To a general rolling of eyes and shrugging of shoulders, Alex Proyas’ “Gods of Egypt” beats its big silly golden CG wings into theaters this week. Aside from the fact that it looks… not very good, the film has stirred up what little interest it has mostly due to the casting of Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites and a host of other white actors as Egyptian deities and demigods. Among all of them, Chadwick Boseman‘s presence seems at best token and at worst heartbreaking, because he deserves a lot better than “Gods of Egypt.” In any case, coupled with the #oscarssowhite snafu continuing to unfold, John Oliver recently picked up on the mutinous mood with to regards to Hollywood’s practice of whitewashing.
There are a few different degrees of Hollywood whitewash: the mildest, probably because it’s the most invisible, involves the ethnicity of a character changing before filming has even begun, so that a white actor can play the role as a white person. Most of the individuals involved in the casino scam that “21” was based on, for example, were Asian, but in the film they’re white from the outset. William Mapother was for some reason cast as a character in “World Trade Center” whose real-life counterpart is black.
The second, more problematic degree is when a white actor is cast in a non-white role that has not been explicitly rewritten as white. So arguably both Ben Affleck and Clea DuVall in “Argo” are guilty here (the CIA officer Affleck’s character is based on is half-Mexican, DuVall’s is Japanese-American), as is Emma Stone‘s part in “Aloha,” (although the latter’s invisible Asian heritage seems like a really inconsequential detail that could easily have been removed from the character with no major harm done). But hey, at least they didn’t slant her eyes!
Which brings us third-degree whitewashing, in which a white actor plays a non-white role and undergoes an indefensible physical transformation to do so. The racism of blackface, brownface, yellowface, altering eye shape and hair type, exaggerating accents and gestures and appropriating cultural signifiers along stereotypical ethnic lines has a long, unhappy tradition in Hollywood cinema. So most of the examples below come from this category —if you dare, explore these 20 instances of variously egregious Hollywood whitewashing. Get ready to cringe.
John Wayne as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” (1956)
Now notorious as a film that allegedly gave many of its participants cancer (it was shot on a site irradiated by nuclear test fallout) and that was suppressed by producer Howard Hughes for decades after its release, famous flop “The Conqueror” features perhaps the most egregious miscasting in history, in which drawling cowboy archetype John Wayne lobbied for, and won, the role of the Mongol warlord. Even at the time, he looked absolutely ridiculous.
What They Said At The Time: “An illusion persists that this Genghis Khan is merely Hopalong Cassidy in Cathay… [Wayne is] constantly being unhorsed by such lines as, ‘you are beautiful in your wrath.'” [NYT]
Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” (2007)
It’s a shame that perhaps Jolie’s single best performance, as the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl in this Michael Winterbottom rendition of the infamous mid 2000s incident, should be marred by the specter of whitewashing. To be fair, finding an actress of the precise ethnic mix as the French-born, Afro-Chinese-Cuban-Dutch Pearl would have been a struggle, and without someone like Jolie, this movie would never have been made. But the effort to make her physically resemble Pearl, right down to afro-ising her hair, feels at best unfortunate.
What They Said At The Time:“Though Jolie sports a big belly, a high-coiffed hairstyle and a very challenging accent, [this is] a subdued, carefully considered portrait of a woman caught between premature grief and persistent hope.” [Variety]
Rex Harrison as the King in “Anna and the King of Siam” (1945); Yul Brynner as the King in “The King and I” (1951)
Both the British Harrison and the Russian Brynner received great plaudits for their respective turns as King Mongkut of Siam, in the 1945 John Cromwell version and the 1951 film adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, both of which were based on Margaret Landon‘s 1944 novel. The fuzziness of the nationalities and ethnicities involved here means that the 1999 version, “Anna and the King” starring Chow Yun Fat as Mongkut, seems like a model of racial sensitivity by comparison, though Chow was born over a thousand miles and several countries away in Hong Kong.
What They Said At The Time: “Rex Harrison shines particularly in his American film debut. It’s a sustained characterization of the King of Siam that makes the role real.” [Variety]
Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)
The sine qua non of classic racist Hollywood stereotypes. Rooney’s performance as Holly Golightly’s “comically” exasperated Japanese upstairs neighbor now rightly lives in infamy as a turn that torpedoes the uncomplicated enjoyment of an otherwise delightful film. Rooney was allegedly “heartbroken” over his performance’s recent reevaluation as horribly racist, but that didn’t stop the quarter-Filipino Rob Schneider from more or less channeling it in a highly dubious role in the highly dubious “I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry.”
