Erasing Color: A Whitewashed Movie For Every Year of the Past 20 Years
Updated: Jan 31
In our current social climate where racial inequality is all over the news with Black Lives Matter and police brutality, movies may be at the back of everyone’s minds. However, the media is often guilty for reinforcing or introducing stereotypes about people of color and what they are capable of—and that includes film.
So, what happens when stories about people of color remove them entirely?
Whitewashing refers to when productions cast white actors in roles originally designed for people of color. This definition may bring to mind notorious characters, such as Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Maria from West Side Story.
However, despite how society has progressed since the 60’s, there’s been at least one significant racial casting controversy every year of the 2000’s, marking this as an ongoing issue that Hollywood actively struggles with.
Whether the source material originally featured fictional characters of color or casting decisions simply erased real-life people of color from their own stories, these are the most prominent instances of whitewashing from our recent past, organized by year.
Whitewashed movies of the past 20 years
Whether it’s to avoid dealing with difficult race questions or due to a perceived lack of star power, studio execs made some dubious casting decisions when they produced these films.
Here is our list of the most infamous whitewashed Hollywood films of the 2000’s and the casting controversies that came with them.
2020: Artemis Fowl
One of the central characters in Artemis Fowl is Captain Holly Short of the LEPRecon. Originally described in the book as having “nut-brown skin” and “auburn hair”, the film cast Irish actress Lara McDonnell, who doesn’t have the skin complexion described.
While McDonnell brings great enthusiasm to the role, casting the young actress takes away a bad-ass, beloved role from an actress of color when there are few opportunities out there, especially in fantasy settings.
RT Note: Find out more about the strange casting choices in Disney’s Artemis Fowl film in our blog post.
2019: Harriet (almost)
In a November 2019 interview, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard revealed that Julia Roberts was once considered to play Black historical figure and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. Back in the 90’s, when Harriet was first in development, Howard attended a meeting where a studio exec suggested casting Roberts as Tubman. When informed that Roberts couldn’t possibly play Tubman, the exec proclaimed, “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”
While some of this exec’s ignorant statement could’ve been attributed to Hollywood having a “different climate”, the 90’s wasn’t that long ago and Harriet Tubman is prominent enough to be considered for the 20 dollar bill. Roberts’s casting would’ve stood out like a sore thumb. So, despite the production taking 26 years to make it to the big screen, I’m glad that the filmmakers were able to get their vision of Harriet Tubman’s story made.
RT Note: Sidebar, I’m aware that a portion of the Black community boycotted Harriet due to Cynthia Erivo’s casting. It’s important to consider the debates behind whether Black British actors should take African American roles and the different experiences of the Africans in America and African American communities. However, since this article is on whitewashing, I will not go into these subjects here.
In Annihilation, two characters, the Biologist and the Psychologist, were played by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh—both white actresses. In the novels the film is based on, the Biologist is half-Asian, while the Psychologist is half-Native American.
Granted, the characters don’t get physical descriptions or family backgrounds until the second book, which is how Alex Garland, the director, claimed ignorance. However, this explanation is still pretty flimsy. It begs the question: Why would you adapt a novel without properly researching the characters first?
2017: The Beguiled
I know what you’re thinking: Why am I covering The Beguiled over Ghost In the Shell? While Ghost is notorious for its casting of Scarlett Johnansson as Major Matoko Kusanagi, The Beguiled uncovers a rather sinister reason for erasing the presence of both Edwina, a mixed race character, and Mattie, a black enslaved maid, from its main cast.
When questioned over why she cast Kirsten Dunst as Edwina and left out Mattie altogether, director Sophia Coppola’s reasoning was that she “didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”
However, in a film that takes place in the South during the Civil War, eschewing the politics of the time by removing all hints of slavery seems lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. The Beguiled’s source material provides plenty of material for Coppola to depict nuanced Black characters, including chapters that are told from these characters’ first-person points of view. Not to mention, the novel had previously been adapted in a 1971 film of the same name, and that production hadn’t felt the need to eliminate slavery from the narrative.
Other example(s) from this year: Ghost In the Shell.
2016: Doctor Strange
When Tilda Swinton was announced to play the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, it caused an outpouring of criticism. In the comics, the Ancient One is a man of Tibetan descent, whereas in the film, Swinton’s version of the Ancient One is Celtic.
In a rare moment of clarity, C. Robert Cargill, one of the Doctor Strange screenwriters, explained that the reason they changed the Ancient One’s origins was to avoid alienating the Chinese government and movie-going audience by including a Tibetan character. China famously has an import quota when it comes to foreign films, so Cargill didn’t want to risk it.
