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7 Cases Of Ridiculous Racism In Film Casting
Mel Gibson aside, filmmakers like to see themselves as a particularly progressive sort, full of tolerance for other people and other cultures. We live in tolerant times far removed from the rampant segregation and prejudice which characterised earlier eras, but that doesn’t necessarily mean racism has been banished completely. Now obviously, anti-racist attitudes are prevalent in the film industry – as they should be – but these attitudes don’t always translate well into the films themselves. Hollywood has often been racist, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and this spectre has re-raised its ugly head recently with Johnny Depp’s controversial turn as a Native American in The Lone Ranger.
The problem is that it can be very easy to stumble into the racism trap – in Depp’s case, it’s the demand to shoehorn in a star name at the cost of racial sensitivity. In other cases it can be caused by racial insensitivity, shocking ignorance and occasionally, the fact that a film just won’t sell with a ‘foreigner’ at the helm. Especially in Hollywood’s case it can be hard to sell a film without some sort of American presence, leading to other cultures being homogenised until they’re rendered palatable to the target audience. In laymans terms, this often results in the whiting up of ethnic characters. A grand slew of films have fallen foul of one or more of these rules over the years, and I intend to identify a few in this list.
And no, I’m not referencing Birth Of A Nation. It’s just far, far too easy.
7. Mickey Rooney – Breakfast At Tiffany’s
It’s actually a really odd one, this. Here we have a film renowned for featuring classy actors – including a smouldering Audrey Hepburn – engaging in charming romantic comedy fare. Everything’s full of charm and classiness, but then we have Mickey Rooney playing Holly Golightly’s Asian neighbour, I.Y Yunioshi in the very definition of sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s weird because there’s no real need for him to be in the film at all – he’s literally a big, racist appendix. Yet he remains there, and has has caused headaches ever since.
I’m not going overboard when I say this gave Breakfast At Tiffany’s a massive downer which it’s found it hard to shake. Rooney’s portrayal of an Asian man appeared to channel every negative stereotype under the sun, and he added buck-toothed and stupidity for good measure. It was just bizarre, and always results in a massive editing job when the film is shown in public, especially in multi-cultural events.
Plus, this role apparently made Bruce Lee very upset when he watched the film. If you manage to upset a man who murdered about twenty men before breakfast, you know you might have gone too far.
6. Jake Gyllenhall – Prince of Persia
Possibly the biggest example of rubbishing ethnicities for the purpose of sticking in marquee names, Prince of Persia came out in 2010 to lukewarm reviews, with the major criticism being that Jake Gyllenhaal is in no way Persian. Seemingly, the only preparation he took for the part was beefing up and getting a tan, which probably made it worse. He doesn’t bother with an accent, and being fair, neither does his Gemma Arteton-played love interest.
Now, of course, this hasn’t stopped casting directors before or since. Yet it just seemed as if it was a truly disrespectful phone-in from the film’s star name, especially when compared to the rest of the cast. For example, nationality chameleons Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina are similarly non-Persian but manage to convince quite well in their roles, as befitting their statuses as actors. But when the beam on which the mighty edifice rests can’t convince at all in the role, perhaps a rethink is called for.
Maybe if they had cast a Persian in the lead role, the controversy which dogged this film wouldn’t have been nearly so acute. Of course, you might counter that there aren’t enough well-known Persian-American actors out there and they might be walking a political tightrope bearing in mind America’s animosity with Iran, and these are both very real grievances. Yet all this begs the question – if the producers knew they were going to run into this minefield, shouldn’t they have thought differently about which gaming franchise to adapt?
5. John Wayne – The Conqueror
The strangely brilliant case of just having to stuff a star into a role, John Wayne once played Genghis Khan. Yes, that Genghis Khan. There’s nothing I can say after that which makes it sound any better. I realise that it was the 1950s and there probably wasn’t a hope in hell of having a ethnic Mongolian take the part, but putting John Wayne in just seemed like a huge insult which duly overshadowed the entire film.