What They Said At The Time: “Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic.” [NYT]
Boris Karloff in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932); Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in “The Face of Fu Manchu” (1965), “The Brides of Fu Manchu” (1966), “The Vengeance of Fu Manchu” (1967), “The Blood of Fu Manchu” (1968), “The Castle of Fu Manchu” (1969)
Only two of several actors to have portrayed the ultimate Yellow Peril/Oriental menace (Swedish/American Warner Oland, who would later play Charlie Chan, being among the others), Karloff and Lee were both British actors associated with villainous roles. So it’s perhaps not so surprising that they both played this enduringly popular, wildly racist character —Karloff’s turn, which also featured a yellowface Myrna Loy as his daughter, is maybe the most egregious, but Lee’s five films sporting the droopy mustache means he’s probably more associated with it now.
What They Said At The Time: “[on ‘Face’] Christopher Lee, as the old evil one, complete with waxy mustache, looks and sounds like an overgrown Etonite. Fu Manchu, fooey.” [NYT]
Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale as Ramesses II and Moses in “Exodus: Gods And Kings” (2014)
In a classic moment of digging a deeper hole for himself, director Ridley Scott rushed to the defense of his casting decisions for his biblical epic by saying ““I can’t mount a film of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.” Which might suffice as an excuse for Bale, but as John Oliver pointed out, it hardly accounts for why you’d cast a less-than-marquee-name Australian as Ramesses II, slather him with a fake tan and hope for the best.
What They Said At The Time: “The ultimate takeaway is that if you can’t finance a $140 million epic about ancient Egypt with racially appropriate actors, maybe you shouldn’t make a $140 million epic about ancient Egypt.” [Time Out]
Laurence Olivier as Othello in “Othello” (1965)
To be sure, Olivier came from a stage tradition where blackface was perfectly normal with respect to playing Shakespeare’s famously jealous Moor. But unlike Orson Welles‘ 1952 version, for example, this color production came two years after Sidney Poitier had become the first black man to win Best Actor, and several decades after the black-and-white minstrel look was even remotely able to pass without comment.
What They Said At The Time: “He plays Othello in blackface! …not the dark-brown stain that even the most daring white actors do not nowadays wish to go beyond. What’s more, he caps his shiny blackface with a wig of kinky black hair and has the insides of his lips smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red.” [NYT, being pretty questionable themselves]
Charlton Heston as Ramon Vargas in “Touch of Evil” (1958)
There’s a scene at the end of Tim Burton‘s “Ed Wood” where Johnny Depp‘s Wood complains to Vincent D’Onofrio‘s Orson Welles about his casting woes, to which Welles replies “Tell me about it! I’m supposed to do a thriller with Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!” In truth, there’s not a lot of evidence that Welles had any issue with Heston’s casting (nor with Marlene Dietrich’s gypsy-fication) —in fact, he appears to have been grateful for the triple-time gig (writing, directing, co-starring).
What They Said At The Time: “Heston keeps his plight the point of major importance, combining a dynamic quality with a touch of Latin personality.” [Variety]
Natalie Wood as Maria (and others) in “West Side Story” (1961)
One major factor that can mitigate the effects of racial miscasting is if the movie turns out to be good (see “Touch of Evil”). And that’s certainly the case here: while no one would suggest today that having the Ukrainian/American Wood or the Greek/American George Chikiris play Puerto Rican is unproblematic, Robert Wise‘s film is so spirited and clever (and so unusually engaged in the perennial debate regarding immigrants in the U.S.) that it feels far less toxic than many other examples here.
What They Said At The Time: “Natalie Wood is full of luster and charm as the nubile Puerto Rican who is poignantly drawn to [Beymer]… George Chakiris is proud and heroic as [Moreno‘s] sweetheart and leader of the rival gang.” [ NYT ]
Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in “Dragon Seed” (1944)
Based on the book by expat writer Pearl S. Buck, whose stories of Chinese life became popular bestsellers in the U.S., this film found someone concluding that it would be a good idea to sellotape back Hepburn’s eyes and call her Jade Tan for this tale of romance and rebellion. Result: her face is like a living manifestation of a pre-CG uncanny valley, while having Walter Huston and Armenian/Russian actor Akim Tamiroff also play Chinese doubles down on the insult.
