Redface, Cumberkhan, and whitewashing in Hollywood

Apparently I have been so openly grumpy about Hollywood whitewashing in recent months that I was asked to do this piece for the Indian Express. It is considerably shorter and less ranty here than it was in first draft, at least.

 

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In an interview with the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness, done months before the film was released, actors were asked to choose a favourite Star Trek villain. John Cho, who plays Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted series of films, chose Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh, adding pointedly that he was  also “a man of colour”. Cho’s comment may have

(The newspaper version of this piece may not have contained this picture)

seemed innocuous enough at the time. But the same interview included Benedict Cumberbatch who was at the time only known to be playing the villain of the movie. A few months later we were subjected to the ridiculous spectacle of the lily-white Cumberbatch declaring “my name is Khan”.

Hollywood has a history of changing the ethnicity of a character, either by rewriting them as white, or by having white-skinned actors don “blackface” (or “yellowface” or “redface”) in performances that frequently lampooned them through the use of racial stereotype, as in the whole tradition of minstrelsy. While it is generally accepted that blackface is no longer acceptable (though a Hindi movie used the trope for humour earlier this year), the number of non-white characters played by non-white actors is still far smaller than one would expect it to be.

Racebending.com was an organisation formed in 2009 by fans of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The series was based on a number of Asian cultures, yet Manoj Knight Shyamalan’s adaptation failed to cast Asian actors in the major positive roles.

It is not simply a case of getting the “best” actor for the job, though that excuse is often trotted out. In an industry where white is the cultural default (unless a role is specified as belonging to a character of a specific ethnicity it is too often assumed to be white) talented actors already have a difficult time finding a range of complex roles. Even when ethnicity is specified, it is sometimes not clear enough for the culture around it. When the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was released last year, there was a wave of internet outrage over the casting of the character Rue. Collins had mentioned Rue’s dark skin and hair more than once but this wasn’t enough for readers, who went so far as to suggest that the character seemed less “innocent” and her death less tragic when played by the African-American actress Amandla Stenberg instead of a light-skinned, blonde girl. Viewers also expressed anger at the movie Thor, when Idris Elba was cast as a minor character. The idea of race-blind casting seems to be trotted out selectively, and rarely to the advantage of non-white actors.

Most recently, there’s Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, which released in theatres this week. Tonto has long been a controversial character, a pidgin-speaking sidekick whom a number of Native American critics have found to be a demeaning stereotype. Depp has spoken about the potential for reimagining the character in a respectful way, perhaps even mocking the racist depictions that have come before. But none of this answers the question of whether or not Depp should be playing Tonto in the first place. Depp claims some unconfirmed Native American heritage, and has been adopted as an honorary son by a member of the Comanche Nation, but this hardly makes his casting appropriate. Surely Disney (or Depp himself, if the project is so important to him) could have produced a film with a Native American actor in the part? Debate will continue to rage, people will continue to point out that there are no Native American actors of Depp’s stature (and why would that be?) and the cycle will continue. (Edit: I was going to link to one of Native Appropriations’ posts about Depp and Tonto, but here are all of them)

But there’s hope. Iron Man 3 came as a huge surprise this summer. When the most recent movie in the franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr was announced, much attention was focused on Ben Kingsley’s turn as The Mandarin, a character originally portrayed in the comics as a half-Chinese supervillain. Kingsley, of course, is not Chinese (though he is part-Indian) and to many fans this particular casting choice, and this choice of villain, seemed potentially fraught. In the event, what the film offered was a partial deconstruction of the “yellowface” it seemed to perpetuate; The Mandarin wasn’t a Chinese man at all, merely an English actor (though one far less successful than Kingsley) playing to stereotype. This is still far from ideal, and the movie’s exploitation of its own seeming racism for effect is problematic. But the implication that the movie recognises that audiences are aware of this debate is heartening. If, as the blogger Marissa Sammy at Racebending.com suggests, the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness deliberately used the secrecy surrounding Cumberbatch’s role in order to avoid criticism, this too is heartening in a way. It suggests, at least that the issue is finally making its way into the public discourse to an extent that it can no longer be ignored. What Hollywood chooses to do with this information is yet to be seen.

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3 Responses to “Redface, Cumberkhan, and whitewashing in Hollywood”

  1. Hollywood’s ok I think, for now. At least it is grappling with issues of race and skin colour at some level. And it least it has an audience which is capable of rejecting race bending monstrosities like The Last Airbender

    I’m far more worried about Indian audiences.

    Note the reaction on twitter to Dhanush’s Bollywood debut, esp the remarks comparing him to their drivers and what not. And the absence of anyone less than almost Cumberbatchy-white in the Indian super-star pantheon.

    Mainstream South Indian cinema, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil are no better, if slightly different. It’s ok for the hero to be any colour as long as the heroine and object of his affections is at least paneer white.

    And of course, no one in the industry seems to think any of this is particularly problematic.

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