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Hollywood Whitewashing: 16 Times White Actors Played Minority Characters

Diversity – or lack thereof – was the big issue at this year’s Oscars. People of color feel they have been denied a fair opportunity to work in and be recognized by the entertainment industry. Even when rare roles for minority characters have presented themselves throughout the years, they have often been played by Caucasians, which is rather insulting to the talented pool of multiethnic actors out there. This practice has been happening since the advent of cinema, and you may be surprised to find out it is still going on today. Here are some noteworthy cases of Hollywood whitewashing, some of which were highly criticized, others not so much.

1. Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily

Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily in a live action adaption of Peter Pan called Pan, just released in October 2015. Tiger Lily is traditionally considered a Native American character (albeit from a British writer’s imagination), while Rooney is of Irish decent. While she is a talented actress who has been nominated for two Academy Awards, you think Hollywood casting agents would be sensitive enough to find a suitable ethnic actress for this iconic role. Variety responded by saying that “The world (of ‘Pan’) is multi-racial/international–and a very different character than previously imagined.” Rooney initially defended her casting choice, saying, “They are natives of Neverland, a completely made-up place.” She has since said that she hates that she’s part of the whitewashing debate, admitting, “I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”

tiger lily
rooney mara

2. Johnny Depp as Tonto

In 2013, Johnny Depp was cast as the Native American character Tonto in The Lone Ranger movie. Much of the criticism had to do with the way Johnny was dressed and styled as a caricature sidekick, with extreme face paint and a crow mounted on his head. Some, however, were more willing to look past the casting since the film worked in themes about racism and cultural elitism. Depp claims he has some Native heritage, but that’s unsubstantiated.

johnny depp

3. Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson

British Joseph Fiennes is probably best known for his role in Shakespeare in Love, so many were shocked to hear that he has been cast as Michael Jackson in a made for TV movie. The 2016 film is about an alleged road trip taken by Michael, Marlon Brando, and Liz Taylor. Jokes aside about Jackson’s progressively paler complexion over the years, casting this white British actor to play the iconic African American singer must be some sort of ill-conceived publicity stunt. They have to be bracing for a backlash on this gaffe.

joseph fiennes

4. Emma Stone in Aloha

When Cameron Crowe cast Emma Stone in Aloha, she took on a Hawaiian character that was supposed be a quarter Chinese. Many people criticized the choice. Cameron apologized but made clear that the character was actually based on a real life Air Force pilot, Allison Ng, who was part Asian but fair haired, like Emma. Maybe he should have tried harder to find a more fitting Asian or Pacific Islander actress. Even big names like Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams and Bradley Cooper on the marquis couldn’t save this film from bombing.

emma stone

5. Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor was cast as the Queen of the Nile in the grand film Cleopatra costarring with her real life love (and future twice-husband) Richard Burton. Cleopatra was also played by white actress Claudette Colbert in 1934, and Angelina Jolie is supposedly in talks to play her, too. In reality, Cleopatra was part Egyptian, part Macedonian Greek and some sources suggest she may have had a little black African blood in her, too. Given this mix and uncertainty, it seems that acting talent, not ethnicity, should be the driving force when casting this role.

Elizabeth Taylor

6. Ben Affleck in Argo

The character that Ben Affleck played in his Oscar winning 2012 film Argo was based on a real life person, Tony Mendez, who is of Mexican heritage on his paternal side. Many people were up in arms that Irish descendant Affleck took on the Hispanic role. However, the real Mendez says that he never identified as a Hispanic person. He’s Italian, Irish and French on his mother’s side and originally Mexican on his father’s side, but so many generations ago that nobody knows where exactly where in Mexico they hail from. Nobody in his family spoke Spanish (he only learned it as a second language when he joined the CIA). So in this case, was it really necessary to find a Latino actor when the real guy himself feels all-American?

argo affleck

7. Peter Sellers in The Party

In 1968 Peter Sellers played Indian Hrundi V. Bakshi in the slapstick film The Party. The film was a comedy about the Indian character making mistakes based on his ignorance of American ways while at a Hollywood dinner party. The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a fan of one the lines in the film: “In India we don’t think who we are, we know who we are!” Although Sellers performing in brownface wasn’t considered particularly scandalous back then, it is rather inappropriate by today’s sensibilities. However, he is mostly used as a foil to lampoon American culture, not mock Indians.