It really was just the epitome of ridiculousness. Produced by well-known eccentric Howard Hughes, it was just surreal to see a The Duke – a man most at home in a Stetson – decked out in full Mongol regalia and pretending to have come from the Steppes. Yes, actors are meant to be versatile, but this isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis we’re talking about here – it’s Wayne, fully known to be quite wooden (If awesome) in most of his roles. The fact he can’t even be bothered with the accent just rams this home – I wouldn’t be surprised if he said ‘pilgrim’ at any point, I really wouldn’t. All in all, a giant farce from start to finish which was summarily thrown out and savaged by the critics.
4. Sean Connery – Highlander
Highlander’s Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (try saying that five times fast) was always going to be a hard role for anyone to play, entirely because of his history. Despite having possibly the most Spanish name you’ve ever gazed upon, Ramirez is technically a millennia-old Egyptian masquerading as Spanish, who had lived in Japan for a long time but now dwells in Scotland. It would be a challenge for any actor to pull off such a hodgepodge of ethnicities, but you could probably find someone willing to give it a try. However, director Russell Mulcahy chose to jump off at the deep-end, casting Sean Connery.
Yes, that Sean Connery. A man who laughs at requirements to drop his Scottish accent, even when playing an ethnic Lithuanian (the gem that is The Hunt For Red October). Much like other instances on this list, it appears as if the casting agency went for the marquee name over any kind of fidelity, and really, unlike those other entries it’s not very offensive – it’s just mind-bogglingly stupid in that awesome 80s way. There were probably a queue of ethnically Spanish actors who could do this part better than Connery, but because he’s Sean bloody Connery, he got to keep the role and explain his accent with a cursory ‘well I lived in Scotland’ backstory. It’s completely insane, but it got bums on seats come premiere time. Besides, Zardosz aside (seriously, watch that film), this is probably the most flamboyant wardrobe Connery’s ever worn, and that’s saying a lot in his colourful career. He;s even got an earring, for god’s sake.
3. The Cast – 21
One of the most amazingly racist ‘based on a true story’ cases ever committed to celluloid, 21 concerned itself with a troupe of blackjack-playing students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taken from bestseller Bringing Down The House, they’re all predictably brilliant, and they use their smarts to develop a card-counting system which allows them to take on Vegas casinos and win handily.
It’s a cool premise for a film, never mind a real-life story, and the film is exquisitely shot, allowing us to join in the kinetic thrill of these youngsters and their lecturer ring-leader (played by an on-autopilot but nonetheless entertaining Kevin Spacey). The only major problem is that in the real story every one of them – from lecturer all the way down to students – were nearly all of Asian-American descent. However, the film eschews this, instead whitewashing the cast with the exception of two Asian-American sidekicks, who are seen as the joker and the loser respectively.
21’s producer went on record saying that they would have loved to cast Asian-Americans in all the parts, but unfortunately there were just no bankable names out there, and that’s a bit of a shame. Of course, this doesn’t detract away from the actual cast – who pull off their roles pretty darn well, actually – but it leaves something of a cloud over proceedings, knowing we couldn’t have the actual story because the filmmakers didn’t believe it would sell with Asian-Americans taking all the major parts.
2. Tom Cruise – The Last Samurai
There’s an awkwardly racist trope that exists in Hollywood films, and it goes something like this. Usually, to make a film marketable you put a superstar name in the title – so far, so good. Most of these names – Will Smith notwithstanding – are white, which makes for its own problem. Yet when the film requires the main character to explore a foreign culture, a whole other can of worms is opened up. Because apparently, by Hollywood logic, all white people need to comprehensively trump everybody from a culture at their own game is a couple of months and a redemptive arc.
Case in point, The Last Samurai. I actually really liked this film, but in my eyes, it’s just a little discomforting if you read into it. We’re introduced to Tom Cruise’s character – who time is not called Jack and arrogant beyond belief – a traumatised hero of the Indian Wars who’s a massively unstable raging alcoholic. Said character finds solace in the teachings of the samurai, taking up with the wife of the man he dishonourably killed while fighting them. Apparently, this wreck of a man can take up the samurai code and trump most – if not all – practitioners within a matter of months, even if they’ve been practicing their entire lives.
