Opinion: A Look at Whitewashing and Ethnicity Swapping in Television and Movies

I love comic book, science fiction, and fantasy movies. With the development of CGI, we have been fortunate to see incredible sequences on film that were never possible before. What I don't love are a few trends that detract from stories in film. The first is whitewashing. Whitewashing is when films either intentionally or unintentionally hire white actors to portray people that historically are of a different ethnicity.

An example of this is the movie Gods of Egypt, where the film historically takes place in Egypt, yet the cast is filled with Australian, Swedish, English, and French actors playing Egyptian mortals and gods. Lionsgate, the producer of the film, even apologized for failing to bring diversity to the cast.

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Diversity is important for movies. The whole world watches Hollywood movies, and our films should include a great variety of talented actors, regardless of race or gender. Traditionally, American television and movies have been less than stellar at casting people of color or women for parts that could be portrayed by any ethnicity or gender. The raunchy comedy South Park, even shamelessly goes after this trend in television and movies by having one African American character who is named "Token". 

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Casting a majority of one ethnicity or gender, or casting a non-traditional ethnicity for a character can have no negative impact on a viewer. The goal of a movie is to be immersive and tell its story. A movie can still be immersive with poor diversity in casting, or a race and gender swapped historic character. The problem for me, is when the story becomes eclipsed by the casting. While Gods of Egypt already looks like a rehashed story that has been overdone in Hollywood, the trailers make it appear awkward when I see all of the major characters are Caucasian in a movie that takes place in Egypt. The moment audience members ask the question, "woah why is everyone white in a movie based on XYZ" shows that they failed at casting. The feeling of immersiveness is lost.

Conversely, if one begins to question the immersiveness of the movie because of re-casting a new ethnicity or gender for a historic character, it may have the same effect. For example, without adding context in the film Fantastic Four, Johnny Storm is a different ethnicity than the previous movies and comic books, and his sister remains the same ethnicity. This lead an interviewer from the radio show Rock 100.5 to ask the actors who portray Susan and Johnny Storm a question along the lines of, "What is the new backstory for this new dynamic as brother and sister in the film, and does the movie add new context for this?" The radio show was heavily criticized and mocked in the media and by many other people for asking the question. You can listen to the interview below and decide for yourself (the line of questioning begins at the 1:13 mark):

The biggest impact for a movie I watched recently was Star Trek Into Darkness. The movie cast Benedict Cumberbatch, a terrific actor, for the role of Khan. While Benedict did a tremendous job as a villain, he just didn't "feel" the part. Ricardo Montálban played the original Khan in movies and television perfectly. He also created the initial feel and look of the character. When Cumberbatch came in to portray Khan, it didn't seem like the original at all. As a viewer, I would have preferred he was a new character instead, because he just didn't mesh with the old persona. 

If a new movie is released and it isn't based on older movies, or history, then Hollywood should strive to bring more diversity to their cast. For example, take a science fiction movie like Edge of Tomorrow. The film takes place in the future and involves battles between humans and aliens. Hollywood can and should cast a diverse team for these original movies, as it's new territory not built on past franchises. If Hollywood is doing movies based on historic places like Egypt, the early Americas, South America, etc... movies should cast actors that can best reflect those regions in order to make it more immersive. On the other hand, if we have stories and roles that were visually portrayed with the history, persona, gender and ethnicity of one kind, Hollywood should consider casting choices that mesh with this history, or else create a new dynamic that keeps the story immersive without feeling contradictory to the past.

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