"Whitewashing” is the act of casting white actors in roles that were intended to be people of color. Here is a thorough explanation of why whitewashing is harmful. See further explanation here, here and here. Whitewashing has an ugly history and many ethical issues. But Hollywood prefers to talk business to ethics. One of the most popular explanations for casting white people in roles meant for people of color is that movies will bomb unless there are big name white stars attached to the project.
This is a circular argument- how are there supposed to be more big name stars of color if Hollywood refuses to even cast them in roles written for them?And furthermore, it’s clearly untrue that big name white stars in a movie mean it will be successful.
As proof of that, let’s look at some whitewashed fantasy and sci-fi movies that bombed both critically and commercially. I’m going to make an argument for each one that whitewashing played a big part in their failure. Let’s dig in!
The Last Airbender was based on the popular Nickelodean cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. The beloved cartoon showed an Asian-inspired fantasy world where all the characters were either Asian or Inuit themselves. This is a rarity in the predominantly white world of Western fantasy and many people talked about the importance of this refreshing representation.
But when Shyamalan adapted this work, he chose to make all three lead characters white. This move led to the birth of an entire organization: racebending.com, an organization that started out mainly focusing on whitewashing in the Last Airbender, but then branched out to cover racial inequality all over Hollywood.
Cartoon and movie comparison image via Racebending.com
A boycott was organized, protests were held and even one of the voice actors from the original cartoon spoke out against the casting. They may say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but The Last Airbender really disproved that. The film was a critical and commercial flop and a massive amount of the reviews and articles blasted the film for its casting choices specifically. Even the late Roger Ebert spoke about it.
Casting white people in these roles was a worldbuilding problem for the movie. The Asian and Inuit cultural influence was a huge part of Avatar’s world and the casting was a symptom of a larger lack of care the movie showed toward the integrity of that world. It’s undeniably silly to have white people running around in Asian clothing and incredibly distracting and uncomfortable when the main characters just happen to be the only white people inexplicably existing in an Inuit tribe.
The Last Airbender, Paramount Pictures
The world of the cartoon was very detailed and carefully researched. The writing was all actually Chinese, the bending styles were all based on a form of martial arts with a consultant on board to ensure accuracy and setting was detailed. The world of the movie? The writing was nonsense language, a character wore her clothing in a way that is traditionally worn by dead people and the bending styles…were THIS:
The whitewashing was really an illustration of the larger lack of care the movie had towards everything about this story. The white actors cast were wooden and lifeless and the lack of commitment to the preserving the cultures represented in the original work meant the world building was just as hollow.
If the people working on the movie had understood that the research, respect and care the staff of the original cartoon had put into really representing these cultures, they’d have understood a big part of why the story connected with so many people. The same attitude that led to them casually inserting white people into the forefront of this story was the attitude that meant the plot, world and characterization in the movie was lacking. Whitewashing, and the attitude that came with it, is what sunk this movie on every level.
Like with The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia’s whitewashing shows a lack of care towards the game’s world. The Prince of Persia video games were praised for being the a rare positive depiction of Middle Eastern characters in Western media, but the movie adaptation chose to cast Jake Gyllenhal as the main character, probably for his “star” power.
Yet, casting Jake Gyllenhal didn’t save the movie from bombing. It’s unsurprising that when it was decided that it wasn’t important to cast Persian people in a movie that literally had “Persia” in its title, we ended up with a movie that was called out on having “little substance”. Setting is a huge part of video games and the movie showed early on it didn’t care a whit about the integrity of it.
A movie that doesn’t take risks is unlikely to memorable. If the movie had taken the “risk” of casting a Middle-Eastern lead, a move that would have been incredibly impactful to an America still wracked with anti-Muslim prejudice, it might have actually stuck with people. By playing it safe, the movie doomed itself.
There are a lot of whitewashed, westernized Hollywood anime adaptations in talks right now, from Akira to a Ghost in the Shell movie starring Scarlett Johannson. Yet the precedent for whitewashed anime movies doing well is…not good. The Dragonball movie had more Asian main characters than any of these other movies, but played it safe in casting a white kid as the lead, Goku (the most Anglo of names).
EDIT: Goku is technically an alien, but he is based on and named after a character in a Chinese myth. He is coded as Asian, wears Asian clothing and indistinguishable from the other Asian characters in the manga, in the same way Superman is coded as white despite being an alien. Therefore it makes sense to cast an Asian person to play him. See here for further explanation.
And once again, “playing it safe” was also the movie’s downfall. Rather that draw from the source manga, the movie drew on tired Hollywood clichés. Suddenly the dynamic, fun hero was your average whitebread surly teen caught in stereotypical high school drama and we had some Karate-Kid and Matrix hijinks thrown in there for good measure.
Dragonball Evolution, 20th Century Fox
Unsurprisingly, in westernizing the work, Hollywood completely divorced it from what made the source material beloved and just made it another in a long line of homogenized, vanilla movies, alienating both fans and the rest of the audience. What’s the point of destroying the setting and chracters of an original work just to make it like every other movie in the U.S.A?