The fact that most of his training revolves around him being beaten with kendo sticks makes this all the more insane, and racist to boot. It’s not that this is a racist film – the undertones of modern Japan vs. traditional Japan are very well explored and Ken Watanabe’s Katsumoto is extremely intriguing. It’s just that the role of Nathan Algeren is so strangely racist, with his very existence implying that a novice white guy able to trump hardened samurai pretty darn quickly. Whoever you cast in the part, they’re going to suffer as a result. That’s a shame, because Cruise actually does well with what he’s been given here.
1. The Cast – Memoirs Of A Geisha
It’s a common Hollywood trick to cast people of differing nationalities but from the same geographical area for specific roles. For example, Kingdom of Heaven had an ethnic Syrian take the role of the Persian-born ruler Saladin. Taken in moderation, this can be acceptable – films tend to be marketed toward American/European audiences so some liberties are always taken safe in the knowledge that there won’t be any outrage. Yet there are times when it clearly isn’t right because the backlash would be enormous, and Memoirs Of A Geisha represents one of these times.
In summary, Memoirs Of A Geisha concerns the plight of a girl who is sold into a Geisha house and rises to the top of that world. The Geisha is one of the biggest icons in Japanese history and occupies a special place in its culture, so naturally, ears would be pricked at the first sign of controversy here. Unfortunately, Memoirs Of A Geisha ran headlong into the controversy by casting many of the principal roles with Chinese or ethnic Chinese actresses such as Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh.
Effectively, you couldn’t stick two fingers up to Japanese culture any more without sticking Mickey Rooney in one of the parts. The backlash in Japan was predictably quite large and the film probably didn’t do as well as it could’ve done if it had cast Japanese actresses. What makes it more mystifying is that it’s not as if there’s a particular dearth of them – Japan’s film industry is large and booming, so it just seems like a shocking oversight on the casting agency’s part.
Agree or disagree? Know of any more? Feel free to comment!
- Jewish Robby Benson as an East L.A. Chicano in "Walk Proud" was more offensive than Connery in "Highlander," or even Gyllenhaal in "Prince of Persia." And Mickey Rooney should have been number one, a true cinematic hate-crime.
- Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was horrible, I'll grant you that, but the rest, I don't give a shit.
- To say that any of the rest of these are the equivalent of Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is ridiculous. Depp has believed his entire life he has Native American ancestry--do they want instead someone who is from the correct tribe depicted, and whose blood is 100% pure?
- Te adorrro Anton.
- John Wayne's casting wasn't as ridiculous as all that, because Genghis Khan was part or all white - contemporary accounts describe him as having red hair and green or blue eyes. Even today, some native Mongolians have light hair or eyes, apparently some of the nomadic tribes that settled the area originated in Russia.
Wayne's performance, now that was ridiculous!
- Make an african american version of the karate kid.
- That black version of the Honeymooners was a crock of crap.Ebert liked it because he liked anything that was black!Including his wife.
- Basically any movie starring Sidney Poitier or Morgan Freeman where they are written and directed to act white. That offends me as a black man.
- Cleavon Little as the Sheriff of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. He was a ...
- Aren't there some blackface performances out there that would make this list?
- I don't understand why the first thing the article does is to mention Mel Gibson?
- Marlon Brando as Sakini in "The Teahouse of the August Moon".
Just finished watching it on TCM.
- Lana Turner as an Syrian in "The Prodigal."
- The preposterous 'Wild Wild West' remake with Will Smith as James West.
He didn't even have a nice butt!
- r11, see r9
- There's been a big brouhaha in the black community because Zoe Saldana is playing Nina Simone. Zoe is a black Latina but according to the critics, she's too pretty or light skinned or too Latina to play Nina. Not sure if this will be a bigger deal when the movie comes out -- if it ever does.
- How did Avatar The Last Airbender not make this list? The entire Avatar universe that was presented in the original cartoon was created around Asian and Inuit phiilosphies and cultures. In the movie the only Asians are the bad guys... obviously.