However, with plenty of other films in the pipeline, did Marvel have to change the Ancient One’s backstory for this film? And if they did, what’s stopping Marvel from casting an Asian actor or actress and merely changing the Ancient One’s ethnicity to a less controversial one?
Other example(s) from this year: Gods of Egypt.
Aloha is perhaps one of the most egregious examples of whitewashing a role originally intended for an Asian actress. Despite being set in Hawaii, a state with a white population of around 21.7%, the main cast is all white, including Allison Ng, who is played by Emma Stone, despite her character’s father being half Native Hawaiian and half Chinese.
Stone’s casting truly strikes a blow for representation because Aloha could have been a great opportunity to showcase Hawaii’s uniquely diverse make-up or introduce the world to a Hawaiian actress in a major role. However, the filmmakers decided to go with name recognition by casting Stone. Later on, director Cameron Crowe stated that Ng was based off of a real person he had met in Hawaii who was frustrated with her not immediately discernible heritage.
2014: Exodus: Gods and Kings
As hinted in the title, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a film that depicts the biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews from Egypt. However, the production cast Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, and Aaron Paul in ostensibly non-white, Egyptian roles.
When criticized for selecting white actors for his film, Director Ridley Scott uttered his infamous quote, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
While Scott may have had his reasoning, his casting decisions reflect Hollywood’s long tradition of casting white actors in stories that take place in ancient Egypt, and contribute to an inaccurate view of what Egyptian people look like. Not to mention, under these casting practices, Egyptian actors lose the ability to depict their history and culture, while audiences lose out on seeing accurate portrayals of Egyptian people—all while whitewashing a powerful civilization ruled by people of color.
2013: The Lone Ranger
When the first promotional pictures of Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger were released, they immediately caused controversy. Depp dons an arguably inaccurate costume to play Tonto, a Native American character, who traffics in a slew of terrible stereotypes, including broken English and spiritual communing with animals.
Setting aside Depp’s unverified claims of Native heritage, his casting raised the debate in Native communities over whether wrongful representation is better than no representation at all. After all, Depp’s attachment to the project probably helped ensure it got made, and secured background acting jobs for Native actors in the process.
However, are those small parts worth the potential long-lasting damage that Depp’s portrayal may cause? When a community is underrepresented, any mainstream representation leaves a lasting impression on audiences unfamiliar with that community. In that case, I would argue that fighting for pivotal roles and pushing for accurate representation would yield far greater gains in the long run.
Based loosely on a true story, Argo tells the story of a risky CIA operation to rescue six U.S. diplomats from Tehran using a fake film production. The mind behind this creative plan was played by Ben Affleck, who also directed himself, and his name was Antonio Mendez.
If the name Antonio Mendez seems incongruous with Affleck, you’re not alone in this assessment. Despite the real-life Mendez claiming that he doesn’t think of himself as Hispanic, it’s important to not forget that by casting himself, Affleck deprived a Latino actor the chance to play the hero of a courageous historical moment. In an industry where only 1.2% of lead roles go to Latino actors, this whitewashed version of history is a sorely missed opportunity.
Other example(s) from this year: The Dark Knight Rises.
You may not know it, but Drive is based on a novel of the same name by James Sallis. In the novel, the character Irene was written as a Latina woman. However, in the movie, director Nicolas Winding Refn decided to go with Carey Mulligan for the part, who is not Latina.
When asked about his decision to cast Mulligan, Refn responded that he had a wealth of talent in front of him, but hadn’t been able to make a choice until he met Mulligan. He says, “She came by the house and she walked in and I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is what I was looking for. I wanted to protect her ... And I knew that was the Driver’s motivation.”
As someone who has been on the other side of casting, I can understand Refn’s sentiment. Sometimes, an actor walks in or reads their scene, and in the process, you see that glimmer of the character in them. Admittedly, that’s very hard to give up on.
However, in a situation when you’re dealing with possibly taking away a role from an actor from an underrepresented community, filmmakers should broaden their search and continue looking. When one door closes, another opens—you never know what you may find.
2010: The Last Airbender
Ah, The Last Airbender. The casting travesty that brought us Racebending.com and the term “racebending”. While there is a lot going wrong with this film (I implore you to watch Just Write’s hilarious, yet razor sharp criticism of the film), the casting is definitely the elephant in the room.
The Last Airbender is based on the animated Nickelodeon show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which draws heavily on Asian cultures and martial arts. Not surprisingly, the main cast’s design in the show suggests that the characters have Asian or Inuit origins. However, the film’s main cast is populated entirely by white actors, save for Dev Patel and the fire nation, who are the villains. Considering that M. Night Shyamalan holds a director, writer, and producer credit, it goes without saying that he made some uniquely terrible casting decisions for this production.
Other example(s) from this year: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
2009: Dragonball Evolution
Potentially the film at the top of everyone’s worst movie ever list, Dragonball Evolution is based on the popular Japanese anime and stars Justin Chatwin as Goku. Yes, this film wants us to believe this white character’s name is Goku.
That aside, it’s not surprising that Dragon Ball’s manga artist, Akira Toriyama, said that the notes he gave the production were ignored, which is a huge shame. Toriyama recounts, “they had this odd confidence and didn't really comply with my suggestions. And just as I thought, the result was a movie I cannot call Dragon Ball.”
Furthermore, after being dragged on the internet for seven years, Dragonball Evolution’s writer, Ben Ramsey, has admitted that he had taken on the project for the paycheck, and not because he had any real admiration for Dragon Ball. In his apology, he expresses how he takes responsibility for the bad quality of his work, and that he only takes on projects that he’s passionate about now.
Did you know that a group of mostly Asian-Americans MIT students once outsmarted Vegas? Well, you wouldn’t if you watched 21, which is inspired by the story of the real-life MIT Blackjack Team, who used card counting and other strategies to win massive amounts of money.
In 21, the film’s protagonist is played by Jim Sturgess with the blessing of real-life counterpart, Jeff Ma. However, despite Ma’s support of Sturgess’s casting, this decision cost an Asian-American actor a chance to play the leading man in a production that ended up sidelining the Asian-American actors that were actually cast.
Other example(s) from this year: Wanted.
2007: A Mighty Heart
A Mighty Heart is a film based on Mariane Pearl’s memoir on the kidnapping and killing of her late husband, journalist Daniel Pearl. While the real-life Mariane Pearl is French-born and of Afro-Chinese-Cuban descent, the Brad Pitt-produced film cast Angelina Jolie, his then-partner.
Similar to Argo and 21, Jolie’s was cast with the blessing of the person her role is based on, with Mariane Pearl saying, “I chose Angie for who she is not what she looks like”, after meeting Jolie and entrusting her story to her. Director Michael Winterbottom also defended Jolie’s casting by claiming that finding an English-speaking French actress with Mariane Pearl’s exact ethnicity would’ve been impossible.
However, while finding an exact background match may have been difficult, Mariane Pearl’s complex background is visually apparent and made a difference in her personal and professional life. Putting Jolie in a curly wig and darkened makeup just steals a prominent role from a mixed race actress and feels dangerously close to straight-up blackface.
Other example(s) from this year: 30 Days of Night.
2006: World Trade Center
Based on the September 11th terrorist attack, World Trade Center is a disaster film that features two U.S. Marines who rescued two police officers from the debris. If you went by the film’s version of events, you would be under the impression that both Marines were white. However, one of the two Marines was Sgt. Jason Thomas, who is Black.
World Trade Center’s producer, Michael Shamberg, later apologized for casting William Mapother as Sgt. Thomas, explaining that he hadn’t discovered Sgt. Thomas’s true identity until shooting had already begun. However, this admission implies that during casting, the production simply assumed that the heroic Marines were white, instead of doing more research and figuring out who Sgt. Thomas really was.
2005: Batman Begins
Part of Batman’s rogues gallery, Ra's al Ghul is a terrorist who matches Batman’s intellect and strength. Because he is one of Batman’s longest running villains, it’s not surprising that he makes an appearance in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
As you may guess from his Arabic name, which translates to either “The Head of the Demon” or “The Chief Demon”. Ra’s al Ghul’s character is depicted as having Middle Eastern origins in the comics. However, onscreen, he’s often played by white actors, including Irish actor Liam Neeson in Batman Begins.
While there’s been speculation that films have opted not to characterize Ra’s al Ghul as Middle Eastern to avoid stereotyping Middle Eastern people as terrorists, the same article argues the strong point that since regular casting practices block Middle Eastern actors from playing the heroic lead, most people in the U.S. are still mostly exposed to depictions of Middle Eastern people as terrorists when they’re in the news.
RT Note: It’s also important to note that this Middle Eastern erasure continues in The Dark Knight Rises. Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, Talia al Ghul, is played by French actress Marion Cotillard. Additionally, Tom Hardy’s Bane is typically depicted as Latino in the comics.