Hollywood has the power, now where is the responsibility?

Voltaire said it first. Winston Churchill said a variation of it. Many people today associate it with the spectacular Spider-Man.

As applied to a certain Marvel Comics wall-crawler, the phrase conveys the idea that the acquisition of superpowers entails a responsibility to use those powers wisely. Here in the real world, despite the absence of super-powered beings, humans can (and regularly, do) acquire great power. Power in the form of social or political influence, such as you find in politicians or political pundits. Power as possessed by officers of the law, who are empowered by the state to enforce the law, limit civil disorder, and protect property (and who also have the state-sanctioned right to the use of force). Power as wielded by those of great wealth, such as those who make up the 1%. Unfortunately, as if to echo comic book supervillains, many of those who wield power in the real world do not do so responsibly. This can be seen in the politicians who endorse discrimination and bigotry or the law enforcement officials who-often acting upon racial biases-take the lives of women and men of color. It can also be seen in those uber-wealthy individuals who are more concerned with acquiring more and more wealth at the expense of the people who work for them. In all those cases, it could be argued that the individual is acting in their own self-interests. That is a fine motivation and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. What is problematic is when people who wield power choose to do so, and in the process (whether through ignorance or outright malice) directly or indirectly bring harm to or cause the suffering of others. Given the impact their actions can have on the lives of others, it behooves these individuals to use their power wisely and responsibly.

Bigoted politicians.

Biased police officers.

Apathetic people of wealth.

These are not the only people to misuse the power they have. From its humble beginnings through the modern era, Hollywood has used its power and influence in ways that help white people maintain their dominance in the entertainment world*. Nowhere is this more evident than in Hollywood’s love of whitewashing. What is whitewashing? From the Stop Whitewashing Tumblr:

Whitewashing is the practice in which a person (director, producer, a fan, etc.) takes a character who is originally of color in canon work, and replaces them with a white actor or a white FC claim (role-playing games.) (read more posts on whitewashing here)

It is also used to describe the entertainment industry’s attempt to make a PoC character look more “white” in order to appeal to the white masses.

Another Hollywood problem with regard to ethnicity is racebending:

Even if you’ve never heard of Hollywood whitewashing, chances are you’ve seen it anyway. It’s a kind of casting where film studios have placed white actors in lead roles under the assumption that the majority of Americans would rather see a white face than a non-white one—despite what the role calls for. And while Hollywood may not resort to putting actors in blackface anymore, the practice of just bending the race of a character is not an uncommon one. Hence, Jake Gyllenhaal playing a Persian.

The major problem with racebending and whitewashing—aside from, you know, it being deeply offensive—is that it takes roles from actors who actually are of that ethnicity/race. In turn, they get stuck with minor roles that only serve to supplement the story of the white lead, or with stereotyped roles. For instance: If you’re Middle Eastern, you’ll be cast as a terrorist.

White people are not the only people who exist in the world. They are not the only people who exist in Hollywood. They are not the only ones who watch movies. But a look at the history of racebending and whitewashing in Hollywood shows the extent to which the motion picture industry exhibits an overwhelming white (and male) bias. This history continues through the present day. Come take a walk with me from the not-that-distant past to the not-that-distant future as I cover a metric fuckton of movies where Hollywood engaged in racebending or blackface (also yellowface and brownface).

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We interrupt this post to note that I do not hate white people. Nowhere have I said this in this post. Nowhere have I said this in meatspace (what some refer to as the real world, which is silly, bc online is not some alternate world, it’s part of the “real world”). Again, I do. Not. Hate. White. People. I don’t dislike white people either. That would be prejudiced and bigoted (though not racist, as there is no institutional power backing bigotry or prejudice against white people). I am pissed off at the system that shows such a preference to white people. Get it? The. System. I only say this bc there are always dunderheads who think complaining about racism means that someone hates white people, and I’m sure that someone will still think this despite this disclaimer. If you do still feel this way, even after reading this, I’ve got nothing for you other than this: you either suck at reading comprehension, you’re a raging fuckhead, or both.

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Hollywood’s love of racebending reaches back to its very beginnings with the 1915 release of D. W. Griffith’s virulently racist silent film The Birth of a Nation. The movie follows two families (one pro-Union, the other pro-Confederacy) in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. A technical masterpiece that is still hailed for its filmmaking innovations, Griffith’s film depicted white actors in blackface, and reinforced the racist idea of black people as subservient laborers and insatiable sex hounds who sought to rape white women.