- r16, the brouhaha is mostly a one-woman crusade led by Simone's daughter, who had someone else(a relatively unknown but well-acclaimed stage actress)in mind for the role.
- Considering the real family depicted in "The Impossible" was from Spain, Ewan MacGregor and Naomi Watts don't really fit the bill.
- I don't know R18. I believe you, but there has been tons of negative reactions on various websites, facebook, etc. I personally am not sure Zoe has the acting chops for something like this but I don't care about the other criticism.
- Angelina Jolie playing a black woman in some forgettable movie, I think it was about Daniel Pearl.
- I began reading this article for content, but I got sidetracked by the appalling writing.
[quote]every one of them ... were nearly all of Asian-American descent
- There are Persians (Iranians) who are fair-skinned and blue-eyed, so Jake Gyllenhaal wasn't too off-base.
- #8 Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!
- I see nothing wrong with any of these castings.
- No one else thinks it's absurd for the author to complain about a lack of accents in 'Prince' and 'Khan?' The characters are speaking in their native languages, so why would there be an accent? This isn't English as a Second Language.
And the author seems completely confused about 'Last Samurai:'
[quote]The fact that most of his training revolves around him being beaten with kendo sticks makes this all the more insane, and racist to boot. It’s not that this is a racist film ... It’s just that the role of Nathan Algeren is so strangely racist...
This paragraph reminds me of the game we'd play as kids where you repeat a word over and over until it's lost all meaning. So the movie's not racist, but the role is racist? Racist! Racist! Racist! Racist! Wow, it worked!
And the author doesn't seem to understand that it's a fucking movie, so every moment of the character;s training ain't gonna be on screen. what a stupid complaint.
[quote]any movie starring Sidney Poitier or Morgan Freeman where they are written and directed to act white. That offends me as a black man.
How are black people 'supposed' to act? Is there a certification board? Are you on it? Are you Spike Lee?
No need for white people to keep black people in boxes if you're so willing to do the job for them.
- Morgan Freeman as God. That would suggest there would be no butter or Tea Party in heaven.
- Viola Davis in any film where she doesn't play a domestic.
- With the exception of Yunioshi, who was a racist characterization irrespective of the race of the actor playing the role, and with the possible exception of The Last Samurai (which I haven't seen), which, similarly seems to reveal racism in the plotting and not the casting, this is complete bullshit.
And why on earth would there be accents in Prince of Persia, a movie set in Persia in English? Is the author suggesting that when performed in English, Ibsen be done with Norwegian accents, Chekhov with Russian accents, or Sophocles with ancient Greek accents?
- I know this will offend many people here, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was the most racist movie to come out in the last 5 years. The movie was amusing, but tainted by racial mockery much like Breakfast At Tiffany's
- Alec Guiness in blackface playing an Indan in "A Passage to India"; ditto for Orson Welles playng a black an in greasepaint in "Othello".
- I had no idea the real story of "21" involved all Asian-Amercan students. He's a bit old but John Cho would have been great in the Jim Sturgess part.
- Oh, r28. You make the same argument in every thread on race. And it's never convincing.
The weird thing about Yunioshi is that the character in the book wasn't even Japanese. But then, the narrator was gay and didn't fall in love with Holly, either. And the ending of the book, which presumes that Holly has decamped to Africa, expresses a very racist view of African culture.
You know what bugs me is that every story set in the past made today always depicts white people as not being racist, homophobic, etc., as they would have been back then. Because, obviously, it's hard to have an unlikeable protagonist. But the "white washing" offends me because I lived through some of those times and things weren't that nicey-nice. It's minimizing what was real in the world, a.k.a. racism, homophobia and hatred and therefore minimizing our experience, struggle and history.
- It's DL tradition r33 and not meant to be convincing.
- r33 I assume you mean me (r29, not r28). What about my post isn't convincing?
Have you never seen a racist charcterization by the person of that race? Like Steppin Fetchit?
And are you really suggesting that The Prince of Persia should have been done in Persian accents? Or what exactly? British accents, because those would seem to make so much more sense than American ones?
