Films must deconstruct, address racist structures on screen

Whitewashing, a film industry casting practice in which white actors or actresses are hired to play non-white characters, has long permeated popular media and systematically denied artistic and economic opportunities to marginalized groups. The activist site further describes whitewashing as “a resultant discriminatory impact on an underrepresented cultural community and actors from that community (reinforcement of glass ceilings, loss of opportunity, etc.). In the past, practices like blackface and yellowface were strategies used by Hollywood to deny jobs to actors of color…Because characters of color were played by white actors, people of color were hardly represented at all–and rarely in lead roles” (Racebending. com, “What is “racebending?”).

Whitewashing and racism have been prevalent in Hollywood films and television shows for over a century. What’s more concerning is that nothing has changed. Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” in 2007; Johnny Depp as Tonto, a Native American, in the 2013 “The Lone Ranger”; and Scarlett Johansson as the leading role in the 2017 remake of “Ghost in the Shell,” which was meant to be played by an actor of Asian descent–these examples serve to illustrate that whitewashing in Hollywood is still a ubiquitous practice that relies on the exclusion and reduction of people of color in the industry. This practice is rooted in structures of oppression that are limiting to people of color in areas far beyond the screen. Hollywood has actively ignored the explicit denial of employment opportunity for actors of color, while contributing to a culture of white supremacy in which narratives from marginalized groups don’t get told or are whitewashed.

As whitewashing continues to be a common practice, these actions are justified in ways that simply serve to reinforce the oppressive structures these practices stem from in the first place. Filmmakers argue that casting white people in lead roles for remakes set in the United States is not whitewashing, which was posited by the producers of the upcoming Netflix film “Death Note.” The Japanese animated film and manga series will have Nat Wolff, a white man, starring as the protagonist, Light Yagami. Due to changing the story’s location to Seattle, the film’s creators said that they “Americanized” “Death Note” (Buzzfeed, “People Have Mixed Feelings About Whether Or Not Netflix’s ‘Death Note’ Is A Case Of Whitewashing,” 03.23.2017). Yet, “Americanness” should never be equated with whiteness. Producers could have cast a Japanese-American actor for the role, but instead chose to hire an already-popular white actor. There is never an excuse for denying roles to marginalized groups–especially in an industry with such an exclusionary, oppressive history.

A study released in February 2016 by the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California analyzed 109 films in 2014 and 305 scripted television shows aired from September 2014 to August 2015. The report found, “In the 414 studied films and series, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3 percent were from minority groups—about 10 percent less than the makeup of the U.S. population” (CBS News, “Damning study finds a ‘whitewashed’ Hollywood,” 02.22.2016). A study done at UCLA found that “film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male, film studio management is 92 percent white and 83 percent male, film studio unit heads are 96 percent white and 61 percent male, TV network and studio heads are 96 percent white and 71 percent male, TV senior management is 93 percent white and 73 percent male, TV unit heads are 86 percent white and 55 percent male” (Patch, “Hollywood Whitewashed: White Men Dominate Film Industry, Studies Confirm,” 02.22.2016). Legacies of white supremacy infect all strata of Hollywood, from the board room to the screen. While actively combatting whitewashing is crucial to achieving equitable and socially just representation for marginalized groups, hiring writers, producers and directors of color is equally essential to undoing such exclusionary practices.

Moreover, when many actors of color are hired, they are forced to portray secondary, stereotyped characters that erase the complexity and dynamism of the cultures they’re from. One need only look to the portrayal of Middle Eastern characters to see whitewashed, Orientalist structures at work. As Jeffrey Fleishman noted, “Hollywood has portrayed Arabs as villains and schemers for generations, from ‘The Sheik’ in 1921 to Steven Spielberg’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ to Disney’s ‘Aladdin.’ Other minorities, including Indians, have also been fitted into constraining frames” (LA Times, “Forget playing Terrorist No. 3 Middle Eastern actors seek roles beyond Hollywood stereotypes,” 08.05.2016). Such lack of proper representation has tangible impacts on the psyches of marginalized youth. As a study published by Communication Journal found, “Television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys….In contrast to white characters, black male characters are more likely to be depicted as menacing or unruly, and black female characters are more likely to be shown as exotic and sexually available” (Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality, “Study examines television, diversity, and self-esteem,” 06.06.2012).

The widespread success of blockbusters such as “Moana” and “Hidden Figures” more recently, along with the Academy Award nominated and winning films like “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Lion” demonstrate that audiences will pay to see films where the protagonists are people of color and where the stories belong to people of color. These movies illustrate the ways in which telling stories that center the experiences and narratives of people of color have the potential to change public perception; impact and improve the self-esteem and self-image of people of color, specifically for young folks; and impact and contribute to conversations concerning racial oppression.

The racial logics behind whitewashing films and television underpin the tangible physical and psychological violence people of color are forced to confront every day. In a nation where people of color are denied access to educational and economic opportunities, upending such violent paradigms is crucial. In a nation where the murder and incarceration of Black men is state-sanctioned and normalized, the power of media and art in activating social change becomes quite literally a matter of life and death.

Issues of whitewashing carry over beyond the confines of Hollywood’s board rooms and production studios. In communities at Vassar, white students are often overrepresented–a lasting byproduct of Vassar’s history of white supremacist exclusivity and broader denial of educational opportunity to those of marginalized identities across the nation. The Miscellany News recognizes its own positionality in this exclusivist history, as the Editorial Board has long been dominated by white voices. Whether in big-budget blockbuster films or The Miscellany News’ offices on the third floor of Main, the experiences of people of color, told and represented by people of color, must be centered. We at The Miscellany News commit to addressing white supremacy in all of its ugly, violent manifestations on campus while acknowledging its own complicity in such violence.

––The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.



One Comment

  1. This sort of bean counting is an exercise in futility. Movie makers do whatever they do that they believe will make the movie successful. If that means casting a white star in a role that could have been filled by a colored actor, that’s what they will do.

    I actually laughed out loud when I read your complaint that the villain in Disney’s “Aladdin” was an Arab. Guess who else was? Every character in the film. Maybe not the parrot. He seemed Jewish to me.

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