What They Said At The Time: “It is asking too much of an audience to supply the deficiency of Katharine Hepburn’s characterization of a Chinese girl. She… is constantly betrayed by an accent she has made into her own trademark of sophisticated drama. And the heavy speech of Akim Tamiroff falls upon the ear as resonantly as the sound of a gefilte fish banged against a temple gong.” [NYT]
Donna Reed as Sacagawea in “The Far Horizons” (1955)
With Fred MacMurray as Lewis and Charlton Heston locked in as Clark, all that remained for producers of this ambitiously misleading historical epic was to find the perfect actress for the role of Sacagawea, the Native American (Shoshone) woman who guides the duo through part of their expedition. But they cast apple-pie American Donna Reed, who’d just won an Oscar for “From Here to Eternity” instead.
What They Said At The Time: “Aside from nature and a consistently winning performance by Miss Reed as the Indian guide Sacajawea, this slow and unimaginative safari seldom suggests either history or life. In some respects, it is absurd.” [NYT]
Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No in “Dr. No” (1962)
There’s no particular reason that Dr. No, a half-Chinese, half German mad scientist, is played by Wiseman, a Canadian Jew. Nor is there any particular reason why Miss Taro, the Oriental seductress is played by Kenyan-born British actress Zena Marshall. Later, Wiseman apparently viewed the role with “great disdain”
What They Said At The Time: “The ending, which finds Joseph Wiseman being frankly James Masonish in an undersea laboratory that looks like something inspired by Oak Ridge, is a bit too extravagant and silly, and likewise too frantic and long.” [NYT]
Paul Muni & Luise Rainer as Wang and O-Lan in “The Good Earth” (1937)
The earlier of the two Pearl S. Buck adaptations here (see “Dragon Seed”), this one casts Muni and Rainer as Chinese peasant farmers struggling to survive turbulent pre-WWI China. Rainer won her second consecutive Best Actress Oscar for the role (she’d won the year before despite only really playing support in “The Great Ziegfeld.”)
What They Said At The Time: ” …occidentals are mixed with genuine Orientals for direct conversational contact, and no harmful false note is struck. Luise Rainer’s Viennese amidst this mumble-jumble of dialects is but slightly noticeable… Muni as Wang, with a great makeup, is a splendid lead. Rainer has more difficulty, since her features are not so receptive to Oriental makeup. Yet a good actress overcomes these things.” [Variety]
Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya in “Short Circuit” (1986)
Recently made famous by an entire segment in the “Indians on TV” episode of Aziz Ansari‘s “Master of None,” Stevens’ turn as Jabituya (oddly renamed Ben Jahrvi in the sequel, where Stevens takes top billing) is in danger of embodying “brownface” given Ansari’s timely reminder of just how insidious this sort of thing can be. It might not be the most malicious portrayal ever, but it is stereotyped in the extreme and was totally unnecessary to cast a white guy —did anyone go to see “Short Circuit” for Fisher Steven?
What They Said At The Time: “… and Fisher Stevens, as an Indian (from India) scientist who mangles American argot (”Excuse me, I must go to the jack”).” [NYT]
Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)
David Lean‘s film is one of the greatest films ever made, but despite a prominent subplot about the rights of an indigenous people to govern their own region, some politically questionable casting decisions were made. Guinness is terrific, but it’s hard to ignore that Obi-Wan is in brownface here, not to mention that Mexican actor Anthony Quinn also plays an Arab.
What They Said At The Time: “Guinness has a particularly well written role and plays it with shrewd, witty intuition … Only Anthony Quinn, as a larger-than-life, proud, intolerant Arab chief seems to obtrude over-much and tends to turn the performance into something out of the Arabian Nights.” [Variety]
Ava Gardner as Julie LaVerne in “Show Boat” (1951)
Perhaps less an example of whitewashing, since two previous film versions also featured white actresses in the role of the mixed-race Julie, the 1951 “Showboat,” directed by George Sidney is still an opportunity missed. The role was originally earmarked for African-American singer and actress Lena Horne, who was only replaced by Gardner when producers got cold feet. Horne probably would have done her own singing too.
What They Said At The Time: “Ava Gardner is the third star, bringing to her role of Julie, the mulatto who is kicked off the Cotton Blossom because of early southern prejudice, all the physical attributes it needs to attract attention. [Actress’ singing voice was dubbed by Annette Warren.]” [Variety, at peak sexism]
Max Minghella as Divya Narendra in “The Social Network” (2010)
There’s something especially troubling about the practice of race-blind casting when the role is based on a living person. And it’s hard to believe that there was not one actor with an Indian background who could have played the Indian-American Divya Narendra instead of the Italian/Chinese/British Minghella. Not that he does a bad job, but certainly in the 21st century someone in a position of power with this film would know better.