- [quote]Alec Guiness in blackface playing an Indan in "A Passage to India"; ditto for Orson Welles playng a black an in greasepaint in "Othello".
Or how about Guiness in "Oliver Twist", where his Fagin was straight out of a Nazi propaganda poster?
"Othello" doesn't count, as it is a required role for every classical actor worth his salt, regardless of race.
- What do you all think of Yul Brynner as the King of Siam? He wasn't even made up to look Thai.
Does he get a pass because he was supposedly so marvelous in the role?
- It's because Hollywood would rather cast a plain looking white person and "make them up" to look like a minority than to actually hire minorities.
- Benedict Cumberbatch as..Khan.
- Yul Brenner did it at least three times. He also played Egyptian (Rameses) and Mexican (Pancho Villa).
- [quote]It's because Hollywood would rather cast a plain looking white person and "make them up" to look like a minority than to actually hire minorities.
Yup. Some of the examples in this thread are from the 40s, 50s and 60s when this used to happen a lot, but casting directors these days have no excuse really. I remember a lot of my Indian friends being really pissed off when "The Social Network" came out and the Indian guy was played by Max Minghella, a Brit of Italian and Chinese ancestry. It's like Hollywood will go to any lengths to avoid casting anyone who looks anything other than white.
Didn't Kate Hepburn also play a Chinese character once?
- Rita Moreno as Thai slave girl Tuptim in K&I.
- Al Jolsen was probably the epitome of racial playacting. No one remembers who he is anymore.
After that there was Amos and Andy. No one remembers them, either.
Everyone knows things were different back then.
We've come a long way.
There's no need to belabor the point.
- Ricardo Montalban was of 100% European descent, so I don't know what the big deal was about another actor of European descent taking over the role of Khan.
- R44, Khan was a fictional being sprung from a superior bio-engineered race, but it never mattered much which one that was.
- [quote]There are Persians (Iranians) who are fair-skinned and blue-eyed, so Jake Gyllenhaal wasn't too off-base.
The problem was that most of the white actors playing Persians in the film - including Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton - had very obviously been made up in brownface. We're not talking about having them spend a little time in the sun - we're talking about applying cosmetics to make them look as if they were of another ethnic/racial group. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. If you need brown-skinned actors, how about hiring some, instead of spray-painting white people with bronzer? It was insulting as hell.
- [quote]If you need brown-skinned actors, how about hiring some, instead of spray-painting white people with bronzer? It was insulting as hell.
I don't get it.
- Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed (along with rest of the cast).
DL fave Luise Rainer in The Good Earth (won an Oscar for it)
- Peter Sellers as Hrundi Bakshi. "Hrundi" isn't even a real Indian name, let alone a Sikh one.
- How can you fail to give Joel Grey as 80 year old KOREAN martial arts master Chiun in Remo Williams, the adventure begins the number 1 spot. Grey was 53, white and knew nothing about martial arts. Still they gave him asian eyes, and he spoke with the most racist dialect.
They took a white guy and made him look asian, and made him sound like a cartoon, when they could have cast an actual asian.
"Women should stay home and make babies. Preferably, man-child"
- "What do you all think of Yul Brynner as the King of Siam? He wasn't even made up to look Thai."
Perhaps Brynner should have only played people who had like him, Russian AND Swiss AND Mongolian AND Jewish descent. If there were such characters beside himself.
Seriously, I thought the movement now was that actors should be able to play all sorts of roles, not just roles of their own ethnicity (provided of course that ethnicity isn't a theme in the story or perhaps that the actor isn't taking a job that could be taken by an actor whose ehtnicity is underrepresented in media).
I'm still trying to wrap my head around the Memoirs of a Geisha controversy. If Chinese and Chinese/Malaysian actresses playing Japanese women is disturbing people, then should Italian actors only play Italians rather than even French or Spanish roles (should Sophia Loren never have been cast in El Cid or Man of La Mancha?), was it preposterous for a Swedish star like Ingrid Bergman to play Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Irish actors like Kenneth Branagh or Peter O'Toole to play English kings? Was Maria Doyle Kennedy too Irish and Irene Pappas too Greek for them to convince as Katharine of Aragon? Were Florence Eldridge and Sigourney Weaver too Wasp, Faye Dunaway too Scots-Irish, English, German and Rachel Weisz too Jewish to play her mother, Isabella of Castille (leaving aside the fact that both Isabella and Katharine had English ancestry as well as Spanish)?
