surreptitious whitewashing of Carey Mulligan’s character Irene. Irene was originally written as ‘Irina,’ a Latina woman in her late twenties. However, filmmakers basically just gave up on this idea after a while and rewrote the part to be white. I mean, it’s not like people of color need more representation in films, right? Oh wait — they kind of do. Mulligan’s performance was spectacular, but it doesn’t make up for the flagrant whitewashing her character endured.
8. Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas)
Okay, Cloud Atlas is a bit of a strange one. The same actor portraying a wide range of characters throughout history is kind of central to the film’s plot. However, was it really necessary to have Jim Sturgess not only whitewash a Korean character, but also give him prosthetics and yellowface? Plus, the prosthetics weren’t even good. Makeup artists simply changed Burgess’ eyes to make him look ‘more Asian.’ That’s offensive on quite a few levels. The whole thing is just super uncomfortable, to be honest. They either needed to cast an actual Korean actor in the part or modify the plot to avoid horrendously racist facial alteration from being necessary. Preferably the former, let’s be real.
7. Emma Stone (Aloha)
Aloha director Cameron Crowe claimed that his Hawaii-set film aimed to showcase the ‘rich culture and history’ of the island. What better way to reflect Polynesian culture than by having an all-white cast?! Yeah, I’m serious. As if this total lack of diversity in the film wasn’t bad enough, the producers even went as far as to cast Emma Stone, a bona fide white woman, in the role of Alison Ng. Ng is part-Hawaiian, part-Asian. Where is the logic? Oh wait, there isn’t any – it’s just a combination of racism and ignorance. Unsurprisingly, this hot mess of a movie was a total flop.
6. Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale (Exodus: Gods and Kings)
Bible-themed movies are generally a hotbed of whitewashing. Moviemakers seem to totally forget that the events of both the Old and New Testament took place in the Middle East, and instead happily cast a whole host of white actors in blatantly non-white roles. 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings was no exception to this common pitfall. Relating the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, it cast Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh Ramesses II. Last time I checked, neither of those actors were either Hebrew or Egyptian. Honestly, whitewashing blights pretty much every role in the film. Nice one, Ridley Scott.
5. Alec Guinness (Lawrence of Arabia)
It makes me so sad to think of Alec Guinness as anything other than the utterly perfect original Obi-Wan Kenobi… But unfortunately, he’s another culprit of some severe Hollywood whitewashing. Back in 1962, he starred as Prince Faisal in the historical epic Lawrence of Arabia. That’s right: a straight-up white dude portrayed a Saudi Arabia prince and had a slightly racist tan job to boot. Infamous Othello actor Laurence Olivier was actually originally slated to play Faisal. However, he dropped out, and Guinness had to stand in his culturally insensitive footprints. What makes things worse is the fact that this film is nearly four hours long. FOUR HOURS of blatant whitewashing. It’s so painful.
4. Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger)
Back before Johnny Depp was making headlines for his questionable attitude towards women, he was being accused of whitewashing thanks to his star turn in The Lone Ranger. Depp portrayed Native American character Tonto, and claimed that it was okay because he has distant Cherokee ancestry. However, Depp never actually proved this claim. The link is still pretty tenuous – there are plenty of actual Native American actors who could have played the part. I mean, the original film starred Native actor Jay Silverheels as Tonto: why did that have to change in the remake? Depp tried to make up for it by discussing Native American rights constantly during the press tour for the film, but it wasn’t quite enough to redeem him.
3. Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time)
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was once described – by its own director – as being worryingly “homogeneous” with regards to the ethnicity of its actors. In the film world, this is code for “we totally whitewashed this movie and now feel a little bit bad about it.” Jake Gyllenhaal, a white guy of American, Swedish and Jewish descent, plays the titular Prince of Persia. The Prince is quite obviously supposed to be Middle Eastern or of Persian descent. Plus, Gemma Arterton, a white actress who hails from the south of England, portrays his ‘exotic’ (a problematic term in itself) princess. Oh dear.
2. Rooney Mara (Pan)
This modern interpretation of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan series garnered quite a lot of criticism thanks to its casting choices. Specifically, the fact that Rooney Mara was cast as the Native American character Tiger Lily raised a lot of eyebrows and provoked ire from the Native community. Tiger Lily’s characterization has a habit of causing controversy: in the animated Disney version of Peter Pan, she’s given basically every Native stereotype in the book and isn’t even permitted to speak. Pan didn’t do much better: nobody could quite understand why the filmmakers gave totally white Mara the part. Mara herself has expressed regret at accepting the part due to the backlash she received. To be fair, her casting was a pretty poor move from the filmmakers.
1. Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell)
Science fiction flick Ghost in the Shell is proof that whitewashing is still alive and well in 2017. The movie adapts a Japanese manga series that contains almost exclusively Japanese characters. Did the filmmakers respect this? Of course not. They gave the lead role of Motoko Kusanagi to Scarlett Johansson, provoking outrage among the Asian community (and for good reason, let’s face it). Things only got worse when rumors spread that Paramount was testing CGI technology that would make Johansson appear ‘more Asian,’ claims the company strenuously denied. Still, the film’s reputation was somewhat damaged by the whitewashing claims, and critics accused its makers of being ‘too scared’ to cast an Asian actress for financial reasons (apparently white leads= more money). What a mess.