What They Said At The Time: “The twins and their Indian-American partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella, who doesn’t look or act Indian)… are all suing Mark.” [THR]
Marlon Brando as Sakini in “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956)
Apparently, Brando spent two months studying local speech, culture and gesture before filming this Japan-set comedy, and then two hours per day in the makeup chair, so as to play lovable Okinawan rogue Sakini, interpreter for Glenn Ford’s U.S. Captain. Though we’re not sure where you actually can discern the Method under all that makeup.
What They Said At The Time: “Mr. Brando looks synthetic. A conspicuous make-up of his eyes and a shiny black wig do not imbue him with an oriental cast. And his manner of speaking broken English, as though he had a wad of chewing gum clenched between his teeth, is not only disconcerting but also makes him hard to understand.” [NYT]
Burt Lancaster as Massai in “Apache” (1954)
A notable entry in the long tradition of Hollywood celebrating the nobility and strength of indigenous peoples by casting a white guy as the best of them, “Apache” imagines Lancaster as the last of his tribe after the surrender of Geronimo, such a noble fighter and such a manly lover (of Apache Nalinle, played by the also white Jean Peters) that he Earns the White Man’s Respect.
What They Said At The Time: “While [Lancaster] looks every inch a strapping Apache firebrand, the actor plays him as a churlish, paranoic whippersnapper who must have things his own way. Hitched throughout to a mule, the Lost Cause loses most of its urgency, in a surprisingly feeble excuse for some personal greased lightning” [NYT]
Peter Sellers as Hrundi. V Bakshi in “The Party” (1968)
It’s a movie largely predicated on the humor of embarrassment anyway, so it’s hard to say if the added embarrassment of Sellers’ brownface makeup and parodic accent adds or detracts from the film. Still, there is a sweetness here that mitigates the outright cultural insensitivity, which can’t be said for “The Love Guru.” Or those Popchips commercials with Ashton Kutcher.
What They Said At The Time: “…this is one reason why “The Party” is so enjoyable. Sellers works. He develops a character and plays it, for better or worse, for the whole movie. No costume changes. No Napoleon suits. Sellers is Hrundi V. Bakshi, a painfully polite actor from India who courteously and delicately sabotages the evening of several dozen guests and an elephant.” [Roger Ebert]
Kirk Lazarus as Staff Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in “Tropic Thunder”/”Tropic Blunder” (2008)
We have nothing but respect for 5-time Academy Award-winning Australian actor Lazarus, but even we were concerned over the “pigmentation alteration” surgery the famously method actor underwent for this role. Thankfully, it turned out to be an absolute triumph, even if the original film never saw the light of day. Tugg Speedman got the Oscar for “Tropic Blunder,” made from the remnants of ‘Thunder”s traumatic shoot, but everyone who’s seen it believes it should have been Lazarus’ sixth.
What They Said At The Time: “This potentially risible stunt is put in relief by having… Jackson ride Lazarus mercilessly about having usurped a role that should have gone to another brother. Whatever political spin people will want to put on it, the audacity of [this] performance reps the best reason to see the film.” [Variety]
It might be the most recent example, but we find it a little hard to twist our knickers over “Gods of Egypt” in this regard, partially because it’s a film we’re struggling to remember exists even two days before it opens, but also because it is a fantasy, dealing with mythological, omnipotent entities. The same goes for the minor firestorms that erupted over “The Last Airbender,” “Prince of Persia” and most recently “Pan” —in each case, the lack of fidelity to the “original” ethnicity of the characters felt like the very least of the films’ problems, but people did seem to care, so we’re mentioning them here.
Other instances we’ve skipped over: Swedish American actor Warner Oland played Chinese detective Charlie Chan on multiple occasions, but those films have all but disappeared from the public consciousness. Sean Connery unconvincingly plays a Berber Brigand in John Milius‘ “The Wind and the Lion.” Tony Curtis plays a Native American war hero in “The Outsider.” Anthony Quinn plays the titular “Zorba the Greek.” Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep are Latin Americans in “The House of the Spirits,” as is William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spiderwoman.” Kathy Bates in “North,” Esther Williams in “Fiesta,” Susan Kohner in “Imitation of Life,” Douglas Fairbanks in “The Thief of Baghdad,” Rudolph Valentino in “Son of the Sheik,” Mena Suvari in “Stuck“… the list goes on and on and spans all of Hollywood history. Any particularly egregious examples you want to call out? Name and shame below, and in the meantime, remember to take it with a pinch of salt the next time someone says that #Oscarssowhite is unavoidable because there are so few roles for non-white actors. There are far too few, but that’s not helped by half of the few there are being taken by white folks.