Certainly there are examples of actors being unconvincing as a certain ethnicity. Certainly there are examples of racist characterization that should be challenged. But some of these complaints are ridiculous.
- Johnny Depp does have some Native American ancestry so the racism angle is dead in the water as far as his Tonto goes. The fact that his performance is basically an homage to Buster Keaton also shoots all sorts of holes into the idea of it being some kind of anti-Comanche hate crime.
I remember the Japanese were super pissed when a Chinese actress was cast as a Japanese woman in "Memoirs of a Geisha."
There's also the question of whether or not Charlie Chan was a racist character. It's been pointed out that Warner Oland, who made the character popular, was part Mongolian. But as with the Japanese-Chinese thing, is it insulting to cast someone who's part Mongolian in the role of someone who's clearly meant to be Han?
The actor who played the erotomaniacal Japanese American in "Fargo" was actually Korean. Lea Salonga, who played Miss Saigon (Vietnamese) and Mulan (Han Chinese), is a Filipina. Und so weiter.
- So what would have been the proper response when Benedict Cumberbatch was offered the role of John Harrison?
"I'm sorry but I see here that there's a line about John Harrison's real name being Khan Noonien Singh. I must therefore decline your kind offer and insist that you give the role to an authentic ethnic Sikh, which will incidentally right the ridiculous racist injustice of casting an actor of Hispanic origin in the role originally."
And the Sikh community would have been able to rest in the assurance that the insult to their people had been avenged by the mighty Cumberbatch.
- The rule seems to be that if the actor requires heavy makeup or prosthetics to play a different ethnicity, then it is politically incorrect.
Can we all agree on that?
- House of the Spirits
- IMHO Luise Rainer gets a pass playing O-Lan in The Good Earth because she plays the peasant woman with such dignity and compassion.
Her performance is not comparable to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon.
I think Paul Muni as Rainer's husband is also exempt. Their performances in no way mock Chinese people and are both very true to Pearl Buck's characterizations in the original book.
The two actors blend seamlessly with the hundreds of Asian actors in the cast and their prosthetic makeup is expertly and delicately achieved.
- The fact that the studios felt you needed Occidental stars to del The Good Earth in 1937 is itself racist although it might well have been true. As racism exists in society, Hollywood is at one with it, perpetuates it, recycles it, and sometimes derogates from an artistic response to turn it around and change it.
It is not so much than Rainer and Muni should not have been able to star in The Good Earth as the fact that racism kept Caucasians as stars and non-Caucasians were barred the path, even when the opportunity arose for East Asian actors to be cast as East Asian characters.
In a perfect world it should not matter that Flora Robson played a black maid in Saratoga Trunk, Elizabeth I in Fire Over England and the Empress of China in 55 Days in Peking on screen (and all with great dignity). In a perfect world great actors should be able to play anyone they can play well. In a perfect world prosthetics and makeup shouldn't matter.
But this is not a perfect world. This is a world in which East Asian and black actors are underrepresented, then and now.
- Al Jolson wasn't cast as a black man. He often played a white man performing in "blackface".
While "Amos and Andy" was performed by white men on the radio, black actors played them on TV. The radio cast had black actors in the later years.
- And let's not forget Flora's Ftatateeta r57!
- Hell Mexicans were pissed when JLO - a Puerto Rican was cast to play Selena!
- What was Anthony Quinn's family background? He played so many different ethnicities.
Paul Gaugin, Zorba the Greek, Pancho Villa, an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia, to name just a few.
- Anthony Quinn was of Mexican and Irish ancestry.
- Mariah Carey as a Yonkers Jewess in'Precious'.
- Did Quinn ever play an Irishman?