Sounds About White

The Faces of Whitewashing in the 21st Century

The practice of whitewashing has a long history in cinema. Casting white actors in the role of characters of color is nothing new in film, and is a well-recognized and problematic trend. However, this unfortunate custom has changed dramatically from its roots in the early 20th century as times have shifted and public sensibilities have slowly changed. No longer do we see the overt and obvious black-, brown-, and yellowface depictions of characters of color by white actors. Mickey Rooney’s horrid performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Laurence Olivier donning blackface to play the titular character in Othello (1965) would never fly in the modern film industry. Unfortunately, we argue that the practice of whitewashing in cinema is alive and well, albeit in more understated and covert forms, as evidenced even looking only at films made in the 21st century.

With the 2018 release of Crazy Rich Asians, which had a predominantly Asian cast and received much success and acclaim, one might think the days of yellowface and whitewashing Asian roles are bygone. However, in looking at films either about Asian characters or adapted from Asian source material, it becomes clear that Crazy Rich Asians is an exception, or hopefully, a much-needed turning point in accurately depicting Asian stories.

Just under ten years ago, M. Night Shyamalan adapted the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender into a live action film. The problem? The original series had elements of anime, featuring Asian characters and taking place in a world with Asian imagery. Shyamalan’s depiction, The Last Airbender (2010) featured a predominantly Caucasian cast with Noah Ringer as Aang, Nicola Peltz as Katara, and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka. The only exception was the villain, who was played by Dev Patel. It is highly problematic for Shyamalan to have cast a range of white actors to play the characters the audience was rooting for and to have the only person of color in the main cast play the villain. Making the villain a person of color or a person of color with stereotyped features (see: Jafar in Aladdin (1992)) is a dangerous way to depict people of color. Furthermore, turning the popular Asian character Aang into a white character for the live-action film may have robbed many young Asians of representation that they looked up to and needed.

However, Shyamalan was not the first, nor will he be the last, filmmaker to take Asian source material and twist it to appeal to what they believe Western audiences want. Ghost in the Shell is a 2017 film based on the Japanese franchise around the manga of the same name. Audiences accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the source material for the film as soon as Scarlett Johansson was cast in the titular role of Mira Killian in 2015. Johansson claimed she was not attempting to play a character of a different race, but to many, it was clear that the character was Japanese and should go to an actor of Asian descent at the very least, if not a Japanese actor. Furthermore, the name of the character Johansson would play was originally Major Motoko Kusanagi the whole time–further proof that they were whitewashing the character and the film. Many, including Johansson, argued in defense of the film, saying that despite the source material being Japanese, filmmakers could adapt it any way they wanted. While technically this is correct, it becomes problematic that films will, by default, turn stories about minorities into stories about white people because they think it is more palatable to Western audiences.


Netflix’s Death Note (2017) faced similar backlash for turning the manga by the same name into a story about white characters. Netflix cast Nat Wolff as the protagonist, Light, and a host of other white actors in the roles of Asian characters. The arguments for and against these decisions were similar to those of Ghost in the Shell. Something worth noting, however, is the backlash against Scarlett Johansson was on a far greater scale. This could be due to many reasons–the size of the project, Johansson’s stardom and notoriety, or any other factors. While Johansson is much more famous and illustrious than Nat Wolff, the backlash she received for playing a part in whitewashing a role was much greater than Wolff’s or most other white male actors who have taken on roles of races that were not theirs.

While The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell, and Death Note took excessive liberties on source material featuring Asian characters and cultures, in Aloha (2015) Cameron Crowe boggled the mind by himself creating and writing a ¼ Chinese and ¼ Hawaiian character, Allison Ng, and then casting Emma Stone in the role. The role was meant to convey the mix of cultures in Hawaii, but failed to do so. Though they both apologized, Stone and Crowe both tried to explain away the whitewashing controversy by saying that the character was not actually meant to look her heritage. Regardless, with the dearth of representation for Asians and Native Hawaiians alike, the casting was a failure.

