Whitewashing society in film

Editorial Board

Oscar season officially came to a close and Moonlight, an unapologetically black-casted film, took home the award for best film of the year. Now, it would be ridiculous to continue to point out the flaws of a system that is obviously working so hard to change as the Oscars have following the #OscarsSoWhite social media storm. However, there’s one issue that cannot be resolved by simply recognizing more POC actors, directors and films: the whitewashing of Hollywood films. 

It has been an ugly trend in American films, since their beginning, for white actors and actresses to be cast as characters that are not white. Starting with minstrel shows in the 19th century and evolving over time into white actors portraying Asian characters in film, there has been an obvious and apparent disregard for the importance of respectful portrayals of race in film. While it may seem feasible to some that in the 50s America was not keen on having POC onscreen, the continuance of this into today’s movies is unacceptable. 

In an article for Buzzfeed, author Imran Siddiquee analyzed the possibility of Dev Patel, another Oscar-nominated actor, being a leading man in Hollywood film. While the overall subject of masculinity in American film was pertinent to the discussion, Siddiquee also touched on one aspect of Patel’s character that holds him back in the film industry: his race. Siddiquee raises attention to the idea that even though more POC are onscreen playing romantic roles, our society has been trained by white actors to accept the standard of romantic men in films they portray. In other words: we’ve been whitewashed. 

Don’t believe it yet? Think of this. 

White men can be anything in television and movies. They can play the president, Santa Claus, an army veteran with PTSD, a hero or a villain. And so can POC. The only difference is, when POC play these roles, they are wholly seen as the “black” president or the struggling “Muslim” poet. For white actors, their ethnicity and race never plays a huge role in the story, but for an ethnic actor or actress, race becomes everything. They are typecasted into roles that fit their race. This reality also crosses fictive borders. When it was rumored that Idris Elba would star as the fictional character James Bond, people threw a fit. Not because Elba is a bad actor, or not grisly enough for the film, or unattractive, but simply because “James Bond isn’t black.” Our culture will argue the race of a fictional character, but won’t even flinch when a historically real human or group of people is misrepresented in that area. This raises the question: why does Hollywood continue to cast white actors and actresses in roles not made for them? The answer, in short, is money. When a white actor is cast as top-billed in a film that should have POC actors at the forefront, it creates a mindset that white actors have the more recognizable and revenue-boosting faces. This mindset, in turn strips POC actors of the opportunity to become known. 

The solution to this issue isn’t as clear-cut as one would imagine. The goal of most producers and directors is to make enough money in the box office to cover the cost of production, actors and crew. It adds up to millions, and for some reason there is an assumption that POC will not cover that cost. It will take a mindset shift in more directors, and the voice of the masses, to rise up and say how wrong it is that opportunities are being held from certain people. And then maybe, just maybe, we can move into talking about stereotyping in movies.

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