Peter Sellers

8. Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia

Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Dastan in the film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Jake not only had the challenge of playing a different ethnicity, but of bringing a video game character to life. “I went online when I first started researching stuff for the role. What was really important was for me personally to bring some sort of realism into this world that is not always fully based on reality. So often you can hide in all that stuff so easily, and to look at what say a real Persian prince would look like and then who the Prince of Persia is in the video game and then a whole slew of inspiration in between there.” Considering he was playing a virtual character, perhaps it wasn’t essential that a real Iranian be cast in this role.

Jake Gyllenhaal

9. Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart

In 2007’s A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie not only took on the role of playing a character with a mixed descent, but she darkened her skin to do so. She was playing the French journalist Mariane Pearl who has a Jewish Dutch father and Cuban mother of Afro-Chinese-Cuban descent. This drew ire from the ethnic community, who thought the role would have been more authentically served by an actress of color (although, what color would satisfy them in this case of such a mixed background?). Mariane Pearl herself said, “I’m delighted Angelina Jolie will be playing my role. I deeply admire her work.”

mighty heart

10. Natalie Wood as Maria

Actress Natalie Wood was cast to play Maria in the 1961 musical West Side Story, a modern reworking of the Romeo and Juliet story. The character of Maria is Puerto Rican, while Natalie was born to parents of Russian and Ukrainian descent. The point of the story is the tension between two rival gangs of different ethnicities, so it might have been a good idea to hire a real Hispanic for the role. Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, who played Anita, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. She thought that would open doors for her to play less sterotypical roles in the future, but she was disappointed in how Hollywood pigeon-holed her. She said, “I didn’t make another movie for seven years after winning the Oscar” because all she was offered were “Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns” and “gang stories.”

Natalie Wood

11. Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas

Charlton Heston played the role of Miguel Vargas in the 1958 film Touch of Evil. The character was a Mexican official, so he had to wear layers of makeup which often visibly varied from scene to scene. Some think this was done intentionally, as the character was married to the white Janet Leigh’s character, and audiences at the time might have balked at an onscreen interracial relationship. Despite this casting issue, the film is considered by most to be Orson Welles’ best ever, who not only co-starred in it but also wrote and directed it.

Miguel Vargas

12. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

In the Hunger Games books, author Suzanne Collins describes the character of Katniss having “black hair and olive skin.” This leads some people to believe that the separation between the districts in the story was race related. If so, the studio chose to throw that idea out the window since they only considered white actresses for the role. Now, none of us can picture the character as anyone other than “it” girl Jennifer Lawrence.

Jennifer Lawrence

13. Most of the Actors in Exodus: Gods and Kings

The 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings about the Old Testament cast mostly white actors to play Egyption roles including Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver and Christian Bale as Moses. Director Ridley Scott said: “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.” At least he’s honest about it.


14. Mena Suvari as Brandi Boski

Mena Suvari was chosen to play the fictional character Brandi Boski in the film Stuck, a character who was based on a real life African American women and the terrible car accident story she went through. Instead of just changing the character with the casting choice or casting a black woman, the director chose to put Mena’s hair in cornrows and have her only hang out with black friends. It seemed more than a little awkward.

chante mallard
Mina Suvari

15. Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain

The Human Stain was specifically about social prejudice, and Anthony Hopkins was chosen to play the lead role of a character living as a Jew who is actually a light-skinned black man passing for white. The studio chose to go with a big name actor instead of make it more realistic. But can you really fault any movie for casting a talent like Anthony Hopkins?

anthony hopkins

16. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

He’s a good actor and it’s a great film, but Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi (Audrey Hepburn’s angry Japanese neighbor) in the iconic movie is one of the most racist portrayals in cinematic history. He’s so over-the-top with his slanty-eyed makeup, thick glasses, prosthetic mouthpiece and stereotypical over-acting, it’s an abomination to all viewers, Asian or otherwise. Cringe.

Mickey Rooney Breakfast at Tiffany's

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