Though the Lone Ranger often wowed fans with his exploits over the radio in 1933, modern listeners would likely be less than pleased with his adventures in the role of the white savior, and the relegation of his Comanche sidekick Tonto to the backseat. The character of Tonto has seen his fair share of actors step into the role, though even by the 1950s, the Lone Ranger television series (1949-1957) had Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk actor, play the part. Unfortunately, in Disney’s 2013 reboot movie of the same name, (white) Johnny Depp was cast as Tonto, sparking controversy despite his shaky claims of wanting to right harms that had been done against Native people regarding representation. Were that truly the case, perhaps he would have stepped down to allow an actor with Comanche heritage to play the part of one of the few widely-known Native characters in American media. Historically, representations of Native Americans in the media have often been racist and stereotypical, employing harmful or just incorrect ethnic imagery (O’Barr, 2013). However, the discourse around the misappropriation of Native American imagery was already heating up by 2013 and Disney should have known better than to waste the opportunity to do right by the Native American community and cast a native actor in the role.

The Daily Beast

Tonto is not the only widely beloved character whose Native heritage has been overshadowed by the casting of a white actor or actress. In Joe Wright’s Pan (2015, not to be confused with Pan’s Labyrinth), the director’s reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (better known as Disney’s Peter Pan) received criticism for its casting of white actress Rooney Mara in the role of the Native warrior princess Tiger Lily. Despite receiving blowback for the choice, Wright continued to defend the casting with choice sentiments such as being ‘… particularly keen to make sure [she] wasn’t a damsel in distress’, making a very interesting and perhaps accidental point about the perception of women of color in the industry. Notably, Mara herself has repeatedly apologized for both taking the role itself and for the conversation around whitewashing, which she defended alongside Wright originally.

The Cinema Soloist

However, whitewashing is not limited entirely to the realm of the fictional, either – even real individuals are not immune to being played by people most certainly not of their own race. Ben Affleck’s 2012 thriller Argo was based on the memoir of Antonio “Tony” Mendez, a CIA agent who led the rescue of six diplomats in Tehran in 1979. Affleck, a white man, both directed and starred in the piece, taking up the Mexican-American Mendez’s role as the central protagonist. As one of only fifty CIA officers recognized with the Trailblazer Medallion award ever, Mendez is a celebrated hero, and deserves to be remembered and recognized for his actions without the erasure of his heritage. With how poorly many Mexican-Americans are treated in the USA, to add whitewashing out representation is adding insult to injury.

Awards Circuit

Belying the name, however, sometimes whitewashing doesn’t even have to involve white people stepping into the role of characters of color. Sometimes other discriminatory aspects can seep in as well. For example, when colorism drives the casting of a light-skinned person of color to play a historically dark-skinned person, it is colloquially referred to as ‘lightwashing’. Though the actor may share the same race as their role, the darker-skinned person is typically much more likely to receive negative discrimination on the basis of skin color, and often dark skin is seen as a fashion failure under eurocentric beauty standards. Casting a lighter skin Zoe Saldana to play the iconic and dark skinned Nina Simone in the 2016 film Nina reeked of colorism, “suggesting that lighter skin is associated with attractiveness, privilege, and higher socioeconomic status”. Colorism in this casting choice privileged Saldana’s lighter-skinned tone over a potentially darker-skinned actor who better matched Simone’s appearance. By not doing so, filmmakers–whether purposefully or not–displayed a form of bias (Harris, 2018). Many, including Simone’s own family, were concerned about the fairly light-skinned Saldana playing the role of the darker Simone. These concerns were warranted, as Saldana actually had to have her skin darkened for the role, and the casting was considered tone-deaf due to the greater discrimination that Simone would have faced compared to her movie portrayal. Lightwashing, like whitewashing, still falls under the unfortunate mentality that the whiter you are, the better you are or the more you’ll sell to audiences.

BET Networks

Harris, K. L. (2018). Biracial American Colorism: Passing for White. American

Behavioral Scientist, 62(14), 2072–2086.

https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764218810747

O’Barr, W. M. (2013). Images of Native Americans in Advertising. Advertising & Society

Review 14(1), 1-51. Advertising Educational Foundation. Retrieved March 10,

2019, from Project MUSE database.

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