It shows Southern whites forming the Ku Klux Klan to defend themselves against such abominations and to spur the “Aryan” cause overall. The movie asserts that the white-sheet-clad death squad served justice summarily and that, by denying blacks the right to vote and keeping them generally apart and subordinate, it restored order and civilization to the South.

“Civilization”= black people being enslaved and treated as subhuman creatures with few, if any, rights. There’s a part of me that wants to watch this movie one day, just to get a sense of how rabidly racist Griffith was. But then there’s another part of me that is content to just read the absolutely horrible reviews of the movie. Lest anyone think that The Birth of a Nation had no effect on moviegoers of the day, it inspired the first Ku Klux Klan revival by William J. Simmons. Oh, and then there were these little things called riots that broke out in the wake of the film’s release. I really feel like I need a shower after reading about this movie. Maybe two showers.

1927 saw the release of The Jazz Singer, which saw Al Jonson play a Jewish man who rejects his heritage to live out his dream of being a jazz player. In blackface. The most popular entertainer of his day, Jonson’s performance received positive reviews from white and black viewers. In writing about Jonson’s performance, Harlem’s Amsterdam News wrote “every colored performer is proud of him”.

At the height of his popularity, Fred Astaire donned makeup to perform an extended solo in the 1936 film Swing Time. Astaire may have intended his performance to be an homage to Bill Robinson, a man whom he admired, but it is no less racist for his intent.

In addition to blackface, Hollywood has a history of yellowface-using makeup on white performers in an attempt to make them appear Asian. The 1937 film The Good Earth (an adaptation of the novel by Pearl S. Buck) saw every single main character (all of whom were white, of course) donning makeup and prosthetics to appear Chinese. In writing about the film, Tanya Ghahremani says:

The story goes that the original vision for the film called for a cast of actors and actresses of Chinese descent, but the studio, MGM, didn’t think that would make for a successful film. Instead, they cast a white actor, Paul Muni, as the lead, figuring that audiences would be more inclined to see a white man headlining the picture. Due to the Hays Code that was in effect at the time—it enforced racial segregation for romantic relationships in films—they had to cast a white actress as his leading lady, and thus Luise Rainer joined the cast. Yikes.

Yikes indeed. No white bias to be seen here. Not. At. Alllllllllllll.

In 1938, Judy Garland performed in blackface in the movie Everybody Sing.

Judy Bellaire, played by Judy Garland, is the center of trouble at her exclusive private and very conservative school. She is expelled when she starts singing in a Jazzy style in her music class. Mayhem ensues as she returns home to her actress mother, playwright father, dysfunctional Russian maid (Fanny Brice) and tries out as a black face singer in a musical.

This is absolutely cringe-worthy.

Hollywood’s history of yellowface struck once again in the 1944 film Dragon Seed, which saw iconic actress Katherine Hepburn don yellowface to portray a Chinese woman named Jade.

The lives of a small Chinese village are turned Upside down when the Japanese invade it. And heroic young Chinese woman leads her fellow villagers in an uprising against Japanese Invaders.

I think that should read “A heroic young white woman in racist yellowface plays a savior character who leads her fellow villagers in an uprising against Japanese invaders because casting an actual Chinese woman was out of the question and having her be a savior character? Pshaw! That’s the domain of white people only.”

I’d like to take this moment to shout a hearty FUCK YOU to Hollywood. This racist shit disgusts me and I’m not even halfway done with this post.

Ok. Aaaaaaaaaand release.

1954’s Apache saw Burt Lancaster being passed off as an American Indian by way of a really awful tan. Really? They couldn’t have gotten oh, say, an actual American Indian to play the role? Nah, because Hollywood was all about white people. Even when telling stories about the lives of People of Color (which I’m guessing didn’t happen very often.

Two movies in 1956 made use of yellowface: The Conqueror and The King and I. In the former, John Wayne played Genghis Khan by wearing makeup (it’s often ranked as one of the worst films of all time, and with lines like  “I am Temujin Barbarian… I fight! I love! I conquer… like a Barbarian!” I can understand why). In the latter movie, the not-Asian-at-all Yul Brynner took on the role of King Mongkut of Siam; a role in which he was covered in makeup to appear Asian.

Yul Brynner in ‘The King and I’.
John Wayne in ‘The Conqueror’.

The Teahouse of the August Moon is a 1956 film featuring the legendary Marlon Brando as a translator from Okinawa. Yeah. Like other movies on this list, the role should have gone to someone who is actually of the ethnicity called for in the script. Instead of employing an actual person of Japanese ancestry, they chose to put Brando through hours of daily makeup.

Similarly, Charlton Heston’s 1958 film Touch of Evil saw the actor don pounds of dark makeup to appear Latino so that he could play the role of Miguel Vargas, a Mexican DEA agent.

In 1961, Hollywood released three movies that showed it was still making use of racebending and makeup to portray white men as people of other ethnicities. Tony Curtis played an American Indian soldier in the movie The Outsider.

Meanwhile, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mickey Rooney played Japanese photographer I.Y. Yunioshi in a puke-inducing example of racebending. Rooney’s portrayal was laden with racist stereotypes, which would have made the movie offensive even if a Japanese actor had been cast.

Last but not least, Natalie Wood-who is not of Puerto Rican descent-played the Puerto Rican lead in West Side Story.

Elizabeth Taylor, considered one of the Hollywood greats, played the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra in the 1963 film Cleopatra. Iconic though the role may have been, she was still a white person being passed off as a Person of Color.

Next up–Laurence Olivier as Othello.  Olivier played the black character in the 1965 movie Othello, for which he won an Oscar. Despite being released during the Civil Rights Movement, I guess no one thought to find an African-American performer to play the role of Othello.

Blackface. Yellowface. Hell, there’s even brownface, as seen in the 1968 film, The Party, starring Peter Sellers. “From the creators of the Pink Panther comes a film where we didn’t care that brownface is racist as shit it was nigh-unto impossible, impossible I tells you, to find an actual Indian actor. We searched far and wide. Like, outside-our-zip-code far.”

Answer: A 1983 film starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd (with the latter in blackface with dreadlocks).

Question: Ummm, what is the racist film ‘Trading Places‘?

Ding! Ding! Ding! You win a No-Prize!

Next up is 1986’s Soul Man. Plot synopsis: Pampered teen with dreams of attending Harvard dons blackface to receive a full scholarship, bc it’s that easy for a black person to get into Harvard, and no one there ever does a background check on students. Who the hell thought this was a good idea?

 By Odin, will this list ever end? If it takes much longer, I’m going to need one of Idunn’s golden apples so I can live long enough to finish.

Next up on the list is a movie whose creators thought it was a good idea to cast Jennifer Connelly as the El Salvadoran Alicia Nash in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind.  Psst. Hey you. Yeah, I’m talking to you aforementioned creators. This was not a good idea.

In 2007, Mena Suvari starred in Stuck, a movie based on the true story of Chante Jawan Mallard, an African-American woman who committed a hit-and-run. Suvari is a white woman. For the movie, she had her hair done up in cornrows. Because nothing says “hey I’m a white woman playing a role that should have gone to a black actress, but hey, you viewers won’t know a thing bc cornrows.”

Mariane Pearl may have hand-picked Angelina Jolie to play her in 2007’s A Mighty Heart, but it doesn’t change the fact that Jolie had to wear makeup to appear as the mixed race Pearl.

2008’s Tropic Thunder featured Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr. The latter performed in blackface. Yeah, I thought blackface was something consigned to the dustbins of history. Or, you know, something Hollywood left behind in the latter half of the 20th century.  I’m wrong once a month, so this is probably my February moment of wrongness.

How does Hollywood adapt a non-fiction book about a group of super-duper intelligent MIT and Harvard students who are mostly Asian-American into a film with white leads? I dunno. I think it’s white bias all the way down in 2008’s 21. But hey, some background characters were Asian. That counts for something. Right? (the answer to that rhetorical question is a resounding NO).

Canadian white guy Justin Chatwin as the Japanese manga character ‘Goku’? I guess the creators of 2009’s Dragonball: Evolution thought it was a good idea. Me? This qualifies as not-a-good-idea material. But then, I try to avoid perpetuating racism where I can. Hollywood doesn’t seem terribly concerned with that though.

Prince of Persia was a videogame adapted into a live-action theatrical film (are videogame to movie adaptations ever good?) in 2010’s Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The lead role of Dastan went to Jake Gyllenhaal. What…they couldn’t find an Iranian actor anywhere? Did they even look?

Now we turn to a movie that is responsible for bringing racebending to my attention. Even though I wasn’t familiar with the animated show that served as the inspiration for 2010’s live-action The Last Airbender film, once I read reviews, I came to understand-somewhat-the problems that many people had with the film. My understanding grew exponentially once I watched the entire series (and as I gained a greater understanding of the racism which continues to exist in USAmerica), which still remains my favorite animated series of all time. I literally do not think I have a single complaint about the series (and if you’ve ever watched a movie with me, you know I can critique the hell out of a film). I remember binge-watching multiple episodes. We’re talking 5, 6, 7 straight hours of episode after episode. I recall nights (actually they were mornings) when I had to make myself go to sleep, even though I wanted to watch more episodes. That show is hands down THAT. FUCKING. GOOD. And the live-action film should not have racebent Sokka and Katara. The characters in the animated series were not white. Notice how the villain in the movie is portrayed by a Person of Color while the protagonists are played by white people? It’s turtles white bias all the fucking way down (see here for more on the phrase “it’s turtles all the way down”; those familiar with the ridiculous cosmological “argument” for the existence of Yahweh-known in some circles as the Judeo-Christian god of the Bible-may be familiar with the phrase).

The 2011 film, Drive, featured actress Carey Mulligan who played a character intended to be an early 20s Latina. Mulligan is not a Latina. But hey, it’s not like it’s important to cast People of Color in roles that call for People of Color or anything. Anyone can play those roles (::looks at the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four reboot and laughs madly at how irate many people are at that bit of racebending::)

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Almost there folks. If you’ve stuck with me this far, please accept an Internet cookie. It might not fit into a USB port though.

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While blackface isn’t seen as frequently in Hollywood as it once was, yellowface is something that still occurs, and can be seen in 2012’s The Cloud Atlas.  Luise Rainer, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving all don yellowface to play Asian characters in the movie. Here’s what blogger Mike Le says about the film over at Racebending:

Ultimately, whatever the film’s grand aspirations (or achievements), my belief is that Cloud Atlas will eventually be viewed through the same lens as films like The Good EarthBirth of a Nation, or even Dumbo. These are films known to have artistic merit, that tell engaging stories, with imagery both striking and iconic. They are also films that are, in one way or another, formed by the culture and politics of their respective eras. They are deeply embedded with concepts of race, interwoven with acts of exclusion and stereotype and prejudice.

Luise Rainer’s yellowface depiction of a subservient and silent Chinese girl in won an Academy Award. Her role perfectly matched Western notions about how a Chinese woman should behave, a notion controlled and depicted by white faces and white bodies. Similarly, Birth of a Nation was groundbreaking in a number of fillmmaking techniques that we take for granted now: elements as fundamental as panning shots, the modern conception of a battle sequence, and the notion of a plot of building action and eventual climax. But its technical and dramatic successes are overshadowed because we, as modern viewers, recognize the racism implicit in the plot, of white writers and white actors controlling what it means to be black on the American screen. These ideas, plucked straight from theatrical minstrelsy, still form the basis for modern anti-black prejudice.

In watching the Cloud Atlas trailer, the parallels are clear. As with these other films, we see that white creators and performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian. It’s frustrating, because the trailer suggests a story that comfortably meshes with preconceptions and stereotypes of Asians: of a futuristic world of high technology and little soul, where the “all-look-same” vision of Asianness is directly translated into racks of identical, interchangeable Asian “fabricant” clones. It suggests a world where white actors (in yellowface) and Asian actresses enter into romantic trysts–while excluding the voices and faces of Asian American actors.

We cannot judge what the Wachowski siblings intend to do with their depiction of Asian people any more than we could judge what M. Night Shyamalan intended in casting The Last Airbender. The intentions may be different, but acts of exclusion and discrimination cannot be about intent, but only about outcome.

Intent. It is not fucking magic. Producers, writers, directors…they many not intend to make a movie with racist overtones, but when the end result is a film like any of those in this post, their intent doesn’t matter one iota. Their intent lies in their heads and we have no access to that.

Yes, that’s Hugo Weaving in yellowface.

We are closing in on this (not comprehensive by any means) list of Hollywood’s history of racebending and whitewashing. The next movie was based on the first book in a popular series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins. 2012’s The Hunger Games cast Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Katniss Everdeen, a character described in the books as having dark hair, olive skin, and grey eyes…which doesn’t exactly describe the features of Jennifer Lawrence. While Collins was careful to not explicitly state Katniss’ ethnicity, given the description, it makes more sense to cast an actress of color. Despite this, it seems the casting directors were afflicted with white bias.  When they sent out a casting call for actresses to play the role, they specifically stated they were looking for a female Caucasian actress. And People of Color sighed in frustration. Once a-motherfucking-gain.

According to some, Ben Affleck gave one of the most powerful performances of his career as CIA agent Tony Mendez in the 2012 film Argo. Nonetheless, the real-life Mendez is a Hispanic man, while Affleck is… not. Once again, a role that calls for a person of color is given to a white person. This whitewashing shit is beyond annoying.

The 2013 movie Warm Bodies may have called for a half-Ethiopian actress to play the role of Nora, but the actress cast was Analeigh Tipton. No slight meant to Tipton, but the role really ought to have gone to a woman of color.

Whew! We’ve reached the end of the list. Oops. Wait a minute. This is not quite the end. The last movie on this list is actually the movie that served as the inspiration for me to write this post. Fans of the anime movie Ghost in the Shell are expressing their frustration at the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the 2017 live-action adaptation of the manga film. I’m with them. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Scar Jo. To me, she is the perfect Natasha Romanov (the Black Widow from the Marvel Cinematic Universe), in the same way that Robert Downey, Jr. is the quintessential Tony Stark. This doesn’t change the fact that she’s going to be portraying a character of Asian ethnicity. That role ought to go to an Asian actress. Sadly, Hollywood has shown once again that they have no problem whitewashing the films they greenlight.

These racist practices (and more) have existed in Hollywood for far too long. They reinforce a cultural narrative that white lives are the ones the most important. This white bias has long been criticized, but critics are powerless to end the racist practices in the entertainment industry. They cannot prevent the continued use of yellowface, nor can they step in and ensure that roles intended for a Person of Color are played by one. Only the people in control of decisions in Hollywood can do that. The question is, when will these powerful people begin acting responsibly?

*In addition to white bias, Hollywood is also biased towards cisgender, heterosexual men.

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Hollywood has the power, now where is the responsibility?
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2 thoughts on “Hollywood has the power, now where is the responsibility?

  1. 1

    I was aware that something was wrong in Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of an Asian man when I first saw that movie as I child. I remember hating that film but never being able to articulate the reason it made me sick to watch his scenes. It’s because, up til then, I’d seen numerous Asians in plenty of Martial Arts films and never saw one behaving like him.

    You also forgot everyone’s recent favorite: Exodus. Wow! Just wow, is all I have to say about that movie. Now couple Whitewashing with the White Savior Complex and you get a complete mess of a film.

    It seriously pisses me off, though, the people who defend these movies and the people who piss and moan the loudest whenever a PoC gets a role they believe deserves to go to a White person. The same people bitching about Spiderman, The Human Torch, or Aqua-man needing to be White are the same people who don’t say a damn thing when PoC get whitewashed right out of their own stories.

    Its also interesting to note that movies about PoC, that do not feature White people at the center of the narrative, never get nominated for Oscars. Selma is entirely in keeping with that tradition. And as far as the critiques of that film go, I think that’s just White people being upset that they aren’t in the middle of that story. They don’t like to be decentered from the stories of PoC and punish those movies by not nominating or allowing them to win Oscars.

  2. 2

    The same people bitching about Spiderman, The Human Torch, or Aqua-man needing to be White are the same people who don’t say a damn thing when PoC get whitewashed right out of their own stories.

    That’s something I realized earlier this week in fact.

    And as far as the critiques of that film go, I think that’s just White people being upset that they aren’t in the middle of that story. They don’t like to be decentered from the stories of PoC and punish those movies by not nominating or allowing them to win Oscars.

    Funny thing with that–white people were huge players in the events of Selma. Of course the roles many of them played were as white supremacists.

    Thanks for reminding me about Exodus. I’d forgotten about that one.

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