10 ‘Whitewashing’ Casting Controversies

Now here’s a term that’s getting thrown about a whole lot, and it does draw controversy whenever it happens. There’s two sides to this…on the one hand we shouldn’t remain completely bound to any source material in an adaptation. On the other we’re seeing producers removing minorities from lead roles, try and pass off white actors as an ethnicity they’re not, take work away from groups who don’t have as many opportunities open to them and in some cases being downright offensive. On occasion we question why they bothered with the change in the first place.

So here are ten recent examples that left us scratching our heads in confusion. We’ve skipped over religious films because whitening up the Bible is an issue that predates the film industry, and stuck to more recent films because you’d think we’d be past all this by now.

Angelina Jolie in Wanted

Wanted Whitewashing

This adaptation of the popular graphic novel has more than a few problems. It took a story about colourful and twisted super villains who are secretly controlling the world and made it a tale of assassins who…bend bullets? And take their orders from a loom? What let the film down further was some of the casting. James McAvoy didn’t quite convince as the put-upon sadsack turned psychopath, and his support of Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie were equally miscast. Jolie in particular was cast as Fox, portrayed in the book as a sassy, flippant African-American super-villain. All the personality of the character was drained out, replaced with a stoic, dull character whose only memorable moment was a gun that shoots around corners.

But who could have played the role as it is depicted in the comics? How about the A-List actor who the character was based on…one has to wonder if Halle Berry was even considered.

Justin Chatwin in Dragonball Evolution

Dragonball Whitewashing

You know an adaptation has failed when the original creator responded by saying that he “wouldn’t even consider it ‘Dragon Ball’. Ouch. Part of the problem for fans was the casting of Justin Chatwin, patron saint of cancelled and unreleased projects, in the lead role of Goku. In a series that represents the best of Japanese animation, featuring characters who have always been portrayed as Japanese, and in an adaptation where most of the supporting cast are Oriental it’s perplexing that the lead characters are all white folk. Can you seriously not find a Japanese actor who could do this role better?

Liam Neeson in Batman Begins

Ras al Ghul Whitewashing

Whilst the previous two entries were examples of bad casting regardless of race, this one did work in terms of character and story. Most of the casting in Nolan’s Batman trilogy was on the money, and Neeson made for an engaging mentor turned villain. The problem is that Ra’s al Ghul has always been portrayed as Arab in the comics and animated series. The name itself is Arab in origin, translating into ‘the demon’s head’. Perhaps this was all in aid of preserving the twist that ‘Ducard’ is actually Ra’s…but then…why was Japanese actor Ken Watanabe the fake Ra’s…

Rooney Mara in Pan

Pan Whitewashing

The story of Peter Pan is largely based around British culture, with the children of an uptight English father being whisked away on a colourful fantasy adventure. In terms of casting there is a lot of wiggle room with the only distinctive cultural roles belonging to the Native American tribe who inhabits Never-Never Land. For this recent flop they considered a few actors for the part Tiger Lily…a white American, a French woman and a Mexican-Kenyan woman. Native American’s don’t make up a huge part of the population, but it would be nice if a representative of the culture could make the short list.

Kevin Spacey (and others) in 21

21 Whitewashing

This card-counting thriller tells the real life story of MIT students who, along with their lecturer, used their mathematical abilities to win big in Vegas. Among the lead cast was Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess, which drew criticism as the real life inspirations for the characters were Asian-American. Jeff Ma, who Spacey’s character was based, was unconcerned. Ma stated that he was more interesting in having the best actor for the part rather than casting based on race. Fair enough, but it’s a bit uncomfortable when the only characters of Asian descent are relegated to bit parts in a story about Asian-Americans.

Scarlett Johansson (and others) in Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell Whitewashing

Now this one is hasn’t come out yet, so we’re not clear on how or if it’s going to impact on the film…but it still seems like a weird direction to go in. Ghost in the Shell is oft lauded as one of the best anime films ever produced, and has a production design and style heavily influenced by the city of Tokyo as well as a cast of Japanese characters. Although it would appear as though the setting has not been changed to an American city, Scarlett Johansson is taking on the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi. If it was a straight up Americanised adaptation of the source material, that would be different, but many Japanese actors are filling out the supporting roles. There was a rumour that they were going to employ CGI to give Johansson a Japanese appearance, but there’s no clear indication that this was the case.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia Whitewashing

Well, I’ll say this…he looks a lot more Persian than the character appeared in the original game. He was the most Aryan looking digital character ever. Having said that: it’s right there in the title! It is a fantasy film, and pretty harmless, but it they don’t seem to have cast the net far in this casting. Was Rami Malek not famous enough yet?

Emma Stone in Aloha

Aloha Whitewashing

This one makes the list for the noise that followed it. Emma Stone was cast as Captain Allison Ng, a character who is supposed to represent the mixed culture of Hawaii through her partial Hawaiian and partial Chinese heritage. If your character is supposed to represent mixed cultural background, maybe you should have cast someone who represented that background. It’s common sense. Director Cameron Crowe didn’t help matters when he ‘apologised’ for the casting – when the director is admitting fault before the film’s release the public aren’t going to line up for tickets.

Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

Tonto Whitewashing

As part of Johnny Depp’s quest to play every role with a thick layer of white paint on his face he appeared as the Native American character Tonto. This likely had more to do with recapturing the lighting-in-a-bottle success Depp and director Gore Verbinski achieved with Pirates of the Caribbean than suitability for the role. Depp saw this role as the chance to ‘right the wrongs of the past’ in terms of Native representation in cinema – something that he and the film failed terribly at. He also claimed to have Native American ancestry on his great-great-grandmother’s side, but it’s never been confirmed. So…whatever.

Everyone in The Last Airbender

Last Airbender Whitewashing

Now there’s a a bit more to this particular case because the world of Avatar is not our world, and isn’t bound by the same expectations. That said there is a clear parallel between cultures in our world and those in Avatar. The Air Nomads are based on Tibetan culture and so forth. Two of the three main characters in the story are from the Water tribe, which are heavily based on Inuit culture. For whatever reason these characters are played by Caucasian actors Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz. If they’ve decided to forego the series themes of diversity and acceptance in the casting, that’s not the end of the world…the actors might be perfect for the roles (they really weren’t). What makes it strange is that the rest of the Water Tribe did look Inuit, making the two leads stand out as different. It’s just bad decision making all round.