Originally published in The Harbinger
It seems that, for as long as it has been around, Hollywood has had an aversion to portraying people of color on the big screen. In the more racist America of the past, this was to be expected. Yet the problem persists today despite viewers’ collective disapproval at seeing only white actors in films that are supposed to engage all American audiences.
From as early as 1932, Hollywood has featured an array of races —black, asian, latino, Native American— but cast white actors to do so. The instance of Mickey Rooney donning yellowface in his role as a Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is infamous for its offensiveness as not only was Yunioshi played by a white actor, his character also negatively portrayed the Japanese.
More recent instances that stirred controversy, all within the last decade, are: Russell Crowe as a Middle Eastern in Noah; Christian Bale as a Middle Eastern in Exodus: Gods and Kings; Johnny Depp as a Native American in The Lone Ranger, Emma Stone as a Chinese-Hawaiian in Aloha; and the main cast of The Last Airbender portraying Native Americans.
This is not okay.
In a country as diverse as the United States, it does not make sense to hire white actors to play minority roles. The ethnographic of America is so diverse that casting directors could easily find a minority actor to fit a character of any ethnicity.
According to the 2012 Census, the largest growing ethnic group is multiracial Americans, followed by Asians and Hispanics. Among minorities, blacks make up the second largest group at 12.3 percent of the American population, following Hispanics which make up 17 percent.
Statistics from Data USA show that in 2015, the majority of employed actors in the U.S. were white, making up 76.1 percent of the total while minorities made up a combined total of 24 percent. Meaning that, in relation to their population percentage, whites were overrepresented while minorities were grossly underrepresented.
On top of this, hiring white actors to play people of color is just plain racist. Taking away the opportunity for minority actors to play characters of their own race then giving it to white actors is like telling them, “You’re not good enough to represent your own people.” It’s discriminatory.
The 2011 film Drive, based on a book of the same name, starred white actress Carey Mulligan playing a character named Irene. The book Irene was originally a Latina woman, named Irina.
“I couldn’t find any actress that would click with me personally. I couldn’t make a decision for some reason. I had all this talent in front of me and out of the blue I get a call from Carey because she wanted to meet me about doing a movie. She came by the house and she walked in and I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is what I was looking for. I wanted to protect her’ … And I knew that was the Driver’s motivation,” said the film’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, in an interview with the Huffington Post.
That is not a valid reason, and the reason that the rest of Hollywood usually offers is just as unjustifiable. Those in Hollywood would say that casting white actors to play people of color is done for the same reason as anything else: to make money.
Hollywood big shots are obsessed with name recognition and think that audiences are too. In their minds, viewers would rather watch a white actor with a little bronzer play a person of color over an equally talented minority actor without the same level of fame.
But viewers think differently.
According to research done by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, viewers, regardless of race, prefer to watch films that feature a diverse cast. The study has shown that, for the past three years, movies with diverse casts have done better in the box office than less diverse movies.
“What we’ve found for three years running now is that audiences prefer content that looks like America,” said Darnell Hunt, a director of the Bunche Center and lead author of the study.
Money talks, and it’s saying that audiences prefer to see diverse casts but Hollywood refuses to listen. They continue to cast white actors for ethnic roles and ignore the voices of minority actors and audiences while doing so.
It took a while for minorities to be portrayed in Hollywood and even longer still for them to be portrayed positively, so it seems that there will be a long wait before Hollywood rejects its discriminatory ways. Still, change will come and one day we will not have to tell Hollywood “Stop casting white actors as people of color.”