Stop Casting White People as POC Characters

Introduction:

Over the course of history we have seen offensive representations of POC characters in popular media. Starting with minstrel acts played by white people in black face, and beginning to be committed to film in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). These offensive representations of POC characters persisted throughout a majority of the century. We have since began to work toward a better representation of all people in media, but are still very much off the mark from where we need to be.

Dragon Seed: IMDB

Katharine Hepburn as Jade in the 1944 film Dragon Seed is a fairly earlier example of “yellow-face” in film. This film came out around 3 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the plot emphasizes a nationalistic reaction to the event. Dragon Seed is about a Chinese village that is “invaded by the Japanese,” and Hepburn’s character is a Chinese woman who refuses to make peace with those who invaded the village. Along with this, instead of hiring actors who are actually of Asian decent, earlier films like these would use prosthetics on the actors’ faces to make them look like a stereotypical example of an Asian person (with even more racist representations in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which will be discussed next). Rather than expanding Hollywood and welcoming in more POC actors, white actors who were already established in this American industry were given even more opportunity. 

I. Y. Yunioshi

The racist representation of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is a more overtly offensive representation of “yellow-face.” Mr. Yunioshi’s character checks all the boxes when it comes to offensive Japanese stereotypes, from the way he looks and dresses, to the way that he speaks. These stereotypes being exemplified by white Americans can be connected to the way Stuart Hall defines representation in this piece on the concept. According to Hall, “the concepts which are formed in the mind function as a system of mental representation which classifies and organizes the world into meaningful categories” (Hall 14). The minds of nationalistic Americans supported this representation because it made sense to them. Like I mentioned before, representing Japanese people in this negative way could be a nationalistic reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor, since they made this Japanese character so insufferable and unlikable, and not to mention casted a white man to play him. This character is also where we can really see nationalism transform into racism. Though it is notable that this film was released 20 years after Pearl Harbor caused Japanese people to be discriminated against in the United States, nationalism still led to accepted racism against Japanese people, exhibited in the level of popularity that Breakfast at Tiffany’s reached.

Wall Street Journal

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra is a bit of a different example, considering how much conversation and debate there’s been around what the real Cleopatra’s race was. Although people were even less certain about her race back in 1963 (when Cleopatra was released), she was still portrayed by a popular white actress in the film. It seems as if these films are cast in a way that tries to meet the expectations of Americans, especially back in 1963.

E! Online

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan in the 2010 film Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is a more modern example of a white actor playing a POC character, exemplifying the idea that this is not necessarily a thing of the past. Nationalism continues to affect audiences even into the 2010’s, when modern casting directors continued to cast white actors like Jake Gyllnhaal for the role of an Iranian character. It seems that nationalism still affects American audiences’ decisions to see movies based on what race the actors are. 

Jingoism

Jingoism is extreme nationalism that can often lead to bigotry or clouded judgement. An example of jingoism in the foreign policy of the United States can be seen in the recent muslim travel ban. I believe that it is this jingoist agenda that is responsible for early representation of people of color in media. It would seem that the nation’s reluctance to have actual people of color playing characters in popular movies and TV lead to nearly a century of documented stereotypes (most commonly portrayed by white actors).

Alamy – Czech Post Card

Nationalism and Patriotism have operated similar to a sine wave throughout history. This can be seen in the representation of culture, society and characters throughout history. In times of war or post-war triumph when nationalism is often at an all time high, the most offensive representations have been present in popular media. When referencing the concept of nationalism as it relates to media, Robert Audi’s journal Nationalism, Patriotism, and Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization does a commendable job in defining the issue. Audi defines nationalism and patriotism itself as “[existing] in the form of an emotion” (Audi 365). It is important to consider that this bigotry and foul representation of people of color in media is often correlated to a racist public opinion. In post-war times, similar to that of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the white demographic of America was very racist against most asian people. This I believe is reflected in Mr. Yunioshi’s character in the film, as we discussed before. In this scenario, people were using the newfound nationalism that they had in a post World War II society to cast a white actor as an obscenely offensive representation of a Japanese man on screen.

RDJ in Tropic Thunder

When thinking of examples of films that had offensive representations of people of color, I remembered one that is quite difficult to place. The film in discussion is Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (2008). On one hand, Robert Downey Jr. is seen in the film wearing black face; which is of course completely terrible and shouldn’t be in the movie (especially seeing as it was released in 2008). The movie however attempts takes the blame off of Downey Jr. through the character’s complexity. The character in the film is a white actor who is method acting as a black man, and is wearing the black face because he is an award-winning actor. The movie appears to be satirizing the actor and what actors will do in order to get acclaim, which appears to be attempting to dismiss the actual presence of black face on screen. The fact that this movie got away with displaying black face (and had a fair bit of box office success) is something that I feel should have been more contested in public opinion.

While the representations of POC character in media today is far better than what it began as, we still have a long way to go. While race and sexuality are often more carefully written in the media we consume in today’s world, there are still oppressed groups of people who are either misrepresented or completely neglected. It is important for contemporary filmmakers to do research on the history of media to see how these representations have evolved. This is the only way that we can move toward a fair representation of all people in the movies and TV shows that form a lot of our opinions about things that we may not have first hand knowledge of.

PBS – Birth